Longtime Benton coach recalls time with Saints
Anyone who has ever played the “telephone game” knows how easily the simplest of information can get distorted as it travels from one person to the next in the span of just 10 minutes.
Now, add about 30 years and you will end up with what one Benton coach calls “distorted history.”
Benton track and field coach Lewis Pryor has become something of a legend at Benton High School, where his accolades include a state championship in football and a runner-up finish at a national championship with Henderson College.
But as the rumor mill spins, one thing that some Panther fans associate with Pryor is his stint with the NFL’s New Orleans Saints. His true “claim to fame” was playing in a couple of exhibition games in the opening year of the Superdome located in New Orleans.
“I got invited to a tryout,” Pryor said. “I went down to New Orleans and their facilities and ran a 4.35 40 [yard dash], so they signed me a free agent contract.”
Pryor spent about six weeks with the team during the same year they opened the Superdome. He played in two exhibition games — one against Houston and the second against Denver.
Quarterbacking for the Saints was Archie Manning in his third season.
“That tells you how old I am,” Pryor said.
Manning ended his 13-year career having completed 2,011 of 3,642 passes for 23,911 yards and 125 touchdowns with 173 interceptions. He also rushed for 2,197 yards and 18 touchdowns.
“It was a heck of a deal,” Pryor said. “For a small boy from South Arkansas to play at that level was truly special.”
For the Saints, Pryor was a defensive back and kick return specialist.
“That was one of the things that got me some recognition,” Pryor said. During his time at Henderson State, the Reddies used the kicking game as a weapon.
“All I had to do was catch the ball and run with it,” Pryor said. “We either led or were second in the nation in kick returns for small colleges throughout my [senior] year.”
Pryor said he finished as one of the top kick return specialists — second only to Walter Payton, who played for Jackson State.
Pryor said playing in the NFL was unlike playing football in college in that everything was more “professional and business-like.”
He remembers right before the first game, he was walking past one of the lockers of one of the back-up quarterbacks and seeing him smoke a cigarette.
“You would have never gotten away with that in college,” Pryor said. “But NFL coaches didn’t seem to care as long as he showed up fully dressed and ready to play in the game.”
The Saints opened the 1975 NFL season at the Superdome, losing 21-0 to the Cincinnati Bengals in the first regular-season game in the facility.
Unfortunately for Pryor, he did not make it to the regular season, but he does remember just how loud “80,000 screaming Cajuns” were for the exhibition games.
“I feel so fortunate to get that chance,” Pryor said.
After incentives and total salary, Pryor would have made only a little over $26,000 if he had stayed the whole year.
“It was a good experience and I have no regrets,” Pryor said. “I got to see what it was like and it wasn’t meant to be.”
Pryor graduated high school from Camden-Fairview, although at that time it was known as Fairview High School because the two schools didn’t consolidate until the mid - ‘90s.
Pryor was an assistant coach of the Benton High School football program in 1977 and led the Panthers to a state championship, but said it was fairly easy because all they had to do was show up as the team consisted of such players as running back Jeff Goff, quarterback Rick Spivey, and Kevin Eubanks.
After leaving coaching for 13 years, Pryor came back and now works as the track and field coach, as well as a teacher. His son, Greg, a junior, plays baseball and football for the Benton Panthers.
Distorted history or not, there are not many people who can say they played in the NFL and lived to tell about it.
“It might have been the best thing they ever did for me,” Pryor said about being cut from the team. “I can still walk and get around pretty reasonable for a guy that has played as much football as I did.”
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Sam Pierce is the Co-Sports Editor for the Saline Courier. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 315-8228 ext. 257.