Star-Bulletin Sports

Saturday, October 13, 2001


Wins coming easier
for Naeole, Saints

By Nick Abramo

CHRIS Naeole has seen a remarkable attitude adjustment in his New Orleans Saints over the past few years.

"The core of this team is really tight," the former Kahuku High School and University of Colorado standout said. "It's fun going into work now. The players really respect each other. Three years ago that feeling wasn't there."

This year, the 6-foot-3, 313-pound starting guard and his teammates will be trying to push deeper into the NFL playoffs.

Just two years ago, New Orleans finished 3-13, so it isn't too hard to imagine just how high Naeole's happiness skyrocketed last year when the Saints knocked off the powerful St. Louis Rams in a first-round playoff game, before losing in the next round to the Minnesota Vikings.

"It's a great feeling to finally start winning," the fifth-year veteran said. "Some guys get drafted and go right to a winning team, and they kind of get spoiled. They start thinking it's easy. It means something to me to have had to work at it."

The Saints easily handled the Buffalo Bills on the road in the first week of this season, but then dropped a tough, 21-13 trench battle against the defending NFC champion New York Giants.

Going into the game in New York, Naeole felt the result would be an indication of how both teams stand in relation to the rest of the NFC. And, now that the game is over, it looks like both earned the stamp of approval as solid playoff contenders.

The Saints took another step in proving themselves as serious contenders by beating the Vikings 28-15 last Sunday.

"Against Minnesota last year, we lost everybody (to injuries) and we just ran out of bullets," Naeole said. "It's important to stay healthy and to get home-field advantage, because that extra week off will make a huge difference in being able to rest and heal up."

Naeole puts a lot of emphasis on the ability of the offensive line to control a game.

"We're the ones who make things happen," he said. "If we control the line of scrimmage, then everything else falls into place."

Chris Kealoha Naeole

College: Colorado

NFL experience: 5 years

Height: 6 feet 3 inches

Weight: 313 pounds

Hometown: Kaaawa, Hawaii

Born: Dec. 25, 1974

Drafted: 10th overall, 1997

Highlight: Started all 16 regular-season games and both playoff games at right guard in 2000

College/Personal: A first-team All-America selection as a senior by The NFL Draft Report, Football News, Associated Press, American Football Coaches Association and Walter Camp, adding second-team honors from The Sporting News ... Graduated with a 3.0 GPA in sociology ... Chris and his wife, Tara, have a daughter, Azure Ke'alohilani, and a son, Christian Kaiwikan

Source: New Orleans Saints

Even though Naeole has been in the league five years, he's a youngster compared to some others on the Saints' line. Center Jerry Fontenot is a 13-year veteran, while guard Wally Williams and tackle Willie Roaf have nine years' experience.

With such a veteran line, it makes things a bit easier for budding star Aaron Brooks at quarterback and 1998 Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams at running back.

Naeole believes Brooks is just beginning to tap his potential, and says Williams "despite some bad press is a real nice guy and is in the best shape he's ever been in."

While Naeole was developing as a young football player, he looked up to two NFL players from Hawaii -- center Jesse Sapolu, who won Super Bowl championships with the San Francisco 49ers, and the late Mark Tuinei, who won titles as a tackle with the Dallas Cowboys.

"They were from Hawaii and made it and proved it was possible for others to make it. What's great is I see other guys from home all the time," Naeole said. "(Mililani and UH alumnus) James Fenderson is here with the Saints and I saw (Kahuku grad) Itula (Mili, of the Seattle Seahawks) and said hello in our last preseason game."

There are 13 players with Hawaii ties on 53-man NFL rosters, and two more, including Fenderson, are on NFL practice squads.

Naeole, who was the 10th overall pick in the 1997 draft, doesn't dwell on the first year of his career, and that's not just because he was injured and only played in four games as a substitute.

"The rookie year is your worst year ever," Naeole said. "You gotta do everything. You gotta sing, you gotta put on rookie shows (for the entertainment of the rest of the team), you gotta carry pads, you gotta do whatever. You're a peon, and that goes for the first pick or any pick (in the draft)."

And Naeole is quick to admit the demands of playing in the NFL never get easy, although he's noticed they do get a bit easier as the years go by.

New Orleans line coach Jack Henry loves Naeole's work ethic and ability.

"He's a very pleasant, congenial guy off the field, but he's got a real toughness to him, and he fits into the blue collarness of our team," Henry said. "He's the kind of guy over the course of a game that just keeps grinding and grinding and grinding and ultimately his opponent will give in to him."

And since his second season, Naeole has missed only one game.

Naeole spends most of his free time with his wife, Tara, daughter, Azure, and son, Christian. And his Hawaii ohana tries to come and watch him play when the Saints have two or three home games in a row so they can see more than one game.

Naeole was thrilled the Saints had training camp in Louisiana this year instead of taking the usual trip north to Wisconsin.

"I couldn't ask for anything better than being close to home (for training camp)," he said.

Maybe there would be one thing better: playing in front of home fans on Feb. 3 --the Super Bowl at ... where else? ... the New Orleans Superdome.

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