Saints' Haralson part of talented '99 team
Wednesday, April 2, 2014 1:00 PM
For many in the area, 1999 was "The Year of the Jaguar."
The New Orleans Saints on Tuesday signed former Madison Central star linebacker Parys Haralson
Madison Central won the state football championship and a handful from the team went on to play in the NFL.
For Parys Haralson, that journey continued.
Haralson signed a one-year deal with the Saints on Tuesday, securing himself a ninth year of service in the world's greatest sports league. He is the third player off that '99 team to secure at least one more year in the NFL, joining Chris Spencer of the Tennessee Titans and Stephen Gostkowski of the New England Patriots.
But just 15 years ago, they were all Jaguars, and at the same time.
All told, that team featured five future NFL players. Mike Espy and Doug Buckles are out of football now, but both had outstanding collegiate careers at Ole Miss. Buckles was drafted by Tampa Bay, but retired after knee injuries sidelined him. Espy signed as an undrafted free agent with the Redskins and was there for two seasons.
Their Madison Central and Ole Miss teammate, Spencer, parlayed his size and Herculean strength into journeyman career as a well-respected veteran backup who can play any interior line position and deep snap on punts.
The Patriots chose the team's kicker, Stephen Gostkowski, with the 118th pick in the 2006 NFL draft. Since he beat out 10-year veteran Martin Gramatica for the starting spot, he's made more than 85 percent of his field goals, been to two Pro Bowls and led the league in scoring three times.
It's been rewarding for them, to be sure, but there's one proud coach here in Madison who remembers when they were all pups.
Former Madison Central coach Mike Justice, who retired last year after a three-decade career in high school coaching, remembers that as the most talent on one team he ever had.
"I tell people now that the big thing back then was when you saw them as juniors, there was no doubt about what they were," Justice said Wednesday morning. "People talk now about players saying 'This guy looks good' and 'This guy could be a good one.' Chris Spencer was every bit of 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4, 330 pounds and was breaking power lifting records left and right, and Parys looked like one of those statues of a Greek god."
Justice is loving watching his guys excel at the sport's highest level, but with two recent signings, he's likely going to get a chance to see two of them in person.
"I still keep in touch," Justice said. "It's not as often as it used to be, because the guys are grown and they have lives of their own. But they call every once in a while and ask me what I think about things and just catch up."
But as much as he enjoys watching them play, it's what they've done off the field that Justice likes to talk about.
"You've never heaard a word of negative press about any of those guys," he said. "They were fine students at Madison Central and good young men. They were popular and they walked the halls of that school with pride."
Justice, who retired from Gulfport in 2013 after a 36-22 record in five seasons as head Bulldog, is going to have a busy year in the coming NFL season. He has two favorite teams to watch - Tennessee because of Spencer and New Orleans because of Haralson - and he plans to travel to see both of them play in person. Unfortunately, the Patriots don't come any closer than Miami this season, or he'd get to see all three.
When asked to think back on that 1999 team and what stood out, Justice said it wasn't any of the five players that went on to play professionally.
"Bobo Brown was the guy," Justice said. "He was the best back in the state. Ole Miss signed him and couldn't get him in, so he ended up at an academy and then eventually at Michigan State, where he couldn't stay healthy.
"He was every bit as talented as anyone on that '99 team."