FOXBOROUGH - They nicknamed him "Hands" at Tennessee, because that's where the ball always seemed to end up, nestled into the outstretched arms of Donté Stallworth.
More often than not, those catches were for long, long yardage. Stallworth wasn't a possession receiver, he was a "burner," clocked consistently between 4.22 and 4.26 in the 40-yard dash, a shot of electricity who streaked down the sidelines so quickly that he once leveled the official moving the chains. Poor guy. He never saw Donté coming. It all happened too fast.
"Donté is just so explosive," said Patriots receiver Kelley Washington, Stallworth's college teammate. "Amazing speed. He was like a water bug out there."
He could burst off the line, leave you in the dust, catch the ball without breaking stride. You'd marvel at this blur of talent, and then the blur would come to a screeching stop. Stallworth would pull up, grimacing. The whirl of talent ended up soaking in the trainer's whirlpool.
It happened that way his first week on the Tennessee campus. A lingering hamstring pull from his high school track and field career grabbed hold of him and wouldn't let go. Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer gave it some time, then was forced to move on. Stallworth was red-shirted.
Tennessee went on to win the national championship.
"He was really slow getting himself involved," Fulmer said. "We really didn't have much of a choice. Even so, you could see that talent all bottled up and ready to go."
The talent is still bottled up, still ready to go. Stallworth recovered from his false start at Tennessee to amass 99 career catches for 1,747 yards and 13 touchdowns in three seasons. He was a first-round NFL draft pick, 13th overall, and in 56 career games with the New Orleans Saints, 46 of his receptions were for 20 yards or more. He will suit up for New England against the Jets today as a deep threat who, if healthy, would provide a lethal 1-2 punch alongside Randy Moss.
Stallworth's best professional season so far was with the team that drafted him, the Saints, in 2005, when he caught 70 balls for 945 yards and 7 touchdowns. Stallworth played in all 16 games, and with receiver Joe Horn hampered with injuries, "Hands" became New Orleans's go-to receiver.
Yet that same year, Stallworth's finest year as a pro, New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Suddenly, football didn't matter so much in the community.
Tragedy hits home
The rains began during a week when the football team was away, preparing for an August exhibition game against the Oakland Raiders. Stallworth had spent Sunday afternoon in Sacramento with his mother. The television droned on in the background, and he noted the heavy rains and the gale-force winds, but he had no concept of the damage being done. It wasn't until he settled into his Oakland hotel room that the graphic images began unfolding, and the severity of the situation began to sink in.
"You can't describe it," said Stallworth. "You can't believe what it was like to see these places we went to all the time, every day, completely flooded. Restaurants, stores, houses. One of the rookies, Jamal Brown, had lived in his new place three days and there it was, on television, completely under water."
The Louisiana Superdome briefly became the epicenter of the evacuation process. But the water levels kept rising, and Stallworth watched with growing disbelief as the stadium also was deluged.
"I remember thinking to myself, 'We'll never play another football game there,' " Stallworth said. "That's how bad it was. I still don't know how they rebuilt it so quickly. I'm proud they pulled it off."
Stallworth's home was safe, but that was of little consolation. The city he had grown to love was in ruins. The football team played its ostensible home opener at Giants Stadium against the Giants, then played the remainder of its "home" games either in San Antonio or Baton Rouge. The Saints went 3-13, and there was talk that they would never return to New Orleans.
Instead, the Dome was reconstructed at a cost of $185 million.
"I kept saying to everyone, 'I can't wait to go back and play in that first game in the Superdome,' " Stallworth said. "I knew it would be a really emotional night."
The Saints returned on Sept. 25, 2006, to wallop the Atlanta Falcons, 23-3, but Stallworth was not there.
He was no longer on the team.
Coach Jim Haslett had already been fired and replaced by Sean Payton. The new staff put the ball in the hands of young quarterback Drew Brees. They drafted Southern Cal running back Reggie Bush. They were ready to stamp their own imprint on the franchise, and the call went out to returning veterans: prove you should be part of our rebuilding process.
Stallworth couldn't. He had undergone shoulder surgery and was still rehabbing. On Aug. 28, 2006, he had been shipped to Philadelphia for linebacker Mark Simoneau and a conditional fourth-round draft pick.
"I was kind of expecting it," he said. "I wasn't able to practice much. There was nothing I could show them."
He had to catch his breath. All the turmoil of the previous season came rushing back. And what about the Saints' return to the Dome? Because it was a Monday night game, Stallworth had the day off with the Eagles, and a former New Orleans teammate offered him a seat in a luxury box for the game.
"I thought about it," Stallworth said. "I really did. But in the end, I felt it was best to stay in Philly and take care of things there."
In his first game in a Philadelphia uniform, he caught six passes for 141 yards and a touchdown. Eagles fans were giddy with excitement over what he and Donovan McNabb would do together. But then Stallworth pulled up with another hamstring injury. He wound up missing four games.
His former team, meanwhile, had jelled nicely under Payton. Brees was terrific. Bush showed promise. The team started winning.
In fact, the Saints became The Story of 2006 in football.
The Eagles won their share, too, but at season's end, Stallworth was a free agent asking for big money. His average of 19.1 yards a catch was second in the league, but Philly didn't press to keep him.
Slowed by injuries
Stallworth is in New England now, having turned down more money from other teams to prove he is more than an injury-prone tease with breakneck speed.
"I know [the injuries] have been frustrating for him," Fulmer said. "But even when he had stuff with us, he worked hard to get back. One season he recovered an onside kick and he broke a bone in his hand. It was a freak thing. They had to put a pin in there. He was out a couple of weeks, but then he was right back with us, wearing a cast, going 1,000 miles an hour."
That was in 2001, Stallworth's final season at Tennessee. He missed three games, then came back to grab five catches for 80 yards and a touchdown against Alabama.
"I remember that TD," Fulmer said. "We lined up with five wideouts. Donté flew down the field and pulled in this ball over his head with a cast halfway up his hand."
Stallworth's tenure with the Patriots has also begun with health issues. A hamstring injury left him sidelined for the start of the exhibition season, which is perhaps why Tom Brady's analysis of him last week was so restrained.
"Donté is another guy who missed significant time," Brady said. "He's worked very, very hard to get back and be healthy and understand what we're trying to do and how we do things. I think he'll do a good job of it."
Stallworth knows that missing preseason snaps is not ideal, particularly with a coach who places a premium on practice. But, he said, he's ready to make a significant contribution against the Jets.
"It's a copycat league," Stallworth said. "Everyone runs similar plays. The terminology might be different, but most of the patterns are the same. It's helped me, because I can pick up things a lot earlier than a rookie who's come into the league for the first time."
In the days leading up to the opener, he has tried to close out lingering issues from his previous addresses. That has included putting his home in New Orleans on the market. Since the trade to Philadelphia, he's spent a total of 14 days in New Orleans.
"It's time," he said. "But I won't forget what happened while I was there. I don't think [Katrina] is an experience I'll ever put behind me. I still feel a part of New Orleans. I always will."
His family believes Stallworth might finally be in the right place at the right moment. To this point, his timing has been a tad off.
Tennessee wins it all while he's red-shirted, then doesn't get that close again while he's there. The year after the Saints endured the hardships caused by Katrina, they made it all the way to the NFC Championship game - after they dealt him. In fact, the Eagles were the team New Orleans knocked off to get to that championship game against the Chicago Bears.
The Patriots are prohibitive favorites to win the Super Bowl, but Stallworth refuses to even consider that possibility. He knows better.
"Funny things happen in the NFL," he said. "I was in a situation in New Orleans where we were playing against a team [Carolina] predicted to win the Super Bowl, and we beat 'em. On the other side, I remember my rookie year with the Saints when we were 7-2 at one point and ended up losing the last four games.
"If you plan on winning, you need to make plays."
And you need to be on the field.