As fans, we root for them every Sunday. Those fearless, faceless gladiators that take the field each week to do battle on the gridiron. They throw, they catch, they tackle, and they block for your star quarterback—sometimes for over a decade.
Such is the life of an NFL lineman. There is no glory, few endorsements, and a massive heaping of humility. The offensive linemen are the true heroes of the football team, especially in New Orleans, where star quarterback Drew Brees has enjoyed 14 successful seasons, remaining mostly upright, largely because of the men in the trenches.
One of the stalwarts of that line for more than 10 years was Zach Strief, the six-foot-seven seventh- round pick out of Northwestern. Strief enjoyed a successful career on the field and has become a staple in the community since hanging up his cleats.
From blocking to brewing and mauling to microphones, Strief has transitioned into an ambitious businessman and broadcaster, ready to leave his mark on New Orleans for years to come.
Uncertainty and Anxiety
After being drafted in the seventh round in 2006, Strief was apprehensive about coming to the city, following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and getting drafted by a franchise without a track record of success.
New Orleans had long been Strief's parents' favorite city to visit, traveling from Ohio to attend French Quarter Fest for three decades, but they immediately began conversations with their son about the realities of living in New Orleans, post-Katrina.
Seeing only brief snippets of the carnage left in Katrina's wake on the news, Strief wondered if he needed to rent an RV to live in or bring some housing down with him when he moved. The future Saints offensive team captain had no idea that there were parts of New Orleans slowly coming back to life.
With so much unknown by many outside of the Gulf South region about day-to-day life in New Orleans, Strief had plenty of anxieties coming to the city. When he finally arrived for the first time, Strief says his concerns were not alleviated in any way.
"I took a wrong turn somewhere around Birmingham," Strief explains. "I was supposed to come into New Orleans from the west and ended up coming through the east. I drove the worst of it, and it was the first time I had ever seen the city. My first impression was cars on top of strip shopping centers and exits closed. New Orleans East was still completely destroyed."
To make matters worse, Strief had some trepidation about joining a franchise with such a lackluster history of only five playoff appearances in nearly four decades. The team was coming off a 3-13 record during the Katrina season and was in the midst of a five-year playoff drought.
"One of the things I heard over and over again going through the draft process was that who you end up is as important as how good you are because a good organization can create a longer career than a bad one," Strief says.
Bad teams often have a lot of roster turnover, and although Strief did not originally expect to spend over a decade in the National Football League, he hoped to stick around for at least a couple years and make enough money to give himself a financial cushion heading into his "real career."
Even after his first training camp, Strief still held slim NFL career expectations.
"It took me a long time to develop into a player that could play at this level," Strief says. "I was very fortunate that I was in a place where I was able to develop into a player that could play at this level. My expectation was one, two years, maybe practice squad, maybe get on the active roster a little bit. It was certainly not that it was going to turn into what it ultimately did."
Neither Strief nor anyone else with a pulse could have predicted that the 2006 season would mark the beginning of a golden era for the franchise and the beginning of a 12-year NFL career protecting one of the greatest quarterbacks in league history.
For an organization mired in mediocrity (or worse) for most of its existence, signing Drew Brees to play quarterback is the greatest free-agent signing in NFL history, according to Strief, at a time when the city needed a jolt of positivity, resilience, and hope.
"It's been a very special marriage over the last 14 years, for the city and Drew and Sean [Payton] all to come together when the city needed them most," Strief says. "Certainly, the organization has been fundamentally changed over the last 14 years since Sean has been here, and I think Drew is the single largest part of that."
During his career, the Saints won four division titles, made the playoffs six times, and won the franchise's first Super Bowl during the 2009 season.
Yet, one of his favorite memories during his days with the Black and Gold is a loss, when the Saints faced off against the San Francisco 49ers during the 2011 Divisional playoffs at Candlestick Park.
Strief remembers sitting on the bench in the third quarter in the heat, bleeding all over the place, while the training staff looked for the source of the blood.
"It was just the most intense game, and I remember looking at Jahri [Evans] next to me and saying, 'When I was kid, this is what I envisioned professional football was,'" Strief says. "The playoffs are already intense. We were behind the whole game. It was this battle, and it was back-and-forth, and I remember loving that moment and feeling like I was doing something that I never imagined that I could do. It stinks because we lost, but that moment, and being in that game and even in that locker room after that game, which probably was the most upset I ever was after a loss—it just was a special moment because it was that impossibly difficult perception you had of the sport when you were a kid."
The Saints Are Coming
Looking ahead at the 2020 Saints squad, Strief, who is heading into his third season as the team's radio play-by-play announcer, believes that they have assembled another talented contender.
"The thing that has made this team a contender the past three years is that they have become so balanced," Strief explains. "Offensively, they run the ball so much better, and the offensive line has become a real strength of this team. It's allowed Drew Brees's career to go longer. You have seen the emergence of guys like Alvin Kamara and, before him, Mark Ingram, and his ability surges because the offensive line is so good."
The balance extends to the defensive side of the ball, where a unit that was an area of concern for the Saints during a few of Strief's years has become excellent at stopping the run.
"They have great guys in the back end, they have good pass rushers, and they have good scheme," Strief says. "It's really an all-around solid team that I don't know is the best in the NFL at anything, but I also don't think they're outside of the top 10 in anything. That is really the strength of this team and why they should be successful again this year."
Strief expects defensive end Marcus Davenport, who has struggled with injury his first two seasons, to have a breakout year.
"Marcus Davenport is right on the edge of becoming a dominant and impactful player in the NFL," Strief explains. "If he can stay healthy, with the development that he has made in his techniques over the last couple of years, I think Marcus Davenport can become the type of player that Cam Jordan has become."
As the Saints' talented roster fights for a fourth straight NFC South title and hopefully more playoff success, Strief is excited about the upcoming matchups in the new-look division.
Former New England quarterback Tom Brady joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the offseason. Brady's predecessor, Jameis Winston, signed a one-year deal with New Orleans to back up Brees. Meanwhile, Teddy Bridgewater, the former Saints backup, signed with the Carolina Panthers, joining former New Orleans offensive assistant and LSU passing-game coordinator Joe Brady.
"Just adding Tom Brady alone makes it an interesting storyline," Strief says. "Having a player of that caliber, with the championships that he has, come into your division is a big deal. Tom Brady's won a lot of divisional championships in his career. I think the Saints and Tampa are at the top of the division, but with the weapons that they have offensively in Atlanta, they could always make a run."
Beers and Broadcasting
The former Northwestern Wildcat credits his football days of full immersion during training camp for helping him transition to the world of business and broadcasting.
"The ability to prepare and to learn has been very valuable for me as I've entered not just one, but two fields that were completely new to me," Strief says. "It's been a lot easier to dive into them, to accept that I'm going to mess up, fail, and make mistakes in both of them, but I learn from that and go back and be really honest."
While football is still a major part of his life as a broadcaster, these days, Strief splits his time with beer, and lots of it.
Strief is part of the ownership group of Port Orleans Brewing Co. in Uptown New Orleans.
With his football career winding down, Strief was in search of new opportunities. He considered going back to school but chose to open a business and learn on the fly. Plus, he is a big fan of craft beer.
"It doesn't take long to look at me to know that I've been drinking it for a long time," Strief says. "What's cooler to own than a brewery?"
Within the craft brewing community of New Orleans, Strief quickly rediscovered the thing he missed most about football: the camaraderie of the locker room.
"It very quickly became my next team," Strief says. "It is kind of a little fraternity, and it's really become a big passion."
Like businesses across the city, Strief's Port Orleans team faced unprecedented circumstances when the COVID-19 pandemic shut nearly everything down across New Orleans in mid-March. Amid the adversity, however, Port Orleans stood out as a community beacon, helping to raise thousands of dollars to help feed out-of-work and ill people in the city.
"There's got to be something good to make out of it," Strief told his team. "What can we do that's positive?"
What started as a text message from Strief to 15 former New Orleans Saints linemen, along with a desire to use the Port Orleans kitchen to cook food for a couple weeks to feed the hungry, quickly morphed into a program that provided over 100,000 meals in New Orleans in a variety of ways.
With the help of Drew Brees, several Saints players, Louisiana-based rock band Better Than Ezra, and countless donations from private groups and citizens, Port Orleans was able to provide food trucks at hospitals, grocery boxes for people returning from the hospital, and hot meals at the brewery for nearly two months.
"At a time that was really bad, what I think I'm proudest of with the whole thing is that the entire company was able to find ways to help the community at a time when we, ourselves, were struggling," Strief says with pride.
As the pints are beginning to pour once again at the brewery on Tchoupitoulas Street, Strief is also gearing up for his third season as the voice of the New Orleans Saints.
Strief had no plans of becoming a broadcaster after football but took meetings with several media outlets once his playing days concluded.
He took a meeting with WWL, the longtime flagship station of the Saints Radio Network, where management explained to him how the industry was opportunity-based, and the only open position at the time was replacing Jim Henderson, the longtime Saints play-by-play announcer. Unfortunately, that role was not typically filled by a former player.
When Strief arrived at his car following the meeting, he realized that that was the job he wanted, and he marched back into the office to throw his name into the ring for consideration.
"I don't know that I deserved to get it, but I immediately understood the gravity of it, the importance of the role, and what it meant to a lot of people, even as a player," Strief says.
Strief's biggest Saints memories are to the soundtrack of Henderson's voice, and he hopes to evoke those same emotions and memories among the next generation of fans and players.
"What I'd love is to turn around in 30 years and have people respect what I do like they respect Jim today," Strief says. "For some kid who is growing up today to think, in another 30 years, 'I've always listened to Zach.' That really would be the most special."
With any luck, Strief will have his "Pigs have flown! Hell has frozen over!" moment sooner rather than later.
Saints fans everywhere can raise a Riverfront Lager to that.