It was a breezy afternoon in Oxnard. Crowds cheered as players approached the practice field. Before long, the gridiron bustled with shoulder pads thwacking together, wide receivers dashing through their routes, and foghorns that signaled the end of each practice phase.
The New Orleans Saints came marching into the 805 on Sunday, descending on the River Ridge fields to practice. On Monday, Aug. 22, the 2010 Super Bowl champions hit the grass for their first official session in Oxnard.
The beachy location allowed the team to escape from New Orleans’ sweltering humidity. But for cornerback Terrail Lambert and linebacker Dwight Roberson, both hailing from Oxnard, the visit was also a homecoming.
Both of the St. Bonaventure alums, when asked separately, called the experience a “blessing.”
“It feels awesome,” said Lambert, who grew up near Port Hueneme.
He said his most memorable moments consisted of his days playing high school ball.
“That’s what sticks out in my mind,” said Lambert, who hopes to reunite with his high school coach and visit other alumni. “If possible, I’d love to get up there.”
Lambert, who will begin his second season, watched the Cowboys and Raiders practice on the same field, he said.
“Now I’m actually on the field as a participant, so it’s kind of crazy,” he said, while his supporters attended.
Lambert faced no anxiety under the spotlight of friends and family whom he reconnected with on Sunday.
“I play cornerback. We thrive off pressure,” he said. “I welcome that!”
Rookie Dwight Roberson lived in Oxnard from birth before he headed off to Oregon State University.
His memories are modest. “Just playing football and being around friends like Terrail,” said Roberson, of the friendship that spanned back to childhood.
They played Pop Warner together before continuing at St. Bonaventure. But their paths diverged upon reaching college, with Lambert playing for Notre Dame.
“And now we’re back together. It’s pretty cool,” Roberson said. “It’s exciting.”
Roberson never thought he’d set foot on the field where he now practices. “I dreamed about it when I was a little kid,” said Roberson, who also watched the Cowboys there.
“But it happened, and I couldn’t be more happy.”
His family and friends greeted him with a barbecue upon his return to the home that is minutes away from the field.
The Saints stay at the Residence Inn by Marriott at River Ridge, which neighbors their practice field.
Hotel employees scrambled to prepare everything from meeting rooms to food services. In fact, the Saints confirmed their stay much later than usual, about two weeks prior to arrival.
“It’s all hands on board,” said Director of Sales and Marketing Millicent Bennett, before the players checked-in.
The team occupied slightly more than half of the Marriott’s rooms.
“Approximately 130 rooms per night,” Bennett wrote in a follow-up e-mail. “Right now, we are sold out during camp. We don’t have any availability.”
The hotel thus turned to its overflow facility to accommodate other vacationers and business travelers. The hotel has seen no fan guests, despite past years’ practices luring football fans to Oxnard.
General Services Superintendent Michael Henderson said he thinks the practice contributes not only to Oxnard’s economy, but to those of surrounding cities.
National Football League teams draw non-Oxnard residents who buy locally, he said. Even the few parking-lot food trucks that spectators dined at were taxed. Henderson estimated a 500- to 600-person turnout as he surveyed the sidelines Monday.
The city will receive no money from the Saints practicing on the city-owned field, Henderson said. The Saints, however, have agreed to cover the costs of using it under the one-year city contract.
Henderson added that Oxnard also benefits from ESPN mentioning its name in any on-site broadcasts.
“That’s stuff you can’t buy,” he said.