METAIRIE, La. — During long eight-hour days in a Direct TV call center, Akiem Hicks used to wonder whether he would ever play football again.
His time at LSU, where he signed out of junior college, ended earlier than he would have liked after he became involved in an NCAA investigation that cost assistant coach D.J. McCarthy his job.
More than two years later, Hicks, a 6-foot-4, 324-pound defensive tackle, is more than back.
The Saints selected him with the 89th pick of the NFL Draft, the team’s only selection in the opening three rounds of this season’s event.
“It has been a long one and it has been a rough one at times,” Hicks said Friday night, surrounded by friends and family in Sacramento, Calif. “But it has been a journey. I’ve learned a lot the whole way. I just appreciate everything that has been given to me and taken from me because it has made me who I am today.”
The Saints spoke with him only at the NFL Draft Combine before spending two hours discussing Hicks a week before taking him.
It registered only slightly with Hicks that he could end up back in Louisiana.
“They asked me if I would have a problem coming back to Louisiana and I said, ‘No, the state of Louisiana has done nothing to me and it’s not going to be a problem for me to play for the New Orleans Saints,’ ” Hicks said.
His journey back to Louisiana came via Canada, where he turned down an offer to play for the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts to play for the University of Regina.
At Regina, he finished with 76 tackles, eight sacks and 13 tackles for a loss along with four forced fumbles and four pass deflections.
But it’s his time in Baton Rouge that began to shape who is today.
After enrolling at LSU prior to the 2009 season, he got caught up in the investigation that found the school had provided him with impermissible housing when McCarthy had set him up to stay in an apartment for a discounted rate. Additionally, McCarthy set up transportation for Hicks.
Both were against rules and ended up getting McCarthy fired and getting Hicks ruled ineligible by the NCAA.
“It wasn’t a good situation,” Hicks said. “Some things happened that I had no control over. It didn’t go the right way. That’s just something that I’ve had to deal with.”
He’s past that and in May will attend New Orleans’ rookie mini-camp
First-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said Hicks, who the Saints had atop their draft board, can play both inside and outside. Spagnuolo realizes Hicks may take time to blossom in the NFL.
“He is raw, he's played different caliber of football,” the coach said. “So it's going to take a little while, it'll be a little bit of a learning curve. In the meantime, we think we got guys who can help us out.”
Added interim coach Joe Vitt, “He passes the eyeball test, he passes the commitment test, be passes the resiliency test. He wants to be a good football player so we're going to integrate him in and see how long it takes.”
Hicks said he has ambition to play immediately, but realizes that he has a lot to improve on and that the transition from Canadian football will be tough. But he added that football is still football.
Hicks also said he wasn’t worried about which players will or won’t be with New Orleans because of the bounty penalties.
And while the bounties scandal is something he has followed since it broke March 2, he’s not concerned by it.
“No. No. Not at all,” Hicks said. “I’m ready to play football. The New Orleans Saints aren’t going anywhere. They’re going to be here for years.”