This is Chris Ivory's third season as a New Orleans running back, yet it seems like he keeps having to reintroduce himself to Saints Nation.
As an undrafted rookie in 2010, Ivory was inactive for the first two games and started only four of the 12 games he played in but still led the Saints in rushing with 716 yards. Last year, he spent the first seven games on the physically unable to perform list, recovering from foot and sports hernia surgeries. This season, he was inactive for the first seven games even though he was healthy.
But when Darren Sproles suffered a broken hand against Denver in Week 8, the Saints invited Ivory to rejoin their running back rotation. In his two games back, Ivory has outrushed teammates Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas. He carried 10 times for 48 yards in a Monday night victory over Philadelphia, then helped New Orleans ruin Atlanta's bid for a perfect season with a seven-carry, 72-yard performance last Sunday. He scored a touchdown in each game, including a highlight-reel 56-yarder against the Falcons.
Fans may sometimes need to be reminded that Ivory is still with the Saints, but opponents have known about Ivory since his rookie season. In a Week 6 win over Tampa Bay that year, he rushed for 158 yards -- the most by any Saints running back since Deuce McAllister had 165 yards in a 2003 game and the most by a New Orleans rookie running back since Ricky Williams ran for 179 yards in a 1999 game. A few weeks later, Ivory gashed Seattle for 99 yards, prompting Seahawks coach Pete Carroll to call him "a freaking stud out there."
The 6-foot-0, 222-pound Ivory describes himself as "more of a get-vertical guy. I think my strengths are I have the speed to get outside, my power. I have a little shiftiness -- more than [opponents] know."
Since he started playing football in the third grade in his hometown of Longview, Texas, Ivory has been in the background more than in the spotlight.
Although he rushed for 659 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior at Longview High, he spent most of his time at fullback in the team's option offense, blocking for University of Texas recruit Vondrell McGee. Ivory went on to Washington State University, one of three Division I schools that offered him a scholarship, because he wanted to get away from home and experience something new (like the snow in Pullman). Hamstring injuries and other nicks limited Ivory's playing time at Washington State. A change in coaching staffs combined with a felony assault charge (he was accused of hitting a man over the head with a bottle) resulted in his dismissal from the team.
Asked about his version of the incident, Ivory said it has been settled. "That's in the past and I'm on to better things and working toward success, and getting better every day," he said.
Not wanting to lose a year, Ivory transferred to Tiffin, a Division II school in northern Ohio, where former Washington State special teams coach Dave Walkosky was head coach at the time. At Tiffin, Ivory played in five games, rushing for 223 yards on 39 carries, before he tore the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, an injury that ended his season. An appeal for a medical redshirt exemption was denied, and Ivory's college career was over.
At that point, it looked like Ivory might be off the NFL's radar. He was not invited to the annual Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, and he had to request to be an add-on participant at Toledo's pro day, where he ran a 4.49-second 40 and had a 36-inch vertical leap.
His hopes of getting drafted rested in the hands of the Bengals, who, according to Ivory, told him they would select him in the seventh round. Three picks before their turn, the Bengals called him and "backed out on me," he said. "It was disappointing, but things worked out and I'm just excited to be where I'm at right now."
Ivory is in New Orleans largely because Dwaune Jones was in his corner. A New Orleans area scout, Jones had watched tape of Ivory at Washington State and at Tiffin, and he made a pitch for the Saints to sign Ivory as a rookie free agent.
"You saw the burst and the explosion, breaking tackles," Jones told the
"That's a great part of the reason why I am here, I believe," Ivory said, referring to Jones' assessment. "He was able to see a little film ... and sold it to the coaching staff. They saw a little spark in me and just felt like I had something to offer, and they gave me an opportunity. I was able to capitalize on it, and here I am today."
Given Sproles' recent injury, Ivory could continue to play a big role in the resurgence of the Saints, who after an 0-4 start in the wake of the bounty scandal have won four of their last five games and can reach .500 with a victory in Oakland on Sunday.
If there's one love in Ivory's life bigger than football, it is his mother, Judy. Five years ago, Ivory was in his dorm room at Washington State when he received a shocking phone call from Kenny Gilliland, his stepfather. Gilliland told Ivory that his mother had been hospitalized with a severe case of meningitis. Ivory immediately bought an airplane ticket and flew home to Longview.
When he walked into the hospital room, he could hardly believe what he saw. Various tubes were in his mother's mouth and nose. Her eyes were rolled back in her head. She was unconscious -- and the prognosis wasn't good.
"She wasn't supposed to be able to walk again," Ivory said. "Some people said she was going to be a vegetable. She was supposed to die the night I came in from school. But He kept her here for a reason, and that reason is to see her son do great things."
Although his mother hasn't regained her full health, Ivory said, "For the most part, she's doing well."
Asked about his boyhood days in Longview, a 125-mile drive east on I-20 from Dallas, Ivory recalled spending most of his time playing sports.
"Growing up, I always said I was going to be a professional athlete, and that's something I was able to accomplish," he said. "I looked up to Emmitt Smith; he was one of the guys I idolized as a running back."
Although he enjoys fishing and go-kart riding and taking vacations in the offseason, Ivory mostly is a quiet, laid-back homebody away from football. The raucous New Orleans nightlife never has captured his fancy. He has swapped the small apartment he lived in as a rookie for a town house, but he still lives close to the Saints practice facility, and would rather sit at home playing a video game than stroll down Bourbon Street.
"I don't know what it is, I just don't have the urge to get out a lot," he said. "I do like to have fun, but I'm not a guy that [always] has to be doing something. There are a lot of guys who feel like there's something they have to do. For me, it's not that way."
In fact, Ivory suspects he has attention anxiety, which calls to mind the social anxiety disorder that Williams suffered from when he was a Saints running back. Ivory's case doesn't seem as severe, but he neither seeks the spotlight nor enjoys being its target. He can play football in a stadium filled with tens of thousands of fans, but having to speak in a public setting or being on center stage away from football makes him uncomfortable.
"I just have this thing with too much attention," Ivory said.
If he keeps playing like he has, Ivory will have a hard time avoiding it.