"The Big Wiggle". "The Heavy Lunch Bunch". The 2000 NFC West Division Champions. Those are just a few of the things that former New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Norman Hand is fondly remembered for by many Saints fans, during his time in the Black and Gold.
This year's choice for our annual Memorial Day Tribute to former Saints players that are no longer with us, Hand played "nose" tackle for New Orleans from 2000 through 2002; and was one of the first free-agents signed by the team under then-new head coach Jim Haslett and then-General Manager Randy Mueller during the 2000 off-season.
Hand would then go on to play alongside La’Roi Glover, Darren Howard and Joe Johnson on a formidable defensive line for the Saints team that went (10-6) and won the 2000 NFC West Division championship, right before the NFL re-aligned into their current divisional format to begin the 2002 season.
However, when ever the Saints D-Line would rotate in bigger and heavier players in order to gear up against stopping the opponent's running game, Hand was part of a defensive tackle group which became nicknamed "The Heavy Lunch Bunch", along with fellow 325-pounders Martin Chase and Grady Jackson.
The nickname actually evolved from Haslett referring to him as "Heavy Lunch" because he joked that he wasn't familiar with the concept of a light lunch.
The nickname stuck, and then Hand eventually became even more famous for another nickname; when his "Big Wiggle" celebration dance after each sack or big play, began to earn notoriety among fans.
In their first season together, "The Heavy Lunch Bunch" helped defeat the defending Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams in an unforgettable 2000 Wild-Card playoff game at the Superdome.
It was the Saints’ first Playoff victory ever, since they originally began play back in 1967; and is remembered fondly to this very day by a large portion of Saints fans as: "Hakim Drops the Ball" — thanks to then-Saints announcer Jim Henderson's legendary call of Rams WR / Punt Returner Az-Zahir Hakim's costly muffed punt that was recovered by Saints fullback / special teams ace Brian Milne:
Hakim drops the ball! Hakim drops the ball! Brian Milne might have fallen on it at the 10 yard line! It's the New Orleans Saints' football! Brian Milne, the most unlikely hero of them all, falls on the fumble, the muff by Hakim! There is a god after all!
Hand was actually born in Queens, New York but moved to Walterboro, South Carolina with his family as a teenager. A prep standout in football and baseball, Hand earned Honorable Mention All-America accolades from Parade and USA Today as a tight end for Walterboro High School. He was also named the state's Defensive Lineman of the Year in 1990.
Hand played defensive tackle for the University of Mississippi from 1993-94 after transferring from Itawamba Community College, where he was an All-State pick as a sophomore. During his two years in Oxford, he played in all 22 games with 20 starts and tallied 100 tackles and 12 QB pressures.
As a senior, Hand earned Mississippi Sportswriters All-State first team distinction after ranking fifth among SEC defensive linemen with 61 stops. The preseason All-SEC second team honoree was also credited with nine pressures, 3.5 sacks and an interception.
After playing at Ole Miss, he was the Miami Dolphins’ 5th-round draft choice in the 1995 NFL Draft.
He was inactive during his rookie season, then played for the Dolphins in 1996, the San Diego Chargers (1997-99), the Saints (2000-2) and the Seattle Seahawks (2003) before finishing his career with the New York Giants in 2004.
In his 3 seasons as a Saint, Hand appeared in 44 games total, while starting in 41 of them and tallying 9 sacks, 99 tackles (69 solo, 30 combined) and 1 forced fumble.
He also helped the Saints register an NFL-best 66 sacks in 2000 and an NFC-high 53 in 2001. Arguably other than the legendary "Dome Patrol" teams of the late 1980's / early 1990's, the 2000 Saints defense which Hand was a part of, has to be regarded as one of the franchise's best ever
Additionally, he was honored as the Saints' "Man of the Year" in 2002 for his work in the local community, notably his devotion to the Starbright Foundation program at Children's Hospital-New Orleans.
Sadly but perhaps not unexpectedly, Hand died May 14, 2010 at the very young age of only 37 years old, from hypertensive cardiovascular disease, after collapsing at his house in Walterboro.
The main cause according to Richard M. Harvey, the Colleton County coroner, was that Hand had an enlarged heart resulting from high blood pressure. But Hand notably had battled weight issues throughout his 10-year NFL career; and according to his ex-wife, was not prepared mentally or physically for retirement.
Toni Charles, the mother of Norman Hand’s youngest son (Trey) who at the time of his death was only 6 years old, says that not only was Hand dealing with the physical dilemma with constant weight gain, but he was depressed about his personal relationship issues with all of his children (Norman, Isaiah, Alexis, Aaron and Trey).
After one year of retirement, Hand's weight ballooned to well over in excess of 375 lbs. At the age of 34, he had what the doctors termed a mild heart attack and extremely high blood pressure. He took medication daily to control his blood pressure, but the lack of access to money was a constant issue. He sometimes went without medication because he was too embarrassed to ask anyone for help including the NFL.
Officially listed at 6-feet-3 inches and 310 pounds, Hand was reported to have weighed well above that at times, but amazingly he was quite agile and hardly immobile.
At his very best health-wise, he could still chase down running backs or even drop back into pass coverage during blitzes. It was quite an impressive sight to behold, for such a big man of his size.
But life in the NFL as a "nose tackle" seldom is rewarded by stats or putting up big numbers, although Hand reveled in that role throughout his time in NOLA, thanks in part to Haslett's encouragement.
“Nose tackle is the best position on the team,” he told The Times-Picayune of New Orleans during the 2000 season.
“You’re in the middle of everything on every play, just grabbing and banging. You don’t win every battle, but if you blow up that center or guard enough, you’ll make a difference.”