JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -Deuce McAllister slipped into a crowded gymnasium and discreetly took a seat, hoping to support a fellow pro athlete's cause without drawing too much attention to himself.
It was NBA All-Star weekend in New Orleans, and most eyes were on LeBron James. The Cleveland Cavaliers' star was at a podium about to cut the ribbon on a basketball court at a rebuilt recreation center that had once stewed in Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters.
But James couldn't resist announcing McAllister's presence, setting off elongated howls of, "Deuuuuuce!" the same calls heard in the Louisiana Superdome when the Saints' No. 26 carries the ball.
As the event ended, children cascaded out of the grandstand and swarmed McAllister, who had no bodyguard, no entourage. He stood there and smiled warmly, patiently letting the kids use their cell phones to take pictures with him. One girl hugged him as if she'd never let go, squeezing her cheek into his torso.
"It just shows you the respect and the love that they have in that city," McAllister said Thursday following his first practice of training camp. "You've got a mega superstar - LeBron - he ranks right up there with Kobe (Bryant), Allen Iverson and some of those guys. You say those names and I can't say my name travels like that around the world. But in New Orleans I get that unfound love, so it's definitely special, the bond that those fans and I have."
It's an enduring, hometown-hero kind of connection from which McAllister draws inspiration as he tries to do what few have done before him - be an effective running back after having reconstructive surgery on both knees.
Now 29 years old, he is the Saints' career rushing leader, with 5,678 yards, despite missing most of the 2005 and 2007 seasons with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and then his left.
The rehabilitation of his reconstructed left knee during the past offseason was further complicated by microfracture surgery on his right knee - a painful procedure in which drilling tiny holes through bone generates soft tissue, mimicking the padding of cartilage in the joint.
Injured in Week 3 last season, McAllister promptly went to Birmingham, Ala., to have both knee operations performed by Dr. James Andrews, an orthopedic surgeon renowned for his work on pro athletes. McAllister remained in Birmingham for five months, working out five days a week.
By March, when McAllister was due a $1 million roster bonus, it wasn't yet clear whether his right knee would be fit when training camp opened. McAllister agreed to have his bonus pushed back a month, then, before the new deadline arrived, agreed to restructure his contract to ensure he'd remain a Saint for at least one more season.
His participation in a minicamp in June was limited, but he was taking handoffs in full pads when the Saints opened training camp this week - a sight that stirred some emotion in fullback Mike Karney, who had shed tears last fall while reacting to the news of McAllister's season-ending injury.
"A lot of tears when he went down, but a lot of smiles this morning," Karney said after the first day of practice. "It's an exciting time for Saints football with him on the field. It's because of the person he is. He's so down to earth. He cares not just about the game, but he cares about people. That gets people to root for him even harder whether times are tough or times are good."
McAllister's relaxed, Sunday afternoon demeanor belies his drive and ambition.
He holds numerous charity events in Jackson and New Orleans to benefit his Catch 22 foundation, which gets its name from his college number. He paid to help revamp the football weight room at Ole Miss.
In Jackson, he owns three car dealerships (brands include Range Rover, Jaguar, Audi and Volkswagen) and is looking to acquire two more in the region. He helped renovate the historic King Edward hotel in downtown Jackson (opening soon) and is a principal developer in a planned entertainment district, modeled after Memphis' Beale Street, along a largely depressed downtown corridor near the hotel. He also is a business partner in the Mississippi-based McAlister's deli chain, which he bought into even though its spelling differs from his.
He tended to these myriad endeavors and married actress Danielle Tipton this spring - all while working his way back into shape.
Apparently, a heavy workload suits him.
When players reported for camp, head coach Sean Payton was quick to point out that McAllister weighed 227 pounds, about 8 pounds lighter than usual.
"There's a sense of urgency with Deuce and he understands that it's tough as a running back to recover from a second injury like he's having to, but if it's possible to happen, he's the type of guy to do it," Payton said.
"He looks as good as I've ever seen him," Brees said.
Payton said he will be cautious with McAllister, sitting him out for some sessions while the Saints are practicing twice a day.
Now, when people ask McAllister how he'll come back this time, he talks about making what would be his third Pro Bowl, if only to see the reaction.
Sometimes, the response is, "You're crazy, man. You ain't going back to the Pro Bowl," McAllister said.
"That's fuel to my fire," he continued. "When it gets tough in that training room, that weight room, even out on the field, that's more that I can pull from and that's more that I can add to (what) drives me."