Remembering “Saint” – From the Bird’s Nest
I'll never forget my first conversation with Saint.
I was on the bus for a basketball trip. I had been on a couple of bus trips previously when Saint drove. But this time I noticed his name tag.
Mastern St. Julien, Jr.
And I immediately made the connection.
Back in our early days as a sports talk station on ESPN1420, we had a regular caller. His name, too, was Saint. Saint was well into his 80's and when we'd answer the phone, we'd hear him laugh.
"Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh."
Kevin Foote, who did the radio show with me back then would say, "It's the man!" And Saint would respond, "I'm da maaaaaaan." By this time Saint, who worked for Mello Joy Coffee for over 40 years, had lost his sight. His connection to the sports world was the radio. He would call to talk about the Saints and Astros. "What's da matta wit dem boys," he would ask. And the conversation would begin.
Saint The Elder passed away in 2000 at the age of 88. That was a pretty big age difference between that man and the bus driver. So I asked, "was that your father or your grandfather?"
"That was my daddy," he responded.
I told him about some of those calls his dad had made and after a few minutes, he responded, "Jaywalker, you're 'bout to make me cry." He never called me Jay. It was always Jaywalker. One word.
And, that began a friendship that lasted over a decade.
Monday, we found out Saint had passed away suddenly. It hit everyone. Hard.
From the coaches, to the trainers, to the student-athletes...especially the student-athletes, losing Saint was losing a member of the family.
Because, make no mistake about it...Saint was family.
Saint was the main bus driver for men's basketball and baseball for more than a decade. Men's basketball was his priority when there was a conflict. When the season was over, he moved to baseball.
The sport didn't matter. Saint was always the same.
B. J. Duplantis, who has been the men's basketball athletic trainer, started at UL about the same time as Saint became the bus driver.
"He cared so much about our players. Heck, he cared for everyone who rode on the bus. It didn't matter if you were the head coach, a player, a manager, a trainer or part of the radio crew. It didn't matter if you were black or white. It.didn't matter. He cared about everyone..equally."
He had different ways of showing he cared.
"He was always on Shawn Long," Duplantis said. "We'd be getting on the bus and he'd say, 'Hey. Shawn Long. Your big ass gonna do somethin' tonight?' And, after the game, Shawn would have a double double and Saint would be there to give him a hug."
But Saint wasn't a front runner. In a tweet Monday, Cajuns' outfielder Todd Lott mentioned when he had a tough night, Saint was always there to offer words of encouragement.
The student-athletes loved him. Elfrid Payton contacted him regularly.
"At the conference tournament (in March) before our first game, Elfrid texted me and asked what was happening," Duplantis said. "I told him I was visiting with Saint. He said to sit tight, he was on his way. And Elfrid came...just to visit with Saint."
Cajuns' Associate Head Coach Anthony Babineaux agreed.
"We'd travel about 40 people and Saint called everyone by name. If there was a player or someone on our bus he didn't know, he'd ask me their name so he could address them by name. That was important to him."
It was also important that things ran smoothly. For all his smiling, wisecracking and giggling (he had a GREAT giggle), Saint was a professional. His job was to get people where they were going. Safely. And, on time.
"The only time you'd see Saint get mad was when something happened with the bus that would delay what we needed to do," Babineaux said. "It was the only time you'd see him that way."
That included when it was Saint's mistake.
This season the Cajuns were playing at Tulane. My broadcast partner Brad Topham and I got there a little more than two hours before the first pitch. The team was usually there at the two hour mark.
But not on this day.
Saint's itinerary said the team was headed to New Orleans. He got the team there on time.
Except he pulled up at UNO.
Orynn Veillon, who played the previous season with the Privateers, pointed it out to the coaches, who were doing other things at the time. Bab had to break the news to Saint.
The team finally got to Turchin Stadium about an hour and fifteen minutes before the first pitch. I saw Saint when I went down to interview Coach Robe. He had a huge scowl on his face.
"Jaywalker, I can't believe I did that. I saw New Orleans and right away thought UNO."
He didn't suggest anyone should have done anything differently. He wore it himself. It bothered him the rest of the season.
It should be noted Saint never had an accident the entire time he worked as a bus driver. He was pretty proud of that fact.
Saint, like so many players and coaches, had a superstitious streak, as well.
"If we lost on Friday night, Saint always took a different route to the ball park the next day. He was doing to do whatever it took to change the mojo," Babineaux explained. "No one ever had to tell him."
But, more than anything, Saint cared.
A few years ago the basketball schedule called for the Cajuns to travel from Monroe on a Thursday to Troy on a Saturday. The route would take the Cajuns' bus near Selma, Alabama. Saint asked Coach Bob Marlin if they could take a brief detour. He said it would mean a lot to him, and perhaps many of the young black players on the team if they could see where a huge part of American History and the Civil Rights Movement took place.
"Absolutely," Marlin said.
Saint parked the bus near the historic bridge where hundreds of marchers wanting to go from Selma to Montgomery in support of the Voting Rights Act were beaten badly by police in segregated Alabama. The group, led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, were attacked with batons. Some were seriously wounded. Coach Marlin briefly explained why we were stopping.
We all got off the bus. And we all walked across that bridge.
On the other side, there were markers and murals commemorating that time. At one point, I saw Saint standing next to one of the players, pointing at a mural. He was giving a history lesson. Among those on the mural were John Lewis, who is still fighting for minorities in the United States Congress. There was a time of two I saw a tear in his eye.
We were there about a half hour. Saint then walked across the bridge, alone, to get the bus. As everyone got back on the bus, I saw Saint and Coach Marlin embrace as Saint thanked him.
Later I remarked to Saint how moved I was by the experience. "Me too, Jaywalker," he responded. "Me too."
In the last few years while on a road trip, we would invite Saint to enjoy a drink and a cigar. If he had an early day, he would decline, but sometimes he was able to join us. During those times, we'd just visit. He'd tell an occasional story, complete with many of his high pitched giggles.
For the conference tournament, Saint had a "dead load" trip. He drove to Conway with all of the players' equipment while the team flew to Myrtle Beach. We were in the lobby of the hotel after the Cajuns were eliminated. Saint declined a drink since he would be driving the team early the next morning. But we visited for a bit.
He looked at me and said, "Jaywalker, you remember when we talked the first time and you talked about my daddy?"
"Jaywalker, you blessed me that day. Thank you."
Our last conversation was like our first. The circle was complete.
(Funeral Services for Mastern M. St. Julien, Jr. will be held Friday June 14 at 11:30 am at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church on Twelfth Street. Visitation will begin at 7 am until time of service. A Rosary will be recited at 9 am. Syrie Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.