Brian Allee-Walsh

Nick Fairley’s health goes to the heart of the matter

Nick Fairley, New Orleans Saints
Nick Fairley, New Orleans Saints NFL.com

It is a fine line New Orleans Saints officials are walking.

On one hand, veteran defensive tackle Nick Fairley is someone who can make a difference on a side of the football that desperately needs difference makers.

Coach Sean Payton knows that, as do Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen and General Manager Mickey Loomis.

On the other hand, the Saints are big business and owner Tom Benson has made a huge investment in Fairley, signing him to a four-year, $28 million deal in March, half of which is guaranteed and includes an $8 million signing bonus.

The multi-million dollar question is can Fairley fullfill the contract after recent revelations of an ongoing heart issue?

Fairley has played the past six NFL seasons with an enlarged heart, a condition diagnosed during a routine physical exam at the NFL combine prior to the 2011 draft. It didn't prevent the Detroit Lions from making him the 13th overall pick, nor the then-St. Louis Rams and Saints subsequently signing him to one-year deals in 2015 and '16, respectively.

Or the Saints signing him to a multi-year deal in March.

Now, it appears a red flag has been raised after recent physical examinations by Saints doctors and at least one heart specialist, all agreeing things have changed over a 12-month period. It should be noted that Fairley is coming off the first 16-game season of his career and a season-high 6.5 sacks as a rotational player.

One such specialist has recommended that Fairley, 6-feet-4, 310 pounds, should not play football again. A second opinion seemed less dire. He and Saints officials are awaiting a third opinion which might determine the player's football fate.

In the meantime, Fairley's career is on hold. He has not participated in the team's off-season program, Organized Team Activities and will not work at this week's mandatory three-day minicamp.

It should be noted that the 29-year-old Fairley passed physicals while with the Lions and then-St. Louis Rams in prior to the '16 season New Orleans. It has never been about Fairley's heart, though the knock against him from 2011 through 2015 in Detroit was he lacked consistency and not always in the best physical condition.

"The first I heard of his heart condition was the other day,'' said veteran NFL writer Mike O'Hara of Detroit Lions.com. "The Lions are super strict with their physicals.

"The only thing I heard about Nick before the draft was he didn't do the bench press at the combine. But he was a great teammate during his time here. People loved him. And he could play. (Former Lions teammate) Ndamukong Suh even admitted that Nick is more athletically gifted.''

That gift wasn't always on display in Detroit. The Lions did not pick up the fifth-year option on Fairley after he missed the second half of the 2014 season with an ankle injury, enabling him to pursue free agency and eventually sign with the Rams in '15.

Long-time Rams beat reporter Jim Thomas, too, said Fairley's heart issue was news to him and never became public knowledge during the '15 season in St. Louis.

The bottom line is Fairley's ability to lead a healthy life going forward comes before everything else, above fame and fortune. Whether that includes playing football for the Saints -- or any other team -- remains to be seen.

One thing is certain: Saints officials won't support a decision that creates a hostage to fortune, nor would they knowingly put a player in a life-threatening situation.

They have a bu$ine$$ to run.

Brian Allee-Walsh, a longtime Saints reporter based in New Orleans, can be reached at sports@sunherald.com.

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