Russell Wilson walked up to George Fant just before kickoff. The iconic Superdome, which has hosted seven Super Bowls, was roaring with more than 70,000 people.
“Dreams,” Wilson told the undrafted rookie, “do come true.”
They did indeed for Fant on Sunday. The college basketball player at Western Kentucky — who played college football sparingly on special teams and as a practice player on defense last year — started at left tackle for the Seahawks against the New Orleans Saints.
That was because regular starter Bradley Sowell’s sprained right knee did not respond well to pregame testing.
“I’m just blessed for the opportunity,” Fant said.
He admitted, after some prodding, how big a deal Sunday was for him.
“It is. It’s cool,” he said of his first start in a football game since he did it for the Lincoln Heights Tigers in Cincinnati. That was in Pee Wee league.
He had family watching from back in the Kentucky area. And the mother of their newborn was watching, too. Fant and former Western Kentucky basketball star Chastity Gooch had their first son, Jayden, shortly before the March tryout that wowed the Seahawks.
Seattle’s scouting staff had zero game tape of him blocking anyone at Western Kentucky. The team signed him to a free-agent deal in May based off a Pro Day workout in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Fant impressed Trent Kirchner, the Seahawks’ co-director of player personnel, with his athleticism and his 6-foot-5, 296-pound frame. Fant worked out at linebacker, defensive end, defensive tackle, tight end and tackle.
But starting in an NFL game five months later at the line’s most important spot?
“I mean, it’s not really a big deal. But I just think it’s a cool situation,” Fant said.
Despite fears of doom off his left edge, Fant the power forward played like a left tackle. He overcame a clipping penalty and false start in the first quarter. More than once he got guard Mark Glowinski’s relay protection call and adjusted on the fly to stonewall Saints blitzers.
Wilson dropped back to throw 35 times and got sacked once. That wasn’t Fant’s man, either. It was right guard Germain Ifedi’s. Ifedi is the polar opposite of Fant, a heralded, first-round draft choice who Seattle selected 31st overall in May.
Asked if his debut went as well or better than expected, Fant sounded and looked like a veteran. He looked up from his locker seat and said with a blank expression, “We didn’t win.”
He added: “Took a while for me. But I got comfortable as the game wore on.”
Wilson singled out Fant, unsolicited, during his postgame comments for how well he played in his first NFL start. Fant played the end of regulation and all of overtime in the previous game when Sowell got hurt in the tie at Arizona.
Fant said the roaring of so many Louisianans chanting “Who Dat?” much of Sunday did not affect his communication with his linemates.
It was especially challenging during the Seahawks’ frantic, final drive, when they were trying to score the winning touchdown in the final 1:50 with no timeouts. Wilson’s final play came after a protection call to account for another Saints blitz from the 10 with 2 seconds remaining. Fant picked up that call, too.
“It was good, man,” Fant said. “I had ‘Glow’ (left guard and line neighbor Glowinski) giving them to me. And we took care of that, so it was fine.”
Another 100-yard foe
Saints running back Tim Hightower didn’t get the start, but he earned an impressive distinction anyway.
With 102 yards on 26 carries, Hightower became the third back to crack 100 yards in a game against the Seahawks this season.
San Francisco’s Carlos Hyde had 103 yards on 21 carries in Game 3. Last weekend, Cardinal David Johnson had 113 yards on 33 carries.
Not a single back rushed for 100 or more yards against Seattle during the 2015 regular season, although the Panthers’ Jonathan Stewart had 106 yards on 19 carries in the playoffs.
Hightower said a key to the Saints’ win was to match the Seahawks’ intensity.
“This team (Seattle) thrives off of chaos,” Hightower said. “Those guys talk a lot of trash and bring a lot of high energy. They’re trying to get you to respond and play their game, which is creating turnovers and chaos.
“The challenge for us was keeping our poise, letting them do what they do and bring their energy, while we just keep knocking on the door and being patient.”
The News Tribune’s Dave Boling contributed to this report.