HAMMOND, LA. -- It's about what Barry Word expected. His past is both a burden and a goad as he pursues his deferred dream of an NFL career.

Word, a third-round draft choice by the New Orleans Saints in 1986, missed last season because of legal troubles.

He was arrested, pleaded guilty and served time in jail because of his role as a go-between in cocaine deals while he was a student at Virginia.

When the temperature hits the mid-90s, and the humidity makes it hard to draw a breath at the Saints' preseason camp, Word said he reminds himself, "I've been through worse. I've been through a lot worse."

Coach Jim Mora would prefer that Word's drug involvement and prison time not be mentioned at all. "That's behind us," Mora said.

"Barry's a big, fast, strong, talented athlete who has never played a down in the NFL but appears to have the ability to play in this league," Mora said. "There are a lot of guys on the street who have the potential to play in the NFL and a lot of guys playing in the NFL who do not have the ability of some on the streets."

The difference is work habits, he said, and Word's work habits appear, so far, impeccable.

"I've got to work on my pass catching," Word said. "That's my weakness. I don't seem to be seeing the ball well. I'm going to get contacts. But if I get contacts and still don't see the ball, what do I do then?"

He said part of his problem is that he's thinking too much of catching the ball instead of just relaxing.

While Word was sitting out last season, Rueben Mayes earned rookie of the year honors with 1,353 yards rushing for the Saints, Mel Gray moved over from the USFL and established himself as an impact player, and Dalton Hilliard gained a year of experience.

"I think they'll start working me some at fullback next week, which is fine with me," Word said. "This is a team, and I want to make the team and contribute in any way I can. And let's be honest. I'm not going to beat Rueben out at tailback -- not this year. If they want me to be able to go in at fullback, that's fine with me."

There's not much room there, either, with Hokie Gajan back from a season on injured reserve and Buford Jordan, who started in Gajan's stead last year, back 10 pounds heavier and in great shape.

Word's only complaint as he tried to earn a spot on the final roster, was that he wasn't getting enough work in the heat and humidity.

"When it's hot out there and the humidity's up, I feel good," Word said. "I feel better on the hot days. I get that old feeling back."