NEW ORLEANS -- In Deuce McAllister's locker, front-and-center on the top shelf, is a gold-painted wooden carving of the word: "Believe!"
After his second season-ending knee injury in three seasons, the Saints' 28-year-old all-time leading rusher wants to believe he will return to the NFL as an elite running back. It won't be easy, and he knows it.
"Obviously, the questions: Will you ever be the same? Will you ever be the back that you once were? Those are the different thoughts that obviously run through your mind as a player," McAllister said.
"I believe in myself. It's just a matter of me putting the time in and me putting the work in."
McAllister said an MRI exam Tuesday confirmed his worst fears: He tore his left anterior cruciate ligament in Monday night's 31-14 loss to Tennessee.
During the second quarter, McAllister landed awkwardly after catching a short pass from Drew Brees. McAllister walked off the field on his own, but having torn his right ACL in 2005, he was worried.
"I just told myself to get up off the ground. One lesson I learned growing up was to never let your opponent see you hurt. Regardless of what it is, if you can walk, walk off that field," McAllister said. "Once I got to the sideline, I knew it. I didn't want to believe it, but just taking the walk to the locker room I could feel it just kind of giving way a little bit and that was just kind of reminiscent of how the other one felt."
McAllister said there was also some damage to his medial collateral ligament.
Five games into the 2005 season, McAllister tore his right ACL during a run in Green Bay. After reconstructive surgery, he returned to rush for 1,057 yards in 2006, helping the Saints to the NFC South title and starring in their playoff victory over Philadelphia.
Now McAllister needs reconstructive surgery on the other knee, likely a patellar tendon graft, followed by the long, painful rehabilitation that will last almost until 2008 training camp begins, if not longer.
In between, there will be an offseason, when uncomfortable reminders that the NFL is a business resurface in greater frequency. McAllister is in the third year of an eight-year, $50.1 million contract. And the Saints also have Reggie Bush, who in his second season will now be the undisputed featured running back in New Orleans for the remainder of this year, at least.
Bush, who had two short touchdown runs Monday night but otherwise has struggled to find his game-breaking form this season, declined to speak with reporters Tuesday.
Fullback Mike Karney, who has blocked for McAllister since 2005, choked up while talking about his teammate's latest setback.
"I hugged him and started crying," Karney said, taking a deep breath. "It's tough to see a great guy, first and foremost, a great player, have to suffer another season-ending injury. ... He's the best I've been around. It's sad. It's hard to take ... I play the game for guys like him."
Head coach Sean Payton said it is "way too premature to start talking about where (McAllister) is from a career standpoint."
"He was able to come back off the right ACL. He's the type of guy that has the conviction and the belief," Payton said. "If he puts his mind to it, and I know he will ... it's going to take a long time and he's someone who's tough enough to handle it."
If McAllister leaves the Saints, he'll do so with every significant career rushing record in franchise history. Although he played sparingly his rookie season behind then-starter Ricky Williams, and although he missed most of 2005, he has rushed for 5,678 yards and 44 touchdowns.
He is among the most popular players the Saints have ever had, having grown up a couple hours away near Jackson, Miss., and having been a star at Ole Miss.
Although someone with his money easily could spend offseasons in Miami, Malibu or the French Riviera, he continues to make his permanent home in Jackson, He owns car dealerships there, is restoring a historic downtown hotel, and runs his charitable Catch-22 foundation, so named for his college jersey number.
As for this season, it's a potentially devastating blow to the Saints, who are 0-3 and in desperate need of a victory to have any hope of rallying back into postseason contention.
"You feel helpless because it's about making plays," McAllister said. "I can't do that right now."
Those who can are fellow running backs Bush, Aaron Stecker and Pierre Thomas, an undrafted rookie out of Illinois who made the active roster as a long shot following a string of impressive runs and kick returns in the preseason.
"It means some guys will have the opportunity to step up. And we have to have some guys step up now," Brees said. "With everything else Reggie is responsible for, this is going to add to the load on him a little bit more. ... We will see how this thing shakes out, but we need to elevate our game a little bit."