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The Bridge to Paradise : Saint Quarterback Bobby Hebert Finds Peace in the Heart of Cajun Country

January 03, 1993|BOB OATES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MANDEVILLE, La. — Bobby Hebert, 32, the quarterback who has once more led the New Orleans Saints into the playoffs, lives in two worlds separated by what he says is the longest bridge ever built:

--On this side of Lake Pontchartrain, Hebert and his wife, who have been bringing up two daughters and two sons in the unpretentious suburban home they bought seven years ago, spend much of their leisure time restoring their new house, a big old Southern mansion nearby on the Tchefuncte River.

The restoration is slow going because the demands of his children are his first priority. On three recent mornings, for example, a Saint fan saw Hebert and a child having breakfast at the waffle house over near the highway. The child turned out to be 3-year-old Bobby Joseph Hebert III.

"T-Bob is a waffle freak," Hebert said later, explaining that T-Bob is Cajun for young Bob.

He added, speaking as the NFL's only Cajun quarterback, that T is a Cajun contraction of petite. Thus, one of his boyhood friends is still called T-Mel.

And almost certainly, the greatest Cajun invention yet is the T-shirt.

Everything is different in rural Louisiana. In the state's large backwater area, Hebert has been pronounced A-Bear for more than 200 years.

--On the New Orleans side of the 26-mile Lake Pontchartrain causeway, Hebert is all business. Crossing the bridge in 20 minutes, he digs in each morning at the Saints' practice facility, where the Philadelphia Eagles are this week's problem.

To reach the Super Bowl this year, the Saints, who have never won a playoff game, will have to beat the Eagles in the first round today.

So they have concentrated on Philadelphia all week. But in their idle moments and in their dreams, no doubt, the Saints have had San Francisco in mind.

The Saints (11-4) have been chasing the 49ers (14-2) all year, twice losing to them by an average of only 3 1/2 points.

And after the long chase, the question is, can they finally catch the 49ers in the playoffs?

Most New Orleans fans doubt it. They have been booing their quarterback and the others on the offensive team much of the year, complaining loudly that the offense is too conservative.

They haven't liked Hebert much around New Orleans, in fact, since his 12-month holdout in 1990, when, the players' union said, he would have been the NFL's worst-paid good quarterback.

One morning that year, after thieves robbed a New Orleans clothing store, police discovered that everything of value had been stolen except a set of expensive Saints' jerseys inscribed with Hebert's name and number.

A policewoman asked the pertinent question: "Who could they sell Hebert's shirts to?"

After his year off, when Hebert returned to the Superdome 18 months ago, he expected to see a "Welcome Home, Bobby" sign or two. That afternoon, though, the only Hebert banner in sight, a large one, read: "Apologize, Bobby."

He didn't. But to this day, the memory of all that still makes him sad.

"Most of the fans who come to the Superdome every Sunday are common, ordinary Louisiana folks like me," he said. "It's kind of troubling that they would stick up for (multi-millionaire owners) instead of one of their own."

A definitive thing about Hebert is that Saints' fans aren't alone in doubting him. Almost everybody doubts Bobby Hebert.

Outside of Mandeville, he is truly the quarterback nobody loves.

His coach, Jim Mora, listed Hebert as his fourth-string quarterback as recently as last year.

Club President Jim Finks has tried for years to replace him, bringing in such high-salaried candidates as Steve Walsh, a bust so far. Finks is on record with an expression of longing for someone such as San Francisco quarterback Steve Young.

In the early 1980s, when Hebert was playing college ball for Northwestern Louisiana, no pro scout ever looked him up.

So far as the record shows, no NFL team even considered drafting him.

And, more grimly, he is the only pro football player who ever got death threats in two leagues, first in his days in the United States Football League, then last month in the midst of a game the Saints were losing to the Buffalo Bills.

"My fans have fun," he said, allowing himself a small smile.

Over the years, while so many wicked things have been happening behind Hebert's back, he has been out front with one steady performance after another.

The truth is that as an NFL quarterback, he is up there with the good ones:

--His won-lost record as a starter for New Orleans is 49-26.

--Against the AFC, as a starter, he is 16-1.

--In football's most meaningful statistic, average yards gained per pass thrown, Hebert's number this season is 7.79. That's second best in the league only to Young, whose average is 8.62.

In view of the fact that the Saints never had a winning season for a record 20 NFL years, it's somewhat surprising that Hebert, a successful producer since then, is still the quarterback that nobody loves. But it doesn't worry him.

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