It was nervous time for Bobby Hebert. He had faced charging tacklers, unyielding defenses, angry fans and assorted other menaces in his years as a quarterback. And he had beaten them all with his fiery personality, undaunted courage and strong right arm.
Now all he had to do was pick up a ringing phone and he didn’t know quite how to handle it.
Because on the other end was his future.
To backtrack a bit, Hebert is a Louisianian, born and bred. As a boy, he lived 40 miles south of New Orleans. As a young man, he led South Lafourche High School to the Louisiana state championship before going on to play at Northwestern State in Natchitoches, La.
But when it came time to turn pro, Hebert left his native state.
After being bypassed in the National Football League draft, he didn’t wait to see if any offers would eventually float in. Instead, he signed with the Michigan Panthers of the fledgling United States Football League for a reported $150,000.
Doesn’t sound like a lot for a quarterback? It was a fortune at the time, because Hebert, his wife and child were living on food stamps before he signed.
And it all worked out. Hebert led Michigan to the USFL championship in his first season.
Two years later, Hebert returned to the USFL title game with the Oakland Invaders, who had merged with Michigan, only to lose to the Baltimore Stars, coached by Jim Mora, now his coach with the New Orleans Saints.
“He did a hell of a job for me,” said Charlie Sumner, formerly his coach at Oakland, now a defensive assistant with the Raiders.
“I don’t know why somebody didn’t pick him up originally in the NFL. He has the size, arm and intelligence. He’s a take-charge guy. If someone runs a bad route or does something else wrong, he won’t hesitate to let him know. Doesn’t matter if it’s a lineman, a back or a wide receiver. But when things go wrong, he doesn’t let it upset him.”
How cool under fire is the man? He played an entire USFL championship game under an anonymous death threat without letting it affect his performance.
By 1985, the USFL was going under, but Hebert had edged into the spotlight.
Now the NFL was interested, and willing to back up its interest with cash. The Raiders reportedly offered Hebert $600,000 to sign. The Seattle Seahawks made an offer. The Green Bay Packers wanted Hebert.
Then came the phone call.
“I was at my home in Mandeville (in Louisiana) when my wife told me the governor was going to call in 5 minutes,” Hebert said. “How do you talk to the governor? Do you say, ‘Sir?’ Or ‘Governor?’
“But Gov. (Edwin) Edwards, he broke the ice pretty easy. He can change his accent from Cajun to redneck or city talk.”
For Hebert, naturally, Gov. Edwards went Cajun.
“Hey (slang term for Cajun), whatcha doin’?” the governor said. “I want you to come down here and play in Louisiana, play with the Saints. You’re from here.”
Edwards got the dialogue going between Hebert’s agent, Greg Campbell, and Saint owner Tom Benson.
“The governor was kind of like the middleman,” Hebert said. “There’s no other place in the country this would probably happen. It was a political thing to get me to play here. The Cajun people are close to one another. Since we’re a minority, they feel when I’m out on the field, they’re a part of me.”
Many people have had their sentences commuted by a governor. Hebert may be the first to have his set by one.
Not that he’s getting prisoner’s wages. By the time Campbell and Benson were through talking, Hebert wound up with a reported $1.3-million signing bonus and a 5-year contract worth an estimated $3.5 million.
Edwards is no longer in office, but Hebert remains as a living memorial to his administration.
Hebert was a reserve in 1985, and a broken foot ruined his ’86 season, but by last year, he was prompting celebrations in New Orleans that almost made Mardi Gras look like a church social.
Hebert finished the season with an 82.9 rating, highest of any starting quarterback in team history.
More important, the team finished 12-3, its first winning record, which provided its first playoff berth.
Although they lost in the first round to the Minnesota Vikings, the Saints have shown this year that last season was no fluke. They will take the field in the Superdome Sunday to face the Raiders with a 6-1 record and the lead in the NFC West.
And Hebert has numbers to match, including a 63.3% completion rate, 12 touchdown passes, just 6 interceptions and a 93.6 rating, higher than last season’s and fourth-best in the NFC.
But all this success certainly hasn’t diminished Hebert’s intensity level.
For example, when the Saints blocked a field-goal attempt, then returned it for a touchdown last week against Seattle, Hebert and special teams coach Joe Marciano engaged in an animated high-five. Highly animated. So animated, in fact, that the felt-tip pen Marciano was holding punctured Hebert’s throwing hand.
The blood started flowing, but Hebert got bandaged up and finished the game.
“I’m just glad that it wasn’t a ballpoint pen or a lead pencil,” he said.
After all it took to get him to the Saints, he’s not ready to get written off so suddenly.