Prodigal Son Shines : After Sitting Out a Season Because of Contract Dispute, Saints' Hebert Is Trying to Win Back Hearts of Fans

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Running back Rueben Mayes of the New Orleans Saints looked down at the burlap sack sitting at the base of his locker and read the attached note.

"Somebody sent me a 10-pound bag of beans," he said, shaking his head.

"I'll take 'em if y'all don't want 'em," quarterback Bobby Hebert said. "Those are red beans, good red beans. Don't y'all like red beans and rice?"

Mayes gave the bag to Hebert, who slung it over his shoulder and limped away, smiling.

It was November of 1986. Hebert had a broken bone in his foot and was on the injured-reserve list, but, as it turns out, those were the good old days for Hebert.

Hebert had won the starting quarterback job in training camp and won the hearts of the Saints' faithful. He was the down-home boy who would lead the Saints to the NFL playoffs, a local hero who had taken South Lafource High to the Louisiana state championship and become a record-setting passer at Northwestern Louisiana.

He was as Cajun as red beans and rice and he was about to become the most popular Saint quarterback since Archie Manning.

In 1987, Hebert became the most efficient passer in New Orleans history, guiding the Saints to a 12-3 record and their only playoff appearance. He was the toast of Bourbon Street.

New Orleans went 10-6 in 1988, but lost three of the last four games and, for the first time, Hebert began to hear boos.

The Saints were 6-7 in 1989 when Coach Jim Mora turned the quarterbacking over to John Fourcade. They won their final three games.

The benched Hebert demanded a trade. He told the Saints not to put him on the Plan B protected list, but they did it anyway. He put his home up for sale and moved to California, saying he would like to play for the Raiders. He threatened to sue the Saints, then sued the Raiders.

Deciding Fourcade wasn't the answer, the Saints traded three top draft choices to Dallas for quarterback Steve Walsh, and Hebert wound up sitting out the year.

On June 4, 1991, Hebert signed a two-year, $2.73-million contract with the Saints, ending his 517-day holdout. He has since beaten out Walsh for the starting job and it's like old times, right?

Not exactly. During the season opener against Seattle, the Saint fans "welcomed" back their wayward son with boos every chance they got.

"Fans are fans," Hebert said. "They'll boo you one breath and cheer you the next. (The booing) never really hurt me because my ego is not that big. You just have to keep it in the right perspective and not keep it personal.

"I don't have to have gratification from the fans to feel good about myself."

The phrase There's no place like home might have taken on new meaning for Hebert, but he certainly seems to be feeling comfortable on the football field.

He has completed 66% of his passes for 437 yards and four touchdowns and the Saints are off to their first 2-0 start. Last Sunday in Kansas City, Hebert guessed right when the Chiefs were blitzing, called an audible and threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to Eric Martin. He also threw a 45-yard touchdown pass to Quinn Early.

Nothing like several hundred days off to get the juices flowing again.

"It's not that easy," Hebert said. "If you didn't have a pass rush, though, it probably would be. I don't know if you could say I had doubts, but every year is a new year and you always have to work hard to have success. And I had worked hard. The only thing you can't train for is a game situation."

When Hebert showed up in training camp this summer, Mora said it was obvious that he was in great condition, which helped assuage at least one of his concerns.

"I still don't think he's where he would have been now, had he played last year, but he's close to it," Mora acknowledged.

The Saints' conservative offensive scheme had not changed much in Hebert's absence.

"The mental aspect, well, it's not a scenario of going to a different team and having to learn a new offense," he said. "You know the basic foundation and then you add a few things here and there."

Mora said that choosing a starter was difficult because Hebert and Walsh both trained well. He added that he would have been equally comfortable with either quarterback, but that Hebert's experience was a factor.

Despite the 2-0 start, one Saint official says he fully expects Hebert to receive another inhospitable welcome Sunday night when he takes the field against the Rams.

At this point, boos are better than the silence of a Sunday at home for Hebert.

"I kept pretty busy with hobbies and spent a lot of quality time at home with my three kids," Hebert said of his year off. "Sunday was probably the hardest day. . . . I watched the NFL, but not any Saints' games, because of the emotions involved. You miss the camaraderie."

Hebert, 31, paid the price for his belief in unrestricted free agency, riding an emotional roller coaster while Raider owner Al Davis and New Orleans General Manager Jim Finks haggled over his fate.

"It was hard to be mature and stay positive about the situation," Hebert said. "I think (a deal with the Raiders) was closer than what some people thought, but everyone has to agree on everything for something like that to happen."

Davis reportedly offered the Raiders' No. 1 pick in this year's draft, but Finks also wanted an offensive lineman. A middle ground was never reached.

There was no band playing when he walked back into the Saints' training camp in La Crosse, Wis., but at least none of the players booed.

"I've always had a great relationship with the players and a good working relationship with coaches, so that wasn't a problem at all," he said. "I'm easygoing, easy to get along with."

Was it worth it?

"I don't have any regrets," he said. "I just have to make the best of it where I'm at. I'm a competitor and I'm going to do whatever it takes to win. So I'll just try to go forward."

Manning, who never led New Orleans to a winning season in 10 years, says Hebert's image as traitor will soon fade, as long as the Saints keep winning, of course.

"Two more touchdown passes and another win and I'd say this would be all over," he said.

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