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Neither Fans Nor Tragedy Deters Hebert

NEWSDAY

Saints fans didn’t decorate the Superdome with yellow ribbons to welcome quarterback Bobby Hebert home from his year-long holdout. Hebert was greeted at the home opener by a banner that said he owed the fans an apology. And partly because Hebert had made it clear he wasn’t apologizing to anybody for doing what he felt was right, the boos rained down upon him even as he led the Saints to victory over Seattle.

It was harsh treatment, especially when you consider Hebert is one of their own, a born-and-bred Cajun. Maybe the fans were upset at having almost been abandoned by a player who made no secret of his desire to get out of town, preferably to play for the Los Angeles Raiders. Maybe it upset them to think the home-grown hero had outgrown them.

Playing in front of the homefolks, Hebert said Thursday, is a double-edged sword: “If you win, you’re a hero. If you lose, you’re a goat, and they’ll hang you from the nearest tree. You can never really go home to get away from it.

“I wanted to leave. It’s not like I was trying to turn my back on Louisiana. I saw the sign that said I owed the fans an apology. I don’t understand that. I always said the New Orleans Saints have the greatest fans.”

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When his holdout began, Hebert was approaching his 30th birthday and looking for the best way to take care of his family. Plain and simple. He had fulfilled his five-year contract with the Saints and played a major role in making them a winner for the first time in franchise history. He had done his part and felt the Saints owed him what he considered fair market value. He was a free agent.

“Freedom” isn’t really free in the NFL, as Hebert discovered again Thursday when a state appeals court in California rejected his challenge to the NFL’s Plan B restrictions on the ability of free agents to move from one team to another. The Saints understood that, which is why they expected Hebert to agree to their terms last season. That didn’t happen because the Bobby Hebert who is so mentally strong on the field turned out to be one tough Cajun off it.

Hebert’s holdout finally ended after 517 days because he needed a place to play football, and the Saints needed him.

So, Hebert came back and the fans booed him at every opportunity. But the boos never fazed Hebert as he led the Saints to a 3-0 start, their best ever. Nothing bothered him because none of it came close to the pain and personal tragedy he experienced at the depth of his season in exile.

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In the days just before last Christmas, a beloved grandmother died, and the next day, his father, Bobby Sr., was diagnosed with colon cancer and told to undergo immediate surgery. Four days later, his sister, Jill, who was less than a year younger than he, committed suicide.

The date was Dec. 22. “That was the hardest day of my life,” Hebert said. “I had to tell mom, who was at the hospital with my dad, what my sister had done. To see the torment in her eyes, it crushed me. My dad was still hooked up from the operation. He was in shock. He said, ‘It can’t be.’ He was feeling like Job in the Bible.”

As he spoke, Hebert sat hugging himself in the air-conditioned chill of an empty meeting room at the Saints’ practice facility. He let the memories of that dark period come spilling out.

“Football is not war or life and death,” he said. “God knows it would have been hard for me to play the last two or three games last season if I had been there. The fans don’t care about your personal life.”

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Hebert’s sister had been diagnosed as manic depressive about eight years earlier, but that didn’t make her suicide any easier to understand. On the surface, she seemed to Hebert to be managing her life well. But he knew from his parents and two younger brothers that Jill had experienced some difficult bouts of depression.

“I had different emotions,” Hebert said. “I was in shock; I didn’t understand it; I felt anger. I thought, ‘How could she do that.’ I would think back to the time growing up with her. She had just gone on a vacation with me and my wife and the kids eight months earlier to St. Bart’s in the Caribbean. I tried to help her. I bought her a car and sent her on a ski vacation.

“She had two college degrees. She was a Golden Girl at LSU. She’s beautiful. I can’t rationalize it or understand it. I really believe she just couldn’t overcome the chemical imbalance in her mind. It seemed like everything was OK, but when a person is sick, you don’t really understand it.”

Since their tragedy, the close-knit Hebert family has grown even closer. Bobby’s father is undergoing chemotherapy once a week and progressing well. Hebert received good news when his wife, Teresa, informed him during training camp their fourth child is due in March.

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After all he’s been through, Hebert wasn’t going to let a little booing upset him.

“The whole world can be against me, but if I do my best to honor God, the world can’t hurt me,” Hebert said. “I have confidence in who I am.

“Pressure from football is like nothing. It’s a game. It’s what I do best to support my family. I’m just trying to stay focused and enjoy the game. I’m trying to play like I did when I was a little kid.”


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