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


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.

“We’ll have to catch San Francisco first, I know that,” he said of the team that beat him in September by six points and in November by one point. “Maybe this year.”


The Saints were still in their long, long slump when Hebert arrived in 1985 to point the club in a new direction.

“As a runner, I’m not as flashy as Steve Young,” he said. “I don’t have the athletic ability of Randall Cunningham or the quick release of Dan Marino.


“But if you want the total package, here I am. It’s the whole bit: the mental part, the toughness part, the winning part, everything. No quarterback is tougher.”

Up close, he doesn’t seem all that tough. He has, rather, the look of an aging, curly-haired altar boy who has suddenly stretched to 6 feet 4.

Nothing about him is menacing except his size, 220 pounds, which strangely puts him on the small side of his family.

“All the Heberts are big men, 6-5, 6-6, 240 and up. I’m the runt,” he said.

His Cajun forebears, distant and recent, have been rugged, outdoors types who since the 18th Century, he said, have lived off the land and rivers of Louisiana.

“I don’t speak much Cajun myself,” he says. “But I know all the bad words, of course, and the names of all the animals.”

Hebert’s Cajun community is centered in Lafourche Parish--or county--40 miles south of New Orleans on the way to the Gulf of Mexico. The kids all go to the same high school, where, he said, “We won the state (football) championship one year.”


Their families live in one or another of four little parish towns, Golden Meadow, Larose, Cut Off and Galliano, where Hebert was born on Aug. 19, 1960.

“One of my great-great-grandfathers founded Galliano,” he said. “His great-great-grandfathers came here in 1785. After 130 years in Nova Scotia, (the Cajuns) were kicked out, went back to (Europe), regrouped and sailed back to Louisiana.

“A Cajun isn’t just a French-speaking Louisiana native. You have to trace back to Nova Scotia, which our (ancestors) called Acadia before the British settled there and changed the name. Cajun is slang for Acadian.”

Before World War II, Hebert’s grandfather built up a prosperous tugboat business in Lafourche Parish--”Fourche means fork, as in river fork,” he said--and at his peak had four tugboats at his command, all pushing oil, grain and other commodities up and down the Mississippi River.

“My father went to work for his father on the boats when he was 10,” Hebert said. “The first thing they did was tie him up and throw him in the river. He found out that they were teaching him to swim when they pulled on the rope, yanked his head above water and yelled, ‘You breathing OK, kid?’

“Right then, my father made up his mind that there had to be a better way to earn a living. He was the first Hebert in 200 years to go to college. The year I was born, he (graduated) from LSU as a civil engineer.


“My grandfather loved the river, and so do I, but not as a place to work.”


If free agency comes to the NFL soon, Hebert said it probably won’t affect him.

“I have no desire to leave Louisiana,” he said. “This is my state. This is my wife’s state.”

And their children’s.

Cammy, Ryan, T-Bob and Bo are, however, only half Cajun.

“I married a Peterson,” he said, spelling the name. “Teresa’s family is Swedish.”

As they move about Mandeville and, occasionally, New Orleans, Hebert and his wife are a striking couple--the tall, dark Cajun athlete and the former cheerleader at Bobby’s school, Northwestern Louisiana.

And having saved many of the millions he has made since the mid-1980s, they are about to establish themselves in what he calls a typical Southern estate, a Mandeville estate encompassing eight forested acres along the broad Tchefuncte River, east of the Lake Pontchartrain bridge.

With six big white columns in front, his $1.5-million mansion, which might fetch $8 million if it were set down in Bel Air, seems like a French chateau to Hebert. Others see it as a big, old plantation house. Built of brick on the site of a 19th Century brick factory, it has seven bedrooms, six bathrooms and three floors.

“We’ll have a toy room on the third floor and an art room up there for the kids, things like that,” he said.

The top floor was probably a ballroom when the place was built in the 1930s by a prominent lieutenant in the political organization of Huey Long, the Louisiana politician and presidential aspirant who was assassinated in 1935.


The lieutenant, Abe Shushan, for whom the New Orleans airport was once named, was one of several in the Long organization with estates in the Tchefuncte River area, possibly the most desirable in the South considering its proximity to New Orleans.

“(Shushan) was one of the Louisiana politicians who went to jail in the scandals of his era,” Hebert said. “But he built a terrific house, for both him and his guests--male and female. One wing used to be the casino wing, and there’s a big circular bar, with a comfortable massage room nearby. If only walls could talk.”

The oak trees around Hebert’s manse, he said, are 150 years old. His back yard, which edges the Tchefuncte for the length of a city block or more, slopes gently down to a river that needs no levees.

“A good strong swimmer could swim from my back door to Lake Pontchartrain, and on to the Gulf of Mexico and then anywhere in the world,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll ever try it, but I might go in a boat someday.”


Life in Hebert’s two worlds, for the person who hops back and forth, could hardly be more different. On the Mandeville side of the lake, he is busy every moment these days with landscape architects and carpenters and decorators, and with his children.

Only at night can he spare even a half hour for the pirate books that have fascinated him since he became an expert on Edward Teach (Blackbeard), Jean Lafitte and other unruly sorts.


“There were a lot of Cajuns in Lafitte’s band,” he said.

Each morning, Hebert races over to the New Orleans side of the long causeway in a green Jaguar. After flipping in a gospel-music cassette, he sets the cruise control at 70 for the 26-mile straight-as-an-arrow ride across the South’s largest lake.

His world as a football player, far from the soothing, gently flowing Tchefuncte, is chaotic. There are some good things about it, some first downs and touchdowns, but it’s the bad things that make the impression: the blitzes and the hits.

“Well, not the hits so much,” he said, amending a comment. “When a blitzer hits you, those collisions look awful, but nobody ever hurt me hitting me. The problem is, quarterbacks have no control over the way we land after a hit. The ground can’t cause a fumble, maybe, but it’s caused most of the quarterback injuries in this league.”

The worst hit Hebert ever took was the one he got in the pocketbook in 1990 when he sat out the season in a free-agency dispute with management.

“I’d played out my contract. This is a free country. I should have been free to go to (the Raiders),” he said, noting that, today, judges, jurors and most observers finally agree with him.

In 1990, though, Hebert had the support of only two groups, his Mandeville family and the New Orleans players.


“Teresa masterminded the holdout,” a club source said, speaking of Hebert’s wife. “She’s a very bright, strong woman who reminds me of Hillary Clinton, the way she looks, the way she acts. I don’t think Bobby or Teresa ever regretted the year out, because she was right, all the way. Ask Judge Doty.”

David Doty is the Minneapolis federal judge who presided at the trial that set the NFL on the way to free agency last summer, when Hebert was the only top quarterback to testify against the league.

He is one of the few top players and the only premier quarterback--except Steve Beuerlein--to strongly back the NFL Players Assn. all these years. When Dan Marino, Jim Everett and eight other famous quarterbacks broke with the union to form a profitable little Quarterbacks Club that benefited them only, Hebert rejected a membership invitation out of hand.

But in 1990, as the Saints struggled through an 8-8 year without him, Hebert faced a holiday season during which, for the first time, he would have to miss the players’ Christmas party. That is a particularly festive annual event for New Orleans players, who take over a big downtown hotel off Bourbon Street.

One day in December he got a telephone call from a teammate who still would rather not be identified.

“We all want you at our party,” the player said. “Come. You’re one of us.”

Management didn’t like that very much.

But it wasn’t a management party.

Said Hebert: “Walking into that ballroom with Teresa on my arm was even more fun than breakfast with T-Bob.”