Bobby Hebert says his surname is pronounced A-bear, though he isn't one. He's a Panther, a Michigan Panther from the Louisiana bayous who grew up 40 miles south of New Orleans. "Almost nobody realizes you can go south of New Orleans," he says in a voice laced with the French patois his parents speak. "I trace my ancestors to Nova Scotia. They were French pilgrims who didn't want to pledge allegiance to the Queen. So they said, 'Hey, later.' "
That's more or less what Michigan told the Oakland Invaders at the Pontiac Silverdome last Sunday during a 37-21 win in the other USFL semifinal. Both times the Panthers went for first downs on fourth-and-one, they scored important touchdowns. The first came just before the half on a three-yard Hebert pass, thrown into a thicket of hands, that little Anthony Carter somehow grabbed hold of. That put Michigan up 17-7. The second was Fullback Ken Lacy's 18-yard bolt through the line late in the third quarter; that ran the score to 31-14 and the doubt from anyone's mind.
Oakland had the poorest record (9-9) of the league's semifinalists and made the playoffs by winning the Pacific Division, an aggregation of teams so Charmin-soft that Birmingham, also 9-9, placed last in the Central Division yet beat the Invaders twice. Meanwhile, Michigan had won 11 of 13 games after a 1-4 start. "We've come back from the epitome of the pits," crowed Linebacker John Corker after the Panthers clinched their division in the final week of the regular season—meaning the Panthers that Oakland would play hardly resembled the bunch the Invaders had whupped 33-27 in the season's third week.
Since then Michigan had plugged up a porous offensive line and seasoned an offensive unit that had begun the year with 10 rookies by moving three former Pittsburgh Steelers, Tackle Ray Pinney and guards Thorn Dornbrook and Tyrone McGriff, into the lineup. "In the 13 games since they've been here, I've only been sacked five times," Hebert says gratefully.
Another midcourse correction: Instead of having receivers bring in the plays, which would often get lost in the translation, Hebert, who hails from Cut Off and is a rookie out of Louisiana's Northwestern State, now reads en anglais from a crib sheet taped to his wrist. "He can get his numbers out pretty good," says Michigan's Defensive End John Banaszak, still another ex-Steeler. "It's words he has problems with."
In the meantime, Panther Coach Jim Stanley, standing by his young team during the bumbling start, learned how to take advantage of his wide lightning, Carter and Derek Holloway, who finished the season with 20 touchdown catches between them. "Of course you have to try some things to get Anthony the ball," says Stanley. "We moved him around and put him in motion. We try to scratch where we itch, and early we were itching all over."
The Panthers' improvement, plus owner Al Taubman's decision to drop the $14, $12.50 and $11 tickets to $8.50 for the playoff game, lured a crowd of 60,237 to the Silverdome, a league attendance mark. The 3,500 or so bleacher patrons paid $5, which was the regular Silverdome parking concessionaire's fee until Taubman bought up all 12,000 spaces on Thursday so he could charge three bucks per. After all, it shouldn't cost as much to park your car as it does to park your rear, even in the Motor City.
Taubman's reduction of prices helped the Panthers attract fans who knew whose fault it was that this was the first pro football playoff game in Michigan since 1957 in which the state would be represented. Jerry Green, the respected columnist for The Detroit News, made a position-by-position comparison of the new team with the city's NFL franchise and decided the Panthers are better at the skill positions and could play the Lions to a standoff. Banners reading HELLO PANTHERS GOODBYE LIONS and LIONS EAT YOUR HEARTS OUT decked the Silverdome at kickoff. "All week we've been psyching ourselves up by asking each other, 'What's the ticket sales, what's the ticket sales?,' " said Noseguard Dave Tipton on the eve of the game. "We're ecstatic."
So were the fans, who stormed the field with :25 left. "We couldn't hear anything out there," said Invader Coach John Ralston. "The noise caused misfires on a couple of our turnovers. Against a good team like Michigan, you have to play error-free."
In fact, Oakland's biggest blunder may have occurred before the game. Arthur Whittington, the Invaders' leading rusher this season with 1,043 yards, was supposed to sign a new contract with the club before it left Oakland on Friday afternoon. But the Invaders had practice that morning. Whittington claims that he phoned Ralston's office to tell him he'd have to miss the workout to sign the contract. Player Personnel Director Chuck Hutchison answered the phone and, according to Whittington, gave his O.K.
"That wasn't my understanding of the conversation," said Hutchison later. "Art told me he'd go to practice and then take care of the contract." When Whittington didn't show for the workout—or at the Invader offices where his attorney, John Maloney, had gone—Ralston assumed that Whittington was AWOL. On Saturday morning, after Oakland had worked out at the Silverdome, Ralston and Whittington had a 40-minute confrontation. Ralston wouldn't talk about it afterward, but Whittington would. "He told me I wasn't going to play," Whittington said. "I'm a professional athlete, been one for six years [five in the NFL]. They're being childish and acting like this is college. They don't want to win. If he comes and tells me now I'm going to play, I'm not."
The Invaders kept insisting that Whittington remained questionable because of cracked ribs that had kept him out of the two previous games. Not so, according to Whittington, who said, "Oh, I can play with sore ribs."
Whittington did play, but not until late in the second quarter, just about when the Panthers' active four-man linebacking corps began running amok. In the first period Oakland Quarterback Fred Besana had used up more than seven minutes in a 78-yard touchdown drive for a 7-0 lead. But the Invaders needed four cracks to push the ball in from the Michigan two, and the Panther offense seemed inspired by their defense's stubbornness. After the ensuing kickoff, Hebert found Holloway over the middle for 40 yards, setting up Running Back John Williams' five-yard scoring run. With matters tied, the Michigan defense hunkered down.
"Our defense [a 3-4] is a linebacker's defense, geared to mobility," says Tipton. "The three down linemen are supposed to cause enough interference in the offensive line to let the linebackers move in and make the play." The starting backers had 17 tackles, seven assists, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, a sack and an interception; Invader running backs Ted Torosian, Louis Jackson and Whittington combined for only 19 yards on 18 carries. The interception, by Kyle Borland, led to a 38-yard field goal by Novo Bojovic, a Yugoslav emigrant who has gained some notoriety this year by keeping a clove of garlic in his right shoe for good luck.
So Michigan is a team whose flavor is a little Gallic and a little garlic. Hebert finished with 18 completions on 27 attempts for 295 yards. He also threw a goofy interception, a swing pass that Oakland Linebacker David Shaw ran 19 yards for the Invaders' second score. But Hebert laughed it off afterward, pointing out that in this Sunday's championship game in the Mile High City, the same pass would be an overthrow because of the thin air. "And where I come from," he added, "it's below sea level."
In any case, a mile high is far from the epitome of the pits.