Bobby Hebert, the Cajun Cannon, is worked up. This is a normal condition for the 24-year-old, 6'4", 208-pound quarterback from Cut Off, La., particularly when he is talking about his roots. "Yeah, Cut Off from civilization," he says of the town of 3,500, which stands a mere three feet above sea level.
"If there was a recession, the last place it would heet is back home," he says. "We Cajuns could live off de land."
"And so could we," says strong safety David Greenwood of tiny Park Falls, Wis. Greenwood is Hebert's teammate, best friend and personal gadfly on the USFL's Oakland Invaders.
Hebert (pronounced "a-bear") waves disgustedly at Greenwood.
June 30, 1985
"We got crawfish, oysters, sheemp and rabbits," he says. "I caught 96 redfish in two hours near our camp in Grand Isle, I caught a 200-pound blue marlin in de Gulf. We got bullfrogs thees big...." Hebert holds his hands two feet apart."
Hebert pauses for a moment. Greenwood has given up trying to break in.
"I just get emotional," says the Cut Off kid with a smile.
Oh, does he ever. The quarterback with the smile that never stops reminds one mostly of an eager puppy. You know he'll be a show dog soon, but right now he's out there yelping and stirring things up.
Indeed, Hebert, who has thrown for more yards than anyone else in the USFL's brief history, stands alone in this oddball league. He is the USFL's only star free agent. Everybody else of note—Jim Kelly, Herschel Walker, Trumaine Johnson, Kelvin Bryant, etc.—has already been drafted by an NFL team and their rights will shift to those clubs when the player's USFL contract, or the league itself, expires. Hebert, however, never was drafted by the big league and can sign with any team he wants as soon as the Invaders complete their season.
It took a unique set of circumstances for this to occur, but the bottom line now for Hebert—who has made $70,000, $80,000 and $100,000 in his three USFL years—is big cash. For the NFL it is need and greed. Just how badly does any team want him? Will owners who suddenly are mouthing platitudes such as "fiscal responsibility" shove heavy bucks at a man who once threw an in-stride pass, a majestic rainbow that traveled 76 yards in the air, to wide receiver Anthony Carter? Come now.
Greg Campbell, Hebert's agent, has dangled the figure of $5 million for five years—first come, first served. Campbell is quick to add that this is a reasonable request, that Warren Moon, 28, the free-agent quarterback from the Canadian League, got $5.5 million for five years from the Houston Oilers in 1984.
"Bobby's in a unique position," says Campbell. "Nobody has to give up a draft choice or make a huge trade to get him. He's comparable to Moon, only younger."
For better or worse, the USFL is out of this derby. Probably for better. "It's ridiculous," says Mike Keller, the Invaders' director of operations, of Hebert's asking price.
Well, let's see. According to Campbell, 10 NFL teams have expressed interest in signing Hebert. Of those 10, Seattle, Green Bay, Atlanta, New Orleans and the Los Angeles Raiders have hunkered down seriously. The Philadelphia Eagles scouted him, but then the Eagles' interest waned. Word has it that the Raiders, with old Jim Plunkett at the helm and shaky Marc Wilson behind him, are so covetous of Hebert that they will simply let the bidding run its course and then top the best offer. Rumor even has it that Invader head coach Charlie Sumner, a former Raider assistant who still wears his Raiders' Super Bowl XVIII Championship ring, will somehow hand-deliver Hebert to L.A.'s Al Davis. Rumor also has it that Hebert has been secretly signed by the Raiders for weeks.
Sumner laughs at all of it. Campbell denies it. Davis deadpans, "Hebert is a prospect still being evaluated." And that is all he will say.
But is this cheerful, innocent kid worth all the strained silence? On potential alone, yes. Hebert is strong, agile—he once rushed for over 100 yards in his college career at Northwestern (La.) State University—and savvy. "His anticipation of routes really impresses me," says Fred Besana, Oakland's starting quarterback before the merger with Michigan. Hebert quarterbacked the Panthers in his first two USFL seasons.
Michigan chose Hebert largely on potential in the third round of the inaugural 1983 draft, after which he promptly led the Panthers to the first USFL championship. On the way he completed 57% of his passes for 3,568 yards, 27 touchdowns and had only 17 interceptions. He was named the MVP of the championship game, the USFL's outstanding quarterback and its Player of the Year. The reason he had gone so late in the USFL draft was that his school was small and he had missed much of his junior and senior seasons because of injuries. And he didn't get selected at all by the NFL because he couldn't wait for the big league draft—he was married and needed money.
Hebert didn't have an agent then, and the contract he signed—four years, followed by an option year, for relatively little money—has hindered his development ever since. He sat out all of training camp last year in protest, and finally got the last two years of his contract deleted. But sitting out hurt him—he threw three fewer TDs and five more interceptions last year than in '83. Coming to a new team this year did not help, either. Not only was there the new town, the new teammates and the new apartment with rented furniture and bare walls to get used to, but a week before training camp opened, the Invaders' offensive coordinator, Joe Pendry, quit. It was too late to hire a new coach, so Hebert more or less became his own coach, teaching himself an offense he didn't know.
After falling to 4-3-1, the Invaders finally got it together, winning eight of their next nine games and were 12-4-1 with one game remaining, the best record in the USFL. For Hebert, who finally felt comfortable, the numbers started to build nicely.
But there remains something unpolished about this gem. He throws back across the middle too much and he hasn't mastered the control game yet, the dink stuff that moves a team boringly yet relentlessly upfield. Hebert is, after all, the most authentic product of an unpolished league. "He's going to see better corners and better man coverage in the NFL," says Arizona Outlaws safety Bruce Laird, a 12-year NFL veteran who intercepted an Hebert pass in a recent game. "He's going to have a rude awakening."
Hebert already has had one awakening, and it came after his sophomore college season. Though he had played well and the team had an 8-3 record, he sensed something was wrong. "We should have done better," he says. "We had the fastest offense anywhere. We had Joe Delaney, Mark Duper and Victor Oatis, who ran on the NCAA championship 400-meter-relay team."
The problem was that as a full-blooded Cajun, a descendant of those French-Canadian immigrants who settled in the swamps below New Orleans in the late 1700s, Hebert was built for partying.
"Let me tell you a short history of the Cajuns," he implores a visitor in the parking lot outside his apartment.
Teresa, his wife of 3½ years, a former cheerleader at NSU, sighs, picks up their 2½-year-old daughter, Ryan, and finally walks on.
"Can you tell anything short?" she asks. Of course not. The lecture about the joys of Cajun life goes on and on—with great gusto.
"And do you know what dis August 15 is?" Hebert asks, fairly quivering. "It's the two-hundredth anniversary of the Hebert family's landing in New Orleans! There's going to be a beeg party in Cut Off. Relatives will be coming from all over." Is he going to attend?
"I don't know," he says, a bit deflated. "I may be in training camp."