Mourners at funerals in New Orleans often come away from the grave in a strut, their weeping turning to revelry so suddenly as to baffle outsiders. The dance, called the Second Line, is more of the mind than of the feet, the intent being to bury grief with the dead. The ritual is performed mostly at jazz funerals, but the mentality of sudden turnabout from misery pervades the local culture.
An especially giddy Second Line was afoot on Sept. 22, after the New Orleans Saints buried the Minnesota Vikings 26-0 to become 4-0 for the first time in Saints history. On that joyous afternoon at the Superdome, New Orleans fans also reconciled with quarterback Bobby Hebert, who, by holding out all of last season in a contract dispute, had irritated the populace with his apparent preference for playing with some other NFL team that would pay his asking price. The fans' beef with Hebert had been doubly bitter because he had been considered "a good Cajun boy," and that resentment had continued even through the first three victories of this year.
Last week the Second Line made its way to Atlanta; Saints fans piled into cars and buses and planes, and headed for Sunday's game against the Falcons. Now, Atlanta's team may not seem like much to get excited about to NFL fans in other cities, but to the New Orleans faithful the Falcons are the vilest of villains.
The Saints-Falcons rivalry, little known outside the South, has stewed since the late 1970s, when Atlanta was a regular purveyor of heartbreak to New Orleans. In '80, with the Saints struggling and the despised Falcons coming to town, Catholics went to their knees in the grottoes around New Orleans, lighting candles to St. Jude, patron of the hopeless. Still, Atlanta won in a romp, and after that the Falcons were perceived with a certain amount of resignation in New Orleans: It was as if the Falcons were placed on this earth for no real purpose other than to bedevil the Saints.
On Sunday, though, the Falcons were little more than trifling pests, causing merely a twitch of concern when they went ahead 6-3 on a fumble return for a touchdown in the second quarter. Hebert swatted them away with TD passes of 47 and 17 yards to wideout Floyd Turner, and New Orleans tailback Dalton Hilliard, who had missed the game against Minnesota with a hip pointer, finished them off with a 65-yard scoring run. In a typical performance, not so much spectacular as solid, Hebert completed 18 of 29 passes for 197 yards as the Saints won 27-6. He avoided being sacked, scrambled once for 14 yards and did not throw an interception.
New Orleans linebacker Rickey Jackson, who has fought a decade of wars with Atlanta, was so certain of dominance this time that he spared Falcon quarterback Chris Miller when he blindsided him for a sack in the second quarter. "I could have put him out for the rest of the day," Jackson said. As it was, Jackson laid out Miller fairly gently and then issued a warning: "I told him, 'You haven't seen the last of me today.' " Indeed, Jackson got two more sacks, the Atlanta offense never got beyond the New Orleans 37, and the Saints defense extended its streak of quarters without allowing a point to 12. New Orleans fans made up one third of the crowd of 56,556 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and provided three fourths of the noise. And if there was any communication with St. Jude, it was but an invitation to grab a parasol and join the Second Line back to New Orleans.
None of this is to say that the misery so suddenly shed has not been strongly rooted. For most of the Saints' 25 years, their black jerseys had seemed more funereal than ferocious; New Orleans didn't have so much as a winning season until 1987. The Superdome was the birthplace of the Bagheads, the 'Aints—hopelessly loyal fans who showed up masked in brown paper bags because they were ashamed to be seen at Saints games.
Even in 1987, when New Orleans went 12-3, the Vikings humiliated the Saints 44-10 in the NFC wildcard playoff. That was the second of four straight poundings at the hands of Minnesota and the beginning of what was thought to be a Viking jinx among a populace that to this day only half-scoffs at old notions of mojo, gris-gris and sundry hexes. Not until last year did New Orleans reappear in the playoffs, by the thread of an 8-8 record. Again it lost in the first round, 16-6 to the Chicago Bears.
With Hebert sitting out the '90 season, New Orleans was without a savvy veteran quarterback. Steve Walsh, who was in his second year as a pro, was acquired three weeks into the season in a trade with the Dallas Cowboys. Walsh underwent a cram course in New Orleans's offense but couldn't pick up where Hebert, who had guided the Saints to three straight winning seasons, had left off.
Hebert's contract dispute, which wasn't settled until June of this year, began as a disagreement with general manager Jim Finks about Hebert's value to the team and mushroomed into a massive misunderstanding between Hebert and the citizens of New Orleans. While the Saints were slogging into the 1990 playoffs, the private and deeply religious Hebert was visited with a sudden plague of personal tragedy. In one week shortly before Christmas, his beloved maternal grandmother died, his father was diagnosed as having colon cancer, and his 29-year-old sister, Jill, committed suicide. Little sympathy for his private life was shown by a public blind with bitterness toward Hebert. It was all a matter of gumbo ya-ya.
Gumbo ya-ya is both the beauty of and the trouble with New Orleans. It is not a soup but a sentence from one of the West African languages that have influenced local dialects as much as French has. It means "everybody talks at once." Gumbo ya-ya about the Saints year-round, because the NFL is the only pro game in town and football the only sport adored.
Gumbo ya-ya about the Saints starting quarterback, especially when the quarterback is from Lafourche (pronounced la-FOOSH) Parish, just down the bayou, and his seventh-great-grandfather, Etien Hebert, arrived in New Orleans in 1785 during Le Grand Dèrangement, the notorious forced relocation by the British of the French Acadian people—the Cajuns—from what is now Nova Scotia to Louisiana. However, when everybody talks at once, a lot can get lost in translation and gossip. Last year, when Hebert said, "It's time for me to move on," word spread around town that he wanted out of New Orleans and Louisiana as a place to live, not just out of the Saints organization. When he said, "I have to do what I feel is best for me and my family," wildfire gossip had it that he had said he didn't want his three children to grow up in New Orleans, with its economy gutted by the oil bust, its crime rising, its educational system lacking and its population suffering from a general malaise.
At the beginning of this season, when Hebert returned to the Saints for a reported $2.73 million over two seasons-low on the NFL quarterback pay scale, considering his past production, and considerably less than the $2 million a year he had originally asked for—gumbo ya-ya at the Superdome: "Booooooooo!" A big banner hanging in the stadium for the season opener, as well as a letter to the editor of the local Times-Picayune, demanded a public apology from Hebert. "I'm not so prideful that I wouldn't apologize," says Hebert, who is far closer to the good Cajun boy New Orleans first welcomed to the Saints than to the mercenary turncoat imagined in gossip, "but I don't know what they want me to say."
During his holdout he never criticized the local citizenry. Though he and his wife, Teresa, admit they wouldn't have minded living in Los Angeles if Bobby had played for the Raiders—who tried to get him but couldn't work out a deal with the Saints—they say they certainly would have come home to Louisiana after his football playing days were over. So with the populace only partially appeased by his play during the Saints' 3-0 start, Hebert was somewhat surprised when he ran out of the tunnel during introductions for the Viking game and heard more cheers than boos. "I thought, Man, I want to play so well for these people," he says.
One play in the third quarter of that game silenced the lingering Hebert detractors and put the Second Line in motion. Hebert scrambled out of the pocket and noticed running back Craig (Iron-head) Heyward behind him. Hebert improvised and pitched the ball to Heyward, and then became the lead blocker. Hebert didn't try to just get in a defender's way; he threw his slightly sprained right (passing) shoulder with such selfless authority that he knocked Minnesota linebacker Mike Merriweather out of the play. The decibel level all but raised the roof of the Superdome and set aflutter a banner in the upper deck that read:
MO-JO? HEX NO!
GO SAINTS GO
Much of New Orleans's sadness, anger and insecurity were shed in that moment; much was forgotten and forgiven. No one was happier for Hebert than his teammates, who had sympathized with him throughout his holdout. "There isn't a man in this locker room who was upset with Bobby," says linebacker Pat Swilling. "When Bobby came back to the team, I went over and we had a little hug. I've been through that with Jim Finks myself."
Since Hebert's return, the Saints have had a spark, a sense of completeness. With the offense clicking, "it rubs off," says tight end Hoby Brenner. "Now we're giving the defense support. And that's getting them to play even harder and better, knowing they've got an offense that's not going to give the ball away."
The defense, with more experience in the secondary and the return of lineman Frank Warren, who missed last season on a suspension for drug abuse, has set the heralded New Orleans linebacking corps free to pillage. When Swilling heard that Viking quarterback Wade Wilson had compared him with Lawrence Taylor, he wasn't particularly flattered. "I've been in that caliber, I like to think," said Swilling, who in his sixth NFL season is coming off his second straight Pro Bowl appearance.
"We've got four Lawrence Taylor-class linebackers," says Jackson, the leader of what many observers consider the best linebacker unit in the NFL, a group that also includes Vaughan Johnson, Sam Mills and Swilling.
But Hebert is the central figure with whom all other New Orleans players identify. He is a durable all-purpose quarterback who excels at nothing except what needs to be done. "He'll play his ass off for you," says Swilling. "That's what I love about Bobby Hebert. He's just like me. By throwing that block on Merriweather, he showed people he's doing everything he can to win."
One afternoon in the week leading up to the Falcon game, the hit on Merriweather was the furthest thing from Hebert's mind. Driving on the 29-mile causeway across Lake Pontchartrain to his haven from the public in little Mandeville, La., he was thinking of Jill. "She was so beautiful," he said. "She had two college degrees. So talented. It was just the chemical imbalance...."
Although Jill was a career woman admired by the housewives who knew her, "all my sister really wanted, when I look back, was to get married and have a family," Hebert said. "Just the basic pleasures of life." In finally giving up her 10-year fight with depression, she strengthened her brother's values. He became an even stronger family man, certain now that "I play football only because I enjoy it, and because it's the best way I have to provide for my family. I don't need the recognition for my ego."
While he played football and worked toward a business degree at Northwestern (La.) State University in 1982, he, Teresa and their daughter, Ryan, lived on food stamps for four months because he didn't think it right to ask his father, a civil engineer, for help. After being sidelined for most of his senior season with a sprained right wrist and a broken rib, Hebert was picked in the third round of the first USFL draft by the Michigan Panthers, and he signed for a relative pittance by pro quarterback standards—$70,000 the first year—because he didn't have enough money to wait to see where he would be taken in the NFL draft three months later. When the USFL folded after three spring seasons, during which he threw for a total of 81 touchdowns, Hebert was a free agent—no NFL team had drafted him—and he signed with the Saints. He replaced Dave Wilson as the starting quarterback with six games left in the '85 NFL season and won the job outright in training camp the next summer, only to miss most of '86 with a broken foot.
Clearly Hebert has known his share of hard times. And it would seem that Louisianans would have better understood the needs of one of their own during his personal travails of a year ago.
"No," Hebert says with an understanding, forgiving smile, "because, here, the Saints come first."
As the Second Line filed out of Atlanta on Sunday, the Saints relished the thought of a 5-0 start with next Sunday off, but Hebert's aim was "to try not to get caught up in the hoopla."