Ride Of His Life Though he fell short in the Super Bowl, the Panthers' Jake Delhomme played with a passion that captivated fellow Cajuns

March 08, 2004
March 08, 2004

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March 8, 2004

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Ride Of His Life Though he fell short in the Super Bowl, the Panthers' Jake Delhomme played with a passion that captivated fellow Cajuns

They left Houston the morning after the Super Bowl and flew back
to Charlotte and met one last time as a team before calling it
a season. Jake Delhomme had lost 10 pounds since training camp
opened last July, and the skin on his arms was red with turf
burns, and a head cold complicated by exhaustion had him blowing
every few minutes into a pile of tissue. At the Carolina
Panthers' training facility Delhomme and his teammates had to
undergo exit physicals with team doctors, but all that really
meant was answering a single question: Are you hurt? ¶ "I'm
sore," Delhomme replied when his turn came, "and my heart is
hurt. But other than that, I'll see you in April."

This is an article from the March 8, 2004 issue Original Layout

Delhomme's wife, Keri, and their 13-month-old daughter, Lauren,
were already back in Breaux Bridge, La., and now the quarterback
loaded up his black Lexus for the 12-hour drive home. He'd had
only two hours of sleep, and though his body had little juice
left, his mind was working overtime. Carolina's 32-29 last-second
loss to the New England Patriots kept visiting him in flashes so
clear he might've been watching game tape.

Although Delhomme had played brilliantly in the last three
quarters--he had passed for 211 yards in the final period alone,
finishing 16 of 33 for 323 yards and three touchdowns--he kept
returning to his desultory performance to start the game.
Delhomme had completed only one of his first nine passes, a play
that had netted one yard. The incompletions bothered him so much
that, somewhere on the road home, he reached for his cellphone
and called Mike McCoy, his position coach. When McCoy didn't
answer, Delhomme left a message. "I told him, 'I don't know if
you watched the tape yet, but call me back,'" Delhomme says. "I
wanted to go over the missed passes. I wanted to see what
might've been, just to know."

Delhomme was wearing a baseball cap with the brim pulled low, and
when he stopped for gas, he paid with a credit card at the pump.
In the days leading up to the game the entire world had learned
that his name is pronounced Duh-LOME, not DELL-home, but on this
day nobody recognized him or gave him a second look.

Less than 24 hours before, his counterpart with the Patriots, Tom
Brady, had been named Super Bowl MVP, but it was Delhomme who'd
won America's heart with his fiery play. It was Delhomme, in
fact, who'd made it a game, rallying his team from an 11-point,
fourth-quarter deficit with three scoring drives, the second of
which--he floated an 85-yard touchdown pass to wideout Muhsin
Muhammad--had briefly put the Panthers ahead. It was the longest
play from scrimmage in Super Bowl history.

Delhomme drove until almost 11 p.m. and spent the night in
Birmingham, at the home of a high school friend. Then he was up
early and driving again.

One interstate led him to another, and finally at three o'clock
in the afternoon he exited at Breaux Bridge, "The Crawfish
Capital of the World," a town of about 7,200 in the heart of
Louisiana's Cajun country. Delhomme hadn't been home in more than
six months, and as he drove through town, he noticed things that
hadn't been there before. A billboard on the main strip, for
instance, showed Delhomme in his Carolina uniform. wow, it said
simply. Shop windows were decorated with messages wishing him
well, and small signs saying we love jake were in yards
everywhere he looked. The town, only two hours west of New
Orleans, was traditionally a Saints' stronghold. But here it was
festooned in Carolina blue, Delhomme's jersey number 17 brushed
on plate-glass windows in big, bold strokes.

Delhomme hung a right at the Wal-Mart and drove by Bayou Teche,
swollen and muddy from weeks of winter rain, then past
restaurants and dance halls with marquees saying geaux jake. A
mile or so outside of town he turned onto a limestone drive and
motored a few hundred feet to his house. The modest, ranch-style
cottage with a shady front porch had once belonged to his
paternal grandparents. It stood in the middle of a hay pasture.
He grew up next door, in the house with the barn, and his parents
still live there.

Delhomme was so sore he had a hard time getting out of the car.
Keri came out and greeted him with a kiss; Lauren was taking a
nap, so they whispered when they entered the house. In the living
room the TV was tuned to live coverage of the Patriots' victory
parade in Boston. Thousands stood pressed together along a route
that ended at City Hall with team owner Robert Kraft hoisting the
Lombardi Trophy.

Delhomme stood watching in silence. "You sure that isn't us
having a parade?" he said to Keri. Then he went in the other room
to have a look at his little girl.

unless you grew up in southern Louisiana, it might be hard to
fully appreciate the beauty and significance of the Jake Delhomme
story. The state has produced other Super Bowl quarterbacks, game
MVPs Terry Bradshaw and Doug Williams among them, but Delhomme,
29, is the first full-blooded Cajun to have led a team to the
title game. Bobby Hebert helped New Orleans land its first
playoff berth in 1987, but the Saints and the Cajun Cannon, as
Hebert was called, lost in the wild-card round.

On Feb. 1, when Delhomme ran onto the field at Houston's Reliant
Stadium, he carried with him more than the dreams of a single
man. Fans of the Panthers wanted the win, of course, but the
greater yearning belonged to the Cajuns, who had found in
Delhomme a hero unlike any since Ron Guidry of Lafayette was
throwing fireballs for the New York Yankees. Kind and big-hearted
and nice to look at, Delhomme had overcome a career filled with
rejection and adversity to reach the Super Bowl in his first year
as an NFL starter. In many respects his story paralleled the
story of the Cajuns, and to his fortunes his people had hitched
their dreams. While the rest of the nation regarded Delhomme's
accent with a mix of amusement and curiosity, to the Cajuns back
home it was like hearing music being played right for the first

"If you'd just seen the Cajun people pulling for him," says
Breaux Bridge mayor Jack Dale Delhomme, Jake's second cousin. "We
had grandmothers pulling for him, people who knew nothing about
football pulling for him. The phones at City Hall were ringing
off the hook. 'Hey, Mayor, when y'all going to have a parade for
Jake?' Man, we pulled for Jake."

Run out of Nova Scotia more than two centuries ago by the
English, the earliest Cajuns were mostly farmers who in the 1760s
settled on the prairies in the lower half of Louisiana and came
to call the area Acadiana. Most of them, like Delhomme's
forebears, were Catholics whose native language was French.
Others derisively called them "coonasses" and by the 1940s
attempted to rid Cajuns of what made them different. The worst of
it was when Cajun children were spanked for speaking French in

Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme showed everyone how to blacken fish in
a cast-iron skillet, and former Miss USA Ali Landry became famous
as the Doritos girl. But too few notable figures exhibited the
one quality that Cajuns liked to identify as most common to their
kind. "Passion, baby," says Mayor Delhomme. "The enthusiasm for
life, the joy in living every moment--that's who the Cajun people
are. Remember, you're not born with passion--it's a learned
process. Jake exemplifies it more than others, and he
demonstrates it more than others. You watch him play and, boy, he
has that passion and it catches on."

Hours before Super Bowl XXXVIII, Delhomme went out to inspect the
playing surface. Across the field he spotted Patriots running
back Kevin Faulk and walked over to say hello. Faulk, who grew up
in Carencro, La., a small Acadiana town about 10 miles from
Breaux Bridge, wrapped Delhomme in a hug. "I hear it's pretty
crazy back home," Delhomme said, and both players laughed.
"That's our people, Kevin."

"That's why we love them," Faulk said.

the people on both sides of Delhomme's family are Cajun. Their
names are Bienvenu, Olivier, Landry and Delhomme, which
translated means "of the man." The Delhommes are so thoroughly a
part of Acadiana that in 1978 Jake's grandfather Sanders Delhomme
was recruited to appear in a film about a Louisiana quarterhorse
trainer called Casey's Shadow. He played a character named "old
Cajun." As the movie opens, he is seen in a country bar playing
cards and exchanging dialogue in French with Walter Matthau.

Sanders, whose first language was French, "spoke English, but it
was broken," says Jerry Delhomme, Jake's father. Sanders liked to
wear Stetsons and Western-style suits, and he carried himself
with a deportment that let everyone know he was a man of
consequence. "I'm seeing a lot of Sanders in Jake," says Jake's
mother, Marcia. "He looks more like my daddy, Herman Bienvenu,
but Jake has a lot of the qualities that Sanders had: I'm in
control, I'm the boss, I'm doing what I want to do."

"I used to catch the school bus across the street at my Aunt
Jean's, and I'd get mad at her and I'd get mad at Daddy because
they didn't teach me French," says Jake. "'Y'all should've spoken
to us in French in the mornings,' I'd say. The sad thing is, we
hardly ever hear it anymore unless the old-timers get to

On his first morning back in Breaux Bridge, Delhomme got up early
and walked next door to look at his father's stable of horses.
Cars driving by blew horns at him in recognition. Some were
cousins, others friends from town. Jake has 34 first cousins, 21
of them Delhommes, most still living in the area. His older
brother, Jeff, a painting contractor, lives just up the road in
the big brick house with columns. "Everybody knows me here," Jake
says. "They knew me before I left in July and they'll always know
me. Just because I was on a good team that made it to the Super
Bowl, I haven't changed. As soon as the grass starts to grow,
I'll be on my riding lawn mower. People will stop and I'll wave,
but don't expect me to get off. I didn't get off before and I
won't be getting off now."

Jerry is a food-safety supervisor for the state Department of
Agriculture and Forestry, and Marcia is a bookkeeper for the
school board. Jerry and his two sons, along with partner June
Calais, own a small stable of thoroughbreds that run at area
tracks. As a youngster Jake was so steeped in Acadiana's horse
culture that he wanted to be a jockey when he grew up. He would
put on a helmet, silks and goggles, straddle the back of the
living-room sofa and wail away at it with a whip. Finally Jerry
told his son to look in the mirror. "You're 70 pounds now and
you're almost at jockey weight, so you need to start thinking
about something else," he said.

As a boy, beginning when he was nine, Jerry had ridden quarter
horses at Acadiana "bush tracks." The match races paired horses
in sprints of several hundred yards. Sanders owned a track on the
outskirts of Breaux Bridge, in an area called Anse la Butte.
There were no bleachers, so spectators brought lawn chairs and
sat in the shade of oak trees that ran the length of the track.
People made wagers and passed cash around along with cans of
ice-cold beer.

"When Jeff and Jake were growing up, I was always in the barn,"
Jerry says, "and they saw that you have to be disciplined when
you train horses. Horses need to eat at a certain time, exercise
at a certain time. You can't do it one day and not do it the next
day. If you cheat on them, they'll cheat on you. I think the boys
recognized the work ethic in training horses, and I think they
related it to sports. Those boys didn't cheat when it came to
sports. They knew there were no shortcuts."

When Jake was in the fourth grade, Jerry hung a rope from a tree
in the backyard and tied an old tire to it. There Jake worked on
his arm strength and accuracy by throwing from different
distances as the tire swung left and right. The tire is long
gone, but Jake still practices his passing in the pasture with
Jeff. "I have to wear gloves, and we don't tackle each other
anymore," says Jeff, a former standout receiver at McNeese State.
"Those are the only differences from when we were growing up."

Jake started dating Keri Melancon when the two were in ninth
grade. She was a Cajun girl from nearby Lafayette with blond hair
and big blue eyes. Except for a few short breakups when they were
in college, they have been a couple ever since. "Jake was bones
when I met him," Keri says. "I remember his little skinny self.
You'd look at him through his face mask and see all these bones.
He'd get the snap and drop back and get sacked. He was always on
the ground."

Even as a senior in 1993 at Teurlings Catholic, a small school in
Lafayette, Delhomme weighed only 165 pounds. Although he'd thrown
for 6,703 yards and 65 touchdowns in four years, the state's
major colleges were more impressed by a pair of juniors, Josh
Booty of Shreveport and Peyton Manning of New Orleans. With few
options available Delhomme went to Southwestern Louisiana, now
called Louisiana-Lafayette. He started as a freshman for the
Ragin' Cajuns and finished four years later as the state's
alltime college passing leader, with 9,216 yards. Cajuns thought
he was the best thing going, but after his senior year the NFL
didn't invite him to its scouting combine in 1997, let alone
draft him.

In the hours after a draft during which 11 quarterbacks were
selected, Delhomme hoped to hear from teams looking to sign him
as a free agent, but no calls came. His only option appeared to
be the Canadian Football League, but then the Saints released Jim
Everett and suddenly had a hole to fill at quarterback. They
called Delhomme, who'd stood out at the club's Louisiana Day, an
open tryout in March '97 for area talent. In his first two years
in New Orleans, Delhomme languished on the practice squad. But
eager to prove himself, he spent the two off-seasons in NFL

Allocated to the Amsterdam Admirals in '98, he called Keri every
night from his hotel room and complained about the food and being
homesick. Worse, he was stuck playing behind a reserve for the
St. Louis Rams named Kurt Warner. If he couldn't start ahead of a
former Arena Football League quarterback, Jake said to Keri, how
could he expect to play for the Saints? He almost gave up. "I
always came back to saying, 'I'm not a quitter,'" he says. "It
was only a 10-week season, and by week four or five I was saying,
'O.K., you only have a few weeks left. Stick it out.'"

The next summer he played for the Frankfurt Galaxy and split time
with Pat Barnes, a backup for the Oakland Raiders, and the Galaxy
beat the Barcelona Dragons in the league title game. Delhomme,
only a year removed from the worst time of his life as a player,
had the best time of his life as a player. In one game against
Amsterdam he experienced an epiphany of sorts during a
fourth-quarter drive. With 10 seconds left he threw a touchdown
pass, but it was called back because of a penalty, and the Galaxy
lost. However, Delhomme suddenly understood how to manage his
team and the clock with the game on the line. "Right then and
there the way I handled that drive," he says, "I knew that was
how I had to play every game. I felt calm and controlled. I felt
like, Don't put too much pressure on yourself, and in the future
if there's a time when you're nervous, go back to that drive."

When Delhomme reported to the New Orleans camp later that summer,
he was determined to make the roster as no less than the third
quarterback. But he was among coach Mike Ditka's final cuts. "I
can remember Jake sitting in the living room after being cut,
just devastated," says Marcia. "He would say, 'They're going to
call me back.' Jake was always a planner. He's not one to sit
back and let things happen. He'd planned to devote his life to
playing football."

"It's weeks later and I'm living with Mama and Daddy and watching
Sunday night football, New Orleans versus Jacksonville," Delhomme
says. "Billy Joe Tolliver is in at quarterback for the Saints. He
gets hit and goes down. He tries to get up, takes one or two
steps and goes down again. Billy Joe's a tough guy, that's not
like him. My heart starts pumping. I was hurting for him because
he was my best friend on the team, but I knew that if ever there
was going to be an opportunity for me, this was it."

Two days later, Delhomme got the call from Charles Bailey, the
Saints' assistant general manager. Delhomme laughs when he
recalls the conversation: "'Jake, this is Charles. You in shape?'
'Yes, sir.' 'Then get your butt down here.'" He started two
games, and in the first he led New Orleans to a 31-24 win over
the Dallas Cowboys, throwing for two touchdowns and running for
another score.

Ditka and his staff were fired at season's end. Owner Tom Benson
hired Jim Haslett as coach, and Haslett brought in Mike McCarthy
as offensive coordinator. Delhomme credits McCarthy with
preparing him to play quarterback in the NFL, but it appeared he
was destined to forever be a reserve. On Feb. 11, 2000, Jake and
Keri's wedding day, the Saints signed former Cincinnati Bengals
passer Jeff Blake, then later in the spring they drafted Marc
Bulger in the sixth round. There was more bad news for Delhomme
during camp when New Orleans acquired talented young quarterback
Aaron Brooks in a trade with the Green Bay Packers. Sure enough,
in the 10th game, after Blake went down with a foot injury,
Haslett replaced his starter with Brooks.

"I guess they thought Aaron had more athletic ability," Delhomme
says. "I understood the decision. Like I told Mike and Haz, I'm
not going to rock the boat. I'm going to pull for Aaron, I'm
going to work with him. Whatever Coach says, goes."

Brooks was spectacular in leading the Saints to a division title
and the first playoff victory in franchise history. But the next
year the team failed to make the playoffs. And in 2002, during a
game in which New Orleans would improve to 9-4, Brooks suffered a
rotator-cuff injury to his throwing shoulder, and the Saints
began to falter. Needing one win to make the playoffs, they
stayed with Brooks and lost three straight to end the season. In
Acadiana, Cajuns were waving in disgust at their television sets.
"That really turned the area off," says Jack Dale Delhomme.
"People were outraged. Everybody knew Jake would've won at least
one of those last three games, if not all of them."

Panthers offensive coordinator Dan Henning says one reason
Delhomme might not have gotten a shot in New Orleans was that
he's a better player in games than in practice. "Until you see
Jake play under fire," Henning says, "you can't really appreciate
the guy. And I mean the hotter the fire, the more appreciative
you get. He plays much better when the heat was on him than I
think anybody I've ever coached, and I've coached a lot of guys
[including Super Bowl quarterbacks Joe Namath, Joe Theismann and
Doug Williams]. Jake might look sloppy starting out, but when the
game is on the line, almost invariably, he delivers."

After the 2002 season finale, Delhomme left the Superdome knowing
he had probably worn a New Orleans uniform for the last time. The
team wanted him back, but Delhomme, an unrestricted free agent,
"wanted to see what was out there." His top salary had been
$595,000, and he had thrown all of 86 passes in the NFL. "I had a
pretty good idea there'd be opportunities," Delhomme said, "and I
knew I'd never get a chance to play in New Orleans unless
something happened." Complicating his decision was the birth of
Lauren in December. The couple liked knowing that they had family
nearby to help with their daughter.

One day, before Delhomme met with Panthers coach John Fox in
Charlotte and Cowboys coach Bill Parcells in Dallas, Jake and
Keri checked out the housing market in Old Metairie, in suburban
New Orleans. "We were saying, 'What if we could stay,'" Keri
recalls. "Jake said, 'If you want me to, Keri, I'll call the
Saints today and we'll stay. I'll make decent money as a backup.'
Maybe deep down Jake would've always wanted to be a Saint. But he
wanted the opportunity to start for somebody more than he wanted
a new house."

The Cowboys, according to Delhomme's agent, Rick Smith, promised
to let Delhomme compete for the starting job with Quincy Carter
and Chad Hutchinson. The Panthers made a more enticing offer: $4
million over two years and a chance to start.

In the preseason Carolina fans couldn't pronounce Delhomme's name
or figure out his accent. (Brooklyn? South Boston?) They got to
know him better in the Panthers' regular-season opener, against
the Jacksonville Jaguars. Down 17-0 in the third quarter, Fox
brought Delhomme off the bench to replace a struggling Rodney
Peete. Delhomme sparked the Panthers and won the game, 24-23, on
a 12-yard touchdown pass to wideout Ricky Proehl with 16 seconds
left. It would be only the first of many such comebacks. In the
regular season Delhomme put together seven game-winning drives on
Carolina's last possession, completing a combined 22 of 29 passes
for 232 yards and two touchdowns. One of those wins came in
overtime against the Saints at the Superdome, Delhomme's second
triumph in as many tries over his former team. In the playoffs
Delhomme beat St. Louis with a 69-yard touchdown pass to wideout
Steve Smith in the second overtime.

The demand in Acadiana for information about Delhomme was so
great that area newspapers, all but ignoring the Saints, ran game
stories about the Panthers and wet-kiss features about its
dazzling Cajun quarterback, whom sportswriters took to comparing
to Seabiscuit. Carolina's games were carried live on a Lafayette
radio station. In Breaux Bridge, TV satellite dishes popped up on
rooftops, as Delhomme's games weren't available otherwise.

Jack Dale Delhomme, the mayor, recalls that Sunday in September
when Jake's life changed forever. "Jake's dad calls me at home,"
he says. "Usually Jerry is pretty excitable, but he's serious
now, his voice is low. 'What you doin'?' he says. I said, 'What
do you mean what am I doin'?' He said, 'You watching TV?' I said,
'Yeah, I have the Saints on, but they put me to sleep.' He says,
'I'm watching Carolina against Jacksonville and Jake is going in.
Why don't you come over?'"

When the game ended, Jack Dale looked at his cousin and said,
"He's on his way. He's proved to the world he can play. Let's see
what happens now."

delhomme agreed to do it, but only if other players from the area
who'd had good years were included. Domanick Davis, a 1,000-yard
rusher during his rookie season with the Houston Texans, is from
Breaux Bridge. So were a few players on LSU's national
championship team. "Tell me what time to be there, and I'll be
there," Delhomme said, sounding resigned to his fate.

"The parade isn't Jake's kind of deal," explained his father. "He
told me he was put on earth to play football, not ride in
parades. I said to him, 'Jake, you've given the community
something to be proud of. The Cajun people love you. This is
their way of giving back to you. You've got to accept it with a
good heart.'"

The town decided to call it the Parade of Stars, rather than the
Jake Delhomme Parade. Two weeks had passed since the Super Bowl,
but the signs saying we love jake were still everywhere, the shop
windows still painted Carolina blue. Delhomme showed up wearing
his Panthers jersey pulled over a hooded sweatshirt, blue pants
and a baseball cap. He didn't look like a famous football player.
He looked like any other guy from town. That, of course, made
them love him all the more.

First came a police cruiser with flashing lights and cops on
camouflaged ATVs. Next through were the Baton Rouge Young Marines
and the Breaux Bridge High marching band. The men of the Marine
Corps League, decked out in red blazers, followed. And the
handsome fellow behind them was the mayor of a nearby town. The
LSU players rode in the back of a pickup, and fast on the truck's
bumper rolled an antique fire engine loaded with people throwing
candy. Davis came along seated in the rear of an Olds Ninety
Eight convertible. He was dressed in nice clothes, and he had
about him a regal bearing that made some of the girls along the
parade route swoon.

Finally there was Delhomme, riding in an open-top Ford Mustang
with a license plate that read my pony. People tugged at his
jersey, many of them children wearing T-shirts decorated with the
words carolina cajun and an illustration of the quarterback.

Estimates by town officials put the turnout at 6,000, nearly the
entire population of Breaux Bridge, but a small number compared
to the crowd that attended the parade in Boston for the Patriots.
Delhomme rolled across the old bayou bridge with the sign
overhead showing a crawfish set against the American flag. He
rolled down Bridge Street past high school football players who'd
come out wearing their jerseys, sleeves turned up to show off
their muscles. He rode past the downtown shops and the cafe and
he came at last to where Bridge Street intersects with Main

The procession came to a halt, and Delhomme lifted both arms
above his head and gave a mighty wave. He was smiling the smile
of a man who'd been away a long time but who'd finally found his
way home. On the second-floor balcony of a corner store were
members of his family, the Delhommes and the Bienvenus and the
rest, all of them on their feet as the parade lurched forward
again and moved on, everyone calling the quarterback's name.
More NFL coverage, including diaries from draft hopefuls and
Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback, at

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK TOAST OF THE TOWN Delhomme agreed to participate in the Breaux Bridge parade only after other area athletes were included.COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK (INSET)COLOR PHOTO: ACADIANA PROFILE MAGAZINE (3) The Long Haul Barely recruited out of high school and passed over in the draft, Jake Delhomme isn't your typical NFL quarterback. But in his first year as a starter, he led Carolina to a game-winning score on its last drive seven times. 3 YEARS OLDCOLOR PHOTO: ACADIANA PROFILE MAGAZINE (3) [See caption above] JUNIOR HIGHCOLOR PHOTO: ACADIANA PROFILE MAGAZINE (3) [See caption above] HIGH SCHOOLCOLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK (INSET)COLOR PHOTO: ACADIANA PROFILE MAGAZINE COLLEGECOLOR PHOTO: WAYNE PAULO/PHOTO-STOCK LIBRARY INTL. NFL EUROPECOLOR PHOTO: ICON/SMI SAINTSCOLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES PANTHERSCOLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS ARM STRENGTH Despite a slow start, Delhomme passed for 323 yards and three touchdowns in his first Super Bowl.COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK (INSET)COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK (2)COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK (2) BIGGEST FANS With Keri and young Lauren leading the cheers, Delhomme doesn't lack for support at home in Cajun country.

"He plays much better WHEN THE HEAT IS ON than I think anybody
I've ever coached," Henning says of

"Jake wanted the OPPORTUNITY TO START for somebody more than he
wanted a new house," says Keri.