NEW ORLEANS – On the night they came for Bobby Hebert they brought a policeman to take him away. Can you believe that? A policeman. And the voice of Louisiana sports looked with shock upon the men from LSU about to eject him from their press box. They were tossing him out? Seriously? The host of the biggest sports talk show in New Orleans, during the biggest moment of the biggest game of the year? And they called a policeman? A policeman? For Bobby Ehh-Bearrrr? They were only throwing him out of their press box, not sending him to Angola, but still. The Cajun Cannon getting tossed?
The school's sports information official said there had been complaints; that all the cheering Hebert was doing earlier this month for LSU during the Alabama game was a distraction and a direct violation of press box protocol prohibiting such outbursts. The LSU official said other journalists in the box had noticed. "Belligerent," is how one would describe him. And how could they not help but see? When a 6-foot-4 onetime Saints quarterback pounds on the table in front of him and shouts game commentary in a Cajun accent as thick as an alligator's spine, it's hard to ignore.
Then again this is a different place from the other sports cities in the United States. Where a sports talk host getting tossed from a press box might seem irresponsible elsewhere, people in this market give their talk shows names like: "The Sports Hangover." It is a world in which Hebert has become larger than life no matter what he does. And why weeks after the Alabama game, the memory makes him laugh. Not because he was thrown out. Or because the story about his ejection went viral. Or even because a policeman was called, though he is still shocked about that.
What amuses Hebert is that anyone considers his ejection a big deal.
"They better never come to a Saints game," he says. "Compared to what I did at that Jets game this was nothing."
"What I did at the Jets game, now that was out of hand," he continues. "This wasn't out of hand."
Indeed, Hebert's actions in the Superdome press box on the afternoon of Oct. 4, 2009 were a bit much. When the Saints turned a fumble into a touchdown, Hebert leaped from his seat, shouted to the crowd and made exaggerated uppercuts with his fist.
That was even worse than his 47-second diatribe on the LSU offense directed at Tigers coach Les Miles in the postgame news conference of last January's BCS title game, for which Hebert received swift and strong and national criticism. And it still befuddles the man who held the microphone that night – as if ranting about the offense in a media session was a natural thing to do.
"I made a statement and then asked a question," Hebert says. "That's ridiculous. I mean how can you not? ... So that's why I challenged him. I think a lot of times people won't do that because it's not professional and they could be intimidated. What's Les Miles going to do to me? Come on."
And so when the LSU people showed up with the policeman in the press box, a single thought hit Hebert: This has nothing to do with cheering in a room of working journalists.
"They don't want me in their postgame press conference."
Outside the press box the policeman who ejected Bobby wished him a good night. And the man with the radio show nobody wants to miss slowly walked away. He could have knocked on the door of any number of luxury suites owned by friends, associates or listeners. But he had a Saints pregame show to do in the morning. It was getting late. He walked out to his SUV, turned the game on the radio and drove home to New Orleans.
And he knew the thousands who listen to his show on WWL radio couldn't care less about what had just happened.
"If you ask people around here they think it's hilarious," says Ralph Alexis, a Saints fan from the New Orleans suburb of Metairie.
He is talking about the aforementioned episodes and a one-game press box suspension from LSU for another outburst a few years ago, all of which add up not to an indictment of an out-of-control ex-player but a kind of cult of Bobby. The more outlandish the story, the funnier it becomes. For instance, Alexis was turned off by the attack of Miles considering Hebert's son T-Bob was a member of the team. "He abused his media credentials," Alexis says. But when asked about the Alabama game, he replies: "I thought that was pretty funny he actually got kicked out of the press box."
Perhaps if there was no currency built up by those years as Saints quarterback, which happened to coincide with the first great period in team history, things would be different. Maybe if he wasn't from here, raised an hour away in the Louisiana town of Cut Off – a name that sums everything up – they would tune him out.
Instead they cherish him. They see him as a seamless transition from the famed Buddy Diliberto, the city's legendary, eccentric sports talk show host who died in 2005. They talk about Hebert's LSU and Saints pregame shows as if they are can't miss radio – in part for the insight and in part for the rambling diatribes and delicious tangents that can veer, well almost anywhere.
"Unintended comedy," Alexis calls it.
Everybody, it seems, has a Bobby story. Like the night the Saints won the Super Bowl and fans drove around in their cars, going nowhere, just to listen to him sum up the game which he did repeatedly in a four-word phrase: "That's an ass kicking!"
They don't care that the shows often come from bars or casinos and the conversation seems to stray the longer Hebert is on the air. "That's just Bobby," they say. And if they hear Hebert has been tossed from a press box, or some other foolheaded thing, they shrug. "Well that's Bobby," they say again.
"I think the fans embrace that," Hebert says. "They look at me as the common man."
So then what about Les Miles?
"The thing with Miles, hey I was just asking what the fans want to know," Hebert explains. "And he still never gave an answer."
To anyone who watched LSU's lethargic 21-0 loss to Alabama in the title game, Hebert's question was not unnecessary. The Tigers were hopeless against a team they had beaten on the road earlier in the season. The gameplan seemed tepid as if they were afraid of losing by a bigger score than they already were. What Hebert asked was indeed what many people were wondering.
"I know this and I actually believe this, and people say 'oh come on;' but I know I've forgotten more football than Les Miles knows," he says. "If you could bring me down and call plays and know what you're doing. I would never make that statement about Sean Payton. Come on, I know. But I know when the defense is doing this and blitzing how are you going to attack it? What you need to do? Like its 3rd-and-10 against Alabama, you're going to run the option? Come on. You can get away with that against Washington. When you're playing Alabama and you have 15 NFL players, well so do they. And you got to have some imagination."
"With the success that Les Miles has had he is probably in the history of football the most successful unloved coach I have ever seen," he adds. "To dominate and as much as he has had success [to] have people not think he walks on water? No, it's unbelievable."
A call to LSU sports information director Michael Bonnette asking about Hebert for this story was not returned.
Not that Hebert would care what LSU or anyone else had to say. He thinks someone should put him and Miles in a room together and they can diagram plays on a white board. They could put it on TV.
"People would watch that in Louisiana," he says.
To understand Bobby Hebert you must know how he arrived. You must realize the wheels of money and power and Louisiana politics that pulled him from the Bayou to Northwestern Louisiana State to the USFL and eventually New Orleans. You must see how he has twice been the prodigal son in this Catholic city. And you must know that he has been redeemed.
He tells the story as he drives toward the Mississippi casino where he will do his show. It's the Monday after the Saints' first game this season and even though they lost, the afternoon is pure New Orleans: warm, sunny and humid. His voice booms as he rolls through the traffic on Interstate 10.
"So you wanna know how I became the Cajun Cannon?" Bobby asks.
He went from college to the Michigan Panthers, bypassing the NFL, because it was 1983 and the NFL draft of John Elway and Dan Marino. There were no guarantees in the NFL and the Panthers in the new USFL were dangling $150,000 that he could put in his pocket right then. He had a new wife, they were expecting a baby, what could he say? He took the cash.
Bobby won a championship with the Panthers that first year but at the end of the next season the Panthers were folded into the Oakland Invaders. He was ready to sign a contract with the Seattle Seahawks when Louisiana's omnipotent Gov. Edwin Edwards – a man whose bargaining prowess landed him 10 years in federal prison for racketeering – interjected. Edwards figured the Saints needed a local boy as its quarterback and he persuaded the team's new owner, Tom Benson, to agree.
He convinced Hebert of the same, phoning him one night and declaring: "You don't need to go to Seattle, there's no Cajuns down there!"
By the time Hebert's agent was done with the Saints, Hebert had a $1.3 million signing bonus. By 1987 he was the starting quarterback and had New Orleans in the playoffs for the first time ever, beginning a six-year run that stood until 2006 as the Saints' golden era. It was a perfect time. The Saints were winning, a kid from the Bayou was the quarterback. Nothing could ruin their joy.
That is until the spring of 1990 when the Saints' miserly general manager Jim Finks tried to use Bobby's status as a restricted "Type B" free agent to squeeze him in contract negotiations.
"He didn't want to pay anybody $1 million," Bobby says. "He told me: 'If I was here when we signed you, you wouldn't have gotten the money.' At that time we had the Dome Patrol – [Patrick] Swilling and all those guys – and they all said to me: 'If you don't get paid now none of us will.'
"That's why I sat out the whole year."
It was an awful '91 season. The Saints fell to 8-8, Steve Walsh was the quarterback, the fans hated Bobby and Finks both. Neither side would give. Two years later, long after Hebert and the Saints finally signed a new deal, Bobby joined a lawsuit against the league. And while the suit was named after a Jets running back named Freeman McNeil, Hebert's testimony in federal court was critical in helping to overturn Plan B.
But the wounds didn't heal. In 1993 he broke Saints fans hearts again by signing with their most bitter rival, the Atlanta Falcons. He stayed in Atlanta for 12 years, finishing his career in '96, raising his family, slowly working his way into radio when Diliberto called and asked him to help on his show.
Not long after he came, Diliberto died, then Katrina roared, the city broke and built itself back together again and any resistance to the quarterback who left them twice was gone. The Cajun Cannon had come home again and in the end that's all that really mattered.
"If you look at his career, he's done things that would make you hate him, Saints fans should hate him," Saints fan Alexis says. "But we love him and that says something about him. Maybe that's because he's from here."
Mike Detillier, who is one of Bobby's co-hosts on WWL, has trouble understanding the criticism of Hebert – especially when it comes to Miles.
"He asked a question most people didn't have the guts to ask Les," he says.
Detillier thinks much of the scorn comes locally, from the market that has always seemed to embrace eccentricity and controversy as a means of daily existence.
"I think there is a little bit of jealousy and hater mentality," Detillier says. "He didn't go to the big schools to learn to write and all the big broadcast schools to learn how to become successful. He was just a jock."
Hebert agrees. He often says he doesn't know how to properly ask a question in a news conference. He says he was never trained. He says he does everything on instinct, asking himself only one question: Is this something the fans would want?
"I'm in uncharted territory," he says. "The fans say 'we've heard enough from the professional journalists.' They want to hear from a common man."
The way Hebert sees it; he's doing something many other journalists won't. He's asking the tough questions – albeit in an unconventional manner. Too many others, he says, are conflicted. They worry about angering coaches or advertisers, they worry about their salaries and benefits and all the things that are necessary for life in an industry on the brink. Yes, he roots hard for his old team the Saints – something the team handled by moving him to a corner of the Superdome's new press box where his outbursts can't be seen by the sports writers. But he also doesn't hold back his criticism. "The Saints don't pay me," he likes to say. He is, he says, his own man.
"I can tell you this right now I'm not in a situation when I made money like quarterbacks do today but I'm not in any debt," he says. "I don't have to worry about no kids. I don't have to worry about feeding my family. If I did I might have to bargain a little bit. How are they going to hurt me? What are they going to do? I've got money saved up. I just take that approach that I tell it like it is and not be controlled like a puppet."
The Silver Slipper Casino looms impenetrable on the edge of the Mississippi coast not far from Bay St. Louis. Some of the worst of Katrina's wrath was felt here and the odd absence of civilization near the casino's perimeter is a testament to the fury of a storm that wiped out much within a mile of the shore. The Gulf surged, the Gulf receded and still the Silver Slipper remained, a gleaming, watermarked testament to the fact that it will someday outlast us all.
Hebert does his Monday afternoon show here on a stage set up behind a bar in the front. To reach it, he must traverse the jungle of blinking, clanging, jingling machines; pass the restrooms with receptacles for used IV hookups; and pass the bar with slot machines at every stool.
The show is classic Bobby. He is disgusted with the Saints' effort in the previous day's defeat. In the distance the Wheel of Fortune Game spontaneously erupts: "Wheeeeeel of Fortunnnnnnne!" just like the TV show and Bobby screams over the din in his Cajun whine.
"They lait an ost'ich egg!" he shouts, talking about the Saints the day before. "It was soooo big it wasn't even a chick'n egg, it was an ost'ich egg."
"The fans stood up and were ready to sing 'Stand Up and Get Crunk' but instead they were saying: 'We're in a funk!' " he cried.
Calvin Bartholomew, a local resident who used to live in New Orleans, smiles while sitting in a row of chairs below.
"When a player is playing bad he'll say it," Bartholomew says. "He calls it as it is. A lot of people like that about him."
"I wonder sometimes if he should be a coach," he adds.
As if on cue, Hebert shouts into the microphone: "We got a bunch of defensive players who are going through the motions."
When the show ends several hours later, Hebert climbs down from the stage and moves through a small crowd of fans who want to talk to him. Some clutch photographs they want him to sign. An elderly man wants to give him a 35-year-old book about the game's greatest quarterbacks. Another, John Doors, a dentist from Waveland, Miss., just wants to say hello because Bobby is so folksy on the air it's almost like they share a long-distance friendship over the radio.
"I love what he does with the English language."
Once someone tried to get Bobby to lose his Cajun accent. This came in Atlanta when he was done playing and just beginning to find his way into broadcasting. He spoke to a producer from TBS. The network was starting to get into college football telecasts and the man sounded interested. Bobby could be good, he said … if only he would lose the Cajun twang. Such a thing would never play nationwide.
No, Bobby said, he would not go to any school to stop talking the way he has his entire life. This was the tongue of his people. He was not about to change it. If losing the accent meant not being on national television well that was fine. He wouldn't be on national TV. He's always figured he was more a local guy anyway.
"They could have stuck him in a Russian prison for 25 years and he'd still come out sounding like him," Detillier says.
Bobby has left the Silver Slipper now. It's late. Night has fallen and the ribbon of highway before him turns into the long, lonely causeway over Lake Pontchartrain. He stares into the inky blackness around him. He thinks sometimes that people focus so much on the style of his show, talking about his antics, that they don't see how much he works. How many times does he say: "This is an unbelievable stat …" before delivering some fact nobody knew?
They hear him ramble from a booth at a restaurant but they don't see the time at home spent on the internet, devouring facts, searching for explanations. For every hour he is on the air, he figures he has to do an hour of background.
"I work with a lot of former players locally and nationally and nobody puts the amount of work he puts in," Detillier says. "He puts a lot of background in and is willing to listen to somebody else's opinion."
Or as Bobby says: "If I'm talking about a subject I want to know what the hell I'm talking about."
Then Bobby Hebert pauses for a moment.
"A lot of people wondered why it would work out," he says. "A lot of the old-school people who were so used to Buddy Diliberto they say they couldn't have found a better person: 'You're perfect because we feel like you're our voice and you're telling it like it is.' And from Day 1 whatever I've told them is my opinion. If it wasn't my opinion I told them straight up it wasn't. I'll tell you what I haven't been burned yet."
And with that Bobby Hebert guns his SUV over the causeway, toward the distant glow of New Orleans, the city he loves; the city that loves him back.
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