Cover Story

Catching Fire

The New Orleans Saints’ magical dream season earns them The Independent Weekly’s Newsmakers of the Year. When Broadway came to the bayou in early October, former New Orleans Saints quarterback and current WWL 870 AM radio commentator Bobby Hebert was in his customary spot in the New Orleans Superdome, watching the New York Jets play the Saints from the confines of the press box. Cut Off native Hebert, aka “The Cajun Cannon,” was never shy about showing his fiery side during his playing career, but there’s an unwritten edict about press box conduct and etiquette: Media members must remain neutral, and cheering is a big no-no.

The Jets-Saints matchup was one of the most hyped games of Week Four in the 2009 NFL season. The Saints were picked by most national prognosticators to finish behind the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South and miss the playoffs, but came roaring out of the gate to a 3-0 start. The Jets were also surprisingly undefeated, led by a charismatic rookie quarterback from California who was drawing comparisons to Joe Namath. But Saints defensive end Will Smith gave Jets QB Mark Sanchez a welcome-to-the-NFL smackdown in the third quarter, forcing a Sanchez fumble in the end zone that was recovered for a Saints touchdown. The 70,000-plus fans in the Superdome erupted.

So did Hebert. He leaped to his feet and hollered at the top of his lungs, and then for added emphasis made some emphatic arm gestures that summed up his feelings toward the Jets.

“I’m not a part of the media, I’m just a Saints fan and conversationalist,” says Hebert in a phone interview, suppressing a laugh with his halting southwest Louisiana cadence. “So they stick me in a corner of the press box and treat me a little differently. The arm thing, someone called it the Cajun Cannon salute. It’s a Who Dat salute, too. It was sticking it to the Jets, and the whole gesture is part of football — you gotta punch somebody in the mouth.”

It’s hard to fault Hebert for dropping the guise of impartiality and letting his Saints freak flag fly high. He’s a franchise icon, the man who finally led the Saints to winning seasons and their first-ever playoff berths in the late ’80s and early ’90s, only to play second fiddle to the behemoth Joe Montana-era San Francisco 49ers. Like Archie Manning, Hebert fully understands the Saints’ largely tortured history — and he’s another ex-player who parlayed his on-field career into a successful second chapter in broadcasting. In Hebert’s case, he’s ably filled the void left by the death of beloved longtime Saints commentator Buddy Diliberto in 2004, and given fans a local voice who fully understands their unparalleled devotion. Post-Hurricane Katrina, when the Saints returned to playing in the Superdome for a magical 2006 season that took them all the way to the NFC Championship game, Hebert made another lasting contribution to Saints lore.

“It was Dec. 10, 2006, when the Saints went to Dallas,” remembers Hebert. In that matchup, the visiting Saints throttled the Cowboys 42-17 in a nationally televised game. “I was on the air until like 3 in the morning,” he says, “and WWL is so powerful that it broadcasts into 38 states, and we had people calling from Illinois, Virginia, you name it, talking about how awesome it was that the Saints beat the Cowboys. The Cowboys used to be America’s Team, and that’s when I said that there’s a Who Dat Nation out there.”

Running back Pierre Thomas

Photo by Michael C. Hebert

Hebert helped make the Who Dat Nation a wider part of the state’s cultural lexicon — but the last couple of years were rough sailing for the Black and Gold faithful. Head coach Sean Payton’s team missed the playoffs in 2007 and 2008, evoking painful memories of recent Saints regimes that talked the talk but ultimately failed to deliver (see Ditka, Mike, and Haslett, Jim).

The Saints’ trials paled in comparison to the hardship and turbulence that much of Who Dat Nation and the rest of America have gone through in the last two years. The economy and stock market plunged off a cliff; unemployment is above 6 percent in Louisiana and is hovering at 10 percent nationally; higher education is facing serious cuts in Louisiana’s ongoing budget crisis; and health care reform and other critical issues have devolved into bitter, partisan battlegrounds where truth and honest debate are nearly non-existent.

Then Brees threw six touchdowns against the Lions to open the 2009 season. A gritty road win in Buffalo followed. The Giants were victims of a second New York crushing, and fellow major-market heavyweights the Eagles took it on the chin from the Saints, too. NFC South rivals the Falcons, Panthers and Bucs? Dispatched with few obstacles. And somewhere along the line in these glorious Sundays — primarily after Week Six, when the Saints made a huge comeback against the Miami Dolphins that landed them on the cover of Sports Illustrated — the talk of an undefeated season started bubbling up. When the win total crossed into double digits and the Saints administered a thorough thrashing of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football, any pretense of Who Dat restraint went out the window.

With their record now 13-0 and at least one home playoff game and a first-round bye in the cards, Saints fever is inescapable. Television, radio, newspapers, billboards, tricked out trucks, business promotions, newly minted songs, and a slew of jerseys trumpet fleurs-de-lis and the Black and Gold. In keeping with tradition, there are the mottos reflecting Sunday worship: Believe. Faith. Bless You, Boys. And everyone’s asking the familiar question: “Who Dat Say They Gonna Beat Dem Saints?”

For the first time, there isn’t an easy answer. For their remarkable run, and providing so many Louisianans so much joy in turbulent times, the New Orleans Saints are The Independent Weekly’s Newsmaker of the Year.

Wide receiver Devery Henderson

Photo by Michael C. Hebert

“You don’t have to tell me how how crazy the fans are for this team,” says Saints wide receiver and Opelousas native Devery Henderson. “The fans have been great this year. It’s been quite an experience to fly into the airport [after away games] and thousands of people are there waiting for us. When I come home and drive up in my neighborhood, I’ve got signs in my yard saying, ‘Congratulations Devery.’”

Opelousas and Acadiana are Henderson’s neighborhood, and every autumn weekend for the past 13 years, his talent has been on display for Louisiana fans, teammates and coaches. At Opelousas High, then-running back Henderson rushed for 20 touchdowns and more than 1,300 yards as a senior. Those moments caught the attention of LSU coaches, who converted Henderson into a wide receiver. He started to blossom and played a role in the Tigers’ 2003 national championship, and will also eternally live in Tigers lore for making the 2002 “Bluegrass Miracle” catch that enabled LSU to defeat Kentucky with no time left on the clock.

When the Saints made him a second-round draft pick in 2004, Henderson got an opportunity that few athletes experience: the chance to play high school, college and professional sports in their home state. The speedster languished. He was inactive for nearly all his rookie season, and his 22 catches in 2005 were no consolation in the wake of Katrina and the team’s 3-13 record. “It was frustrating early on,” he says.

Henderson was tagged as inconsistent; he’d make an improbable acrobatic catch one series, then drop an easy pass the next time around. Combined with his tendency to be quiet and media-shy, Henderson was an enigma wrapped in a No. 19 jersey.

“When I first got here, Sean [Payton] and I went back and forth about Devery,” says Saints wide receiver coach Curtis Johnson. “We didn’t know what we were getting. Devery was really maligned when he started out. People were saying that he couldn’t catch the ball, and they were really beating him up.”

Henderson couldn’t have found a better mentor than Johnson. The former University of Miami coach molded some of the NFL’s best receivers, including Andre Johnson, Santana Moss, and Reggie Wayne. Johnson has a reputation as an exacting taskmaster who never wastes time; watch the sidelines during Saints practice or games, and when they aren’t directly involved in the action, Henderson and the wide receiving corps are often doing hands drills. Unprompted, WWL’s Hebert appraises Johnson: “The Saints have one of the best wide receiver coaches in the league — he works their behinds off.”

Henderson put up solid numbers and a handful of big plays in 2006-2007, but the consistency questions lingered. When his original Saints contract expired, Henderson signed a one-year deal with the team in 2008 — and responded by solidifying his standing as one of the biggest deep threats in the NFL. His 24.8 average yards per catch led the league, and he caught three touchdown passes to raise his career NFL touchdown count to 14. His steady ascent didn’t go unnoticed by his coaches.

“The most impressive thing to me is how smart he is,” says Johnson. “He’s a very intelligent young man. Our offense is really complicated; it took me a year and a half to get it. Devery knows what’s coming. He knows the next play call. He knows where to line up. Our offense is second nature to him.”

Head coach Sean Payton

Photo by Michael C. Hebert

Henderson’s dedication and increased production were rewarded by the Saints earlier this year with a new four-year, $12 million contract. “What a lot of people don’t understand is how the defenses change when he’s in the game,” says Johnson. “Now we can split it up with him and Robert [Meacham]. When we watch film, defenders are backing way up. We laugh at the [coverage] checks we see — they’re really concerned about Devery.”

Henderson’s 2009 season to date has been nearly flawless. With the exception of one pass in the Redskins game and one in Sunday’s Falcons game, he’s hauled in everything Brees has thrown his way. Henderson credits his current success to two overriding factors: the cumulative effect of hard work and Johnson’s tutelage. He’s also extremely close to his mother and grandmother, and thankful for their support.

“Devery is a mama’s boy,” says Johnson. “He’s very family oriented. He’s a country boy, like myself. If you’re thinking you’re getting this big superstar guy, that’s not the case. He’s about as down home as they come.”

That’s one of Henderson’s most refreshing qualities — and one he shares with the rest of the wide receiver teammates. Marques Colston, Lance Moore, and Robert Meacham are arguably the best group of wide receivers in the league, but they’re the antithesis of the diva Terrell Owens/Chad Ochocinco school. Brees spreads the ball around to each of them, and to a man, they forsake histrionics and let their on-field performance speak for itself.

“It’s just all our personalities, from day one,” says Henderson. “The way we came in, we’ve never changed. It’s the same [Marques] Colston, the same Lance [Moore] from day one. That says a lot. We work together, none of us are selfish, and we want ourselves and the team to do well.”

Johnson sees an underlying motivating factor that drives Henderson and the Saints’ wide receivers. “All of ’em have gone through some major adversities to get here,” he says. “Lance, they said he was too small. Marques didn’t get drafted until the seventh round. Meachem, his first year, he didn’t know anything about being a professional. These guys almost play with a chip on their shoulder. They just do it because they’re playing for the respect that they think they deserve.”

Quarterback Drew Brees

Photo by Michael C. Hebert

Respect. It isn’t just the Saints’ wide receivers who want it. Survey the roster, and it’s filled with players with something to prove.

Defensive ends Will Smith and Charles Grant are trying to justify their lucrative contracts, and future Hall of Fame safety Darren Sharper is sending a message that he isn’t at the twilight of his career. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma was cast aside by the Jets after an injury, and now he’s the Saints’ defensive team leader.

On offense, undersized running back Pierre Thomas was an undrafted free agent. Fellow runner Mike Bell was kicked to the curb by the Denver Broncos. Tight end Jeremy Shockey plays with a grudge courtesy of his former team the Giants, who refused to let the injured Shockey travel with the team and watch from the sidelines for their 2008 Super Bowl victory. The whole offensive line rarely gets the spotlight because of the team’s playmakers, but they’re playing with a vengeance, and the Saints have blossomed into one of the league’s best running teams.

And then there’s Drew Brees.

You’ve probably seen Brees walking on water across the Mississippi River. He’s also been given the nickname “Breesus,” and there’s an informal campaign to rename our state “DrewBreesiana.” Those are just a few of the creative Brees tributes making the rounds on the Internet lately — along with the real-life honor of being named King of Bacchus for Mardi Gras.

In Brees’ case, he’s earned every single homage and accolade. The quarterback the scouts said was too short, the one with the surgically repaired shoulder who was released by the San Diego Chargers, keeps inspiring his team, franchise, city and state with his spectacular play. He led the Saints to the NFC championship game his first year with the team, and last year he almost broke Dan Marino’s record for most passing yards in a season. Even fellow quarterback Hebert talks with a tinge of awe about Brees.

“He’s a great guy on and off the field,” says Hebert, “and he’s really humble. Just his physical presence, you wouldn’t view him as the prototype quarterback, because with his cleats on he’s 6 feet tall. But he has all the intangibles: leadership ability, pocket presence. And he’s got the numbers and stats in the last three and a half years; now all he has to do is win the championship. It’s all about the championship and continued success.”

Even opposing NFL players aren’t shy about praising Brees. Henderson won’t name names, but No. 9 is creating a bit of envy in his adversaries. “We have guys that come in from other teams,” says Henderson, “and they’ll make comments like, ‘I wish I had that quarterback.’”

A formidable part of Brees’ appeal has nothing to do with football. He has so fully embraced his new home and community that nary a week seems to go by without the newest reports of Brees’ charitable efforts. He’s spent his time and nearly $2 million helping rebuild New Orleans-area schools, homes and athletic programs. He’s visited the troops in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan. His Brees Dream Foundation has contributed millions of dollars to cancer research and patient care.

With his work ethic, enthusiasm and active philanthropy, Brees is a welcome and timely antidote to cynicism. Lolet Boutte, a visual artist and musician manager in New Orleans, came home last Tuesday morning to her new apartment in Habitat for Humanity’s Musicians’ Village to the sight of Brees, Harry Connick Jr. and a big crowd on her porch. “I was slightly excited,” she says with a laugh, “and all the neighbors were excited. Harry Connick Jr. was so star-struck with Drew Brees that he was like a little kid waiting for an autograph. It was the day after the Patriots game, and Harry’s looking at Drew and saying, ‘You look so fresh and rested. How do you do it?’ Then he taught Drew how to play ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ on piano. It’s funny to see all these big tall men acting like little girls around Drew.”

By helping with projects like the Musicians’ Village, Brees is also a charismatic messenger for the Gulf Coast’s ongoing hurricane recovery efforts. National media have long moved on from coverage of post-Katrina and Rita challenges, but Brees and his Saints teammates are a powerful, subtle dose of reality.

“If you’re in New Orleans, whenever there’s an event with Drew’s foundation, Coach Payton’s foundation or a player event,  when you drive there, you’ll most likely drive through or go to an area that still needs help,” says Johnson. “So while a lot of people would probably love to move on [from Katrina], you can’t.”

Overcoming those continued difficulties is another bond — one of the strongest — between Saints fans and their 43-year-old franchise. That connection has only intensified this year, as the Saints are now shoulder-to-shoulder with the Indianapolis Colts with a perfect 13-0 record. To put the feat in context, consider that only seven teams have gone 13-0 in NFL history. The days of the Aints and disastrous seasons like 1980’s 1-15 campaign seem far, far away — and the dream of the Saints playing in Miami on Feb. 7, 2010 is very, very much alive.

“It’s the underdog, feel-good story,” says Hebert. “There’s a blue collar mentality with the fans, and this is a working man’s team. I know how hard the work is to get to that level: OTAs, training camp, film study. The Saints’ record this year isn’t by accident — it’s hard work. When you see great players like Drew Brees, you’ve got to appreciate what you’re witnessing.”

Contact Scott Jordan at [email protected] .