The Cajun Cannon lives on: Former Saint was once a budding SL Tarpon

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Ask anyone who bleeds black and gold, and they’ll tell you there’s one name that personifies the Who Dat Nation.

Bobby Hebert.

From his exploits on the field, playing seven seasons for the Saints, to his loveable antics on the radio as one of the voices of the New Orleans Saints for WWL, the Cajun Cannon is one of the most recognizable luminaries in Saints lore.

But to those back home in south Lafourche, he’s still known as Bobby J. – the safety turned quarterback who led the Tarpons to their last state championship in 1977.

Believe it or not, just seven years before leading the Michigan Panthers to the inaugural championship of the USFL, Hebert had little to no quarterbacking experience as a junior safety on South Lafourche’s 1976 squad.

“He was a good safety. He knew how to play the position,” said his father Bobby Hebert Sr. “He knew the game. Whatever the coach told him to do, he’d do it. And he liked to hit. He didn’t mind hitting.”

After the graduation Tarpon signal caller Boogie LeBlanc opening up the position for the 1977 season, starting the future NFL Pro Bowl quarterback still wasn’t a no brainer under center even though those who watched closely saw flashes of what he could become.

“We remember how pretty of a pass Bobby could throw,” said Nicky Collins who recalled watching Hebert warm up as a backup quarterback before the Tarpons’ 1976 quarterfinal loss in the Superdome to St. Aug. “Back then nobody knew Bobby was gonna be a big-time quarterback, but he threw a pretty pass, and he looked like a quarterback. He was tall. He was lanky.”

Bobby Hebert Sr. said even though his son didn’t start at quarterback for the Tarpons until the third game of the 1977 season, he always saw special leadership qualities in him.

“When he was growing up he was always in charge. He had to be in charge. He had to be the captain of the team in the neighborhood,” said Bobby Hebert Sr. “He knew the game and he was very competitive. He wasn’t the greatest athlete, but he was competitive, and he worked hard at it.”

And when Bobby J. took over the offense, a magical run to glory began.

Despite losing three regular season games, South Lafourche shocked the field and won the Class 4A state championship with a signal caller they didn’t know they had.

“When God gives you gifts that you didn’t know you had, you gotta take advantage of them,” said the elder Hebert.

The Tarpons upset a powerful Shaw squad in the quarterfinals – who interestingly enough were quarterbacked by John Fourcade, future teammate of Bobby J.’s with the Saints – before beating Bogalusa in the semis and Bonnabel in the championship on a fourth-quarter, fourth-and-goal, tipped touchdown pass from Bobby J. to wide receiver/tight end Scott Bouzigard.

“Bobby threw the ball to another receiver, and the ball was tipped by an offensive and a defensive player, and I caught it falling into the end zone and was lucky enough to score the touchdown to tie the game,” said Bouzigard. “That moment in time was probably one of the greatest moments in both of our lives because of what it meant to the school, what it meant to the community… With the tradition of the former teams that we had followed, you had a Friday Night Lights atmosphere to our community.”

The extra point placed the Tarpons ahead 21-20, and South Lafourche’s defense stood tall to hold on to the school’s second state championship in seven seasons.

“You never expected them to do what they did, but it happened,” said Bobby Hebert Sr. “I remember me going on the field and jumping over the railing. It was something that you couldn’t believe. I couldn’t talk for a day. There was so much excitement.”

Bouzigard said he thinks Hebert completed only three of about 15 passes in the championship, and two of the completions were touchdowns to him.

In fact, even with a future Sporting News Player of the Year, the Tarpons didn’t throw very much with Hebert at the helm. Bouzigard estimates that the Tarpons threw the ball about five times per game and probably completed about 60 passes in 15 games.

“It doesn’t matter how many times you throw it. It’s what you accomplish with what you throw,” said Bouzigard.

And Bobby J. accomplished enough with his limited opportunities to shine that he received a scholarship to continue his football-playing career at Northwestern State University.

His career took off when he was taken with the 34th overall selection in the 1983 USFL Draft by the Michigan Panthers. In his rookie season, the Cajun Cannon threw for 3,568 yards, 27 touchdowns and 17 interceptions before leading his team to the first-ever USFL championship over the Chicago Blitz. Hebert was named MVP of the championship game, USFL’s Quarterback of the Year and Sporting News’ Player of the Year.

“The one greatest thing about seeing [his pro career] is he was never the greatest in all, but he was always a winner, and that’s a tribute to what Bobby always brought in,” said Bouzigard. “Good, strong head, good, strong leadership and playing to the best of his abilities every game. He was a champion. He was a winner.”

After being triumphant in the league’s first title game, the Cajun Cannon also competed in its last in 1985 as a member of Oakland Invaders.

As the USFL stood on the verge of crumbling, he was granted his release after the 1985 USFL season, and his career came full-circle, signing with his home-state team – the New Orleans Saints – before the 1985 NFL season.

“It was a dream come true,” said Bobby Hebert Sr.

He went on to play seven years for the Saints (1985-89, 91-92), compiling a 49-26 record. Hebert led New Orleans to four winning seasons including the franchise’s first playoff appearance in 1987 and first division title in 1991.

“It definitely meant a lot to me,” Hebert said of the 1987 season, reported by Jimmy Smith of The Times-Picayune “because I’ve been around Saints football since I was a boy.”

The Cajun Cannon spent four years with the Atlanta Falcons (1993-96) to round out his career, but one doesn’t have to listen to his radio show long to realize that the black and gold was never beaten out of the bayou boy.

“You never know what to expect in life, and I enjoyed it all,” said Bobby J.’s father. “It’s such a small world, and how many starting quarterbacks in the world? There’s only so many teams and so many players, and Bobby made it. And Bobby never forgot where he came from. He’s proud that he’s a Cajun.”

Today, we remember Bobby Hebert for his outspoken opinions about the New Orleans Saints via his radio announcing gig for WWL. But before the Cajun Cannon was dropping pipe bombs on the airwaves, he was just a young, football-loving toddler from the bayous of Cut Off. From there, he tuned his craft to become a starting quarterback for the New Orleans Saints.