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."
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.