Gumbo ya-ya is both the beauty of and the trouble with New Orleans. It is not a soup but a sentence from one of the West African languages that have influenced local dialects as much as French has. It means "everybody talks at once." Gumbo ya-ya about the Saints year-round, because the NFL is the only pro game in town and football the only sport adored.
Gumbo ya-ya about the Saints starting quarterback, especially when the quarterback is from Lafourche (pronounced la-FOOSH) Parish, just down the bayou, and his seventh-great-grandfather, Etien Hebert, arrived in New Orleans in 1785 during Le Grand Dérangement, the notorious forced relocation by the British of the French Acadian people—the Cajuns—from what is now Nova Scotia to Louisiana. However, when everybody talks at once, a lot can get lost in translation and gossip. Last year, when Hebert said, "It's time for me to move on," word spread around town that he wanted out of New Orleans and Louisiana as a place to live, not just out of the Saints organization. When he said, "I have to do what I feel is best for me and my family," wildfire gossip had it that he had said he didn't want his three children to grow up in New Orleans, with its economy gutted by the oil bust, its crime rising, its educational system lacking and its population suffering from a general malaise.
At the beginning of this season, when Hebert returned to the Saints for a reported $2.73 million over two seasons-low on the NFL quarterback pay scale, considering his past production, and considerably less than the $2 million a year he had originally asked for—gumbo ya-ya at the Superdome: "Booooooooo!" A big banner hanging in the stadium for the season opener, as well as a letter to the editor of the local Times-Picayune, demanded a public apology from Hebert. "I'm not so prideful that I wouldn't apologize," says Hebert, who is far closer to the good Cajun boy New Orleans first welcomed to the Saints than to the mercenary turncoat imagined in gossip, "but I don't know what they want me to say."
During his holdout he never criticized the local citizenry. Though he and his wife, Teresa, admit they wouldn't have minded living in Los Angeles if Bobby had played for the Raiders—who tried to get him but couldn't work out a deal with the Saints—they say they certainly would have come home to Louisiana after his football playing days were over. So with the populace only partially appeased by his play during the Saints' 3-0 start, Hebert was somewhat surprised when he ran out of the tunnel during introductions for the Viking game and heard more cheers than boos. "I thought, Man, I want to play so well for these people," he says.
One play in the third quarter of that game silenced the lingering Hebert detractors and put the Second Line in motion. Hebert scrambled out of the pocket and noticed running back Craig (Iron-head) Heyward behind him. Hebert improvised and pitched the ball to Heyward, and then became the lead blocker. Hebert didn't try to just get in a defender's way; he threw his slightly sprained right (passing) shoulder with such selfless authority that he knocked Minnesota linebacker Mike Merriweather out of the play. The decibel level all but raised the roof of the Superdome and set aflutter a banner in the upper deck that read:
MO-JO? HEX NO!
GO SAINTS GO
Much of New Orleans's sadness, anger and insecurity were shed in that moment; much was forgotten and forgiven. No one was happier for Hebert than his teammates, who had sympathized with him throughout his holdout. "There isn't a man in this locker room who was upset with Bobby," says linebacker Pat Swilling. "When Bobby came back to the team, I went over and we had a little hug. I've been through that with Jim Finks myself."
Since Hebert's return, the Saints have had a spark, a sense of completeness. With the offense clicking, "it rubs off," says tight end Hoby Brenner. "Now we're giving the defense support. And that's getting them to play even harder and better, knowing they've got an offense that's not going to give the ball away."
The defense, with more experience in the secondary and the return of lineman Frank Warren, who missed last season on a suspension for drug abuse, has set the heralded New Orleans linebacking corps free to pillage. When Swilling heard that Viking quarterback Wade Wilson had compared him with Lawrence Taylor, he wasn't particularly flattered. "I've been in that caliber, I like to think," said Swilling, who in his sixth NFL season is coming off his second straight Pro Bowl appearance.
"We've got four Lawrence Taylor-class linebackers," says Jackson, the leader of what many observers consider the best linebacker unit in the NFL, a group that also includes Vaughan Johnson, Sam Mills and Swilling.