Before NFL training camp starts in five days, Breaux Bridge native and New Orleans Saints backup quarterback Jake Delhomme has chores to finish on the family farm.
Mowing is just the start of Delhomme's work today. When he parks the tractor and greets visitors, wiping sweat from under the brim of his hat, there's little time for small talk. "If you start thinking all high and mighty because you play football, you come back home and get here, and your Dad says, 'It's time to clean the stalls,'" says Delhomme. He leads the way to the barn, where Baggy Pants, Secret Silence and Dark Man are waiting. "I don't hunt or fish," he says, "so this is my love. I'd love to have a barn full of horses one day."
The thoroughbreds stir when they see their owner, shaking off the afternoon heat to nuzzle his face. Gigantic spiderwebs line the walls and ceilings; their occupants are welcome neighbors that keep the flies from bothering the horses. Rusted rakes, water buckets, and a wheelbarrow rest nearby, while a tomcat named Black wanders in and out. The weathered barn is approximately 100 years old, and the only sign of contemporary culture within is the voice of ESPN's Dan Patrick, coming from a dust-covered '70s-era radio and 8-track player.
The 27-year-old Delhomme has been around this barn his whole life. It's a way of living that dates to his grandfather, Sanders Delhomme, a Cajun farmer who couldn't read or write and raced quarter horses. Sanders passed that love of racing to Delhomme's father, Jerry, who works for the Department of Agriculture and continues to train and race horses on the side. Jake Delhomme and his wife, Keri, own a home 10 minutes away in Lafayette, but later this summer they'll move a vintage house here and share the property with Jake's parents. They plan to put the home in the same spot Delhomme has just finished mowing.
That desire to remain close to home and family has guided Delhomme's personal and professional life. He attended Teurlings Catholic High School in Lafayette and met and began dating Keri when they were freshmen. After his stellar high school football performances -- including setting state records for yards and touchdowns in his senior year -- Delhomme was recruited by colleges such as Duke and West Point and initially planned to commit to Tulane.
"There was no way I was going out of state, and I thought I was going to go to Tulane and be in New Orleans -- the big city," he says. "But when it got close, something inside me said, 'Just stay home.' I guess maybe I'm a mama's boy, or just a homebody. I like this state, I like the people, and I didn't feel I wanted to go and experience anything else."
Delhomme decided to go to University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette and become a Cajun playing for the Ragin' Cajuns. After being unexpectedly called off the bench in his first game as a freshman, he never relinquished the starting job, setting a number of school records. "Going to USL was the best decision I've ever made," he says. "I was able to start all four years, and with all my friends and contacts and people I met, it was absolutely perfect."
There's a banging on one of the stall walls, as the brown mare Baggy Pants is getting restless while Delhomme is loading some hay into a wheelbarrow. Delhomme gives the horse a hearty pat on the neck. "Hopefully, she'll be the best $1,700 purchase I ever made," he says.
Delhomme and his father and brother invest in the horses together. The Louisiana racing circuit doesn't promise Kentucky Derby-league winnings, but shrewd investors and horse watchers can see some handsome returns with a combination of work and luck. "In September 2000, we bought a horse for $10,000, and she made about $18,000 in nine months," says Delhomme.
He has high hopes and some reservations about Baggy Pants, who snorts and throws her head back as Delhomme leads her out to a nearby circular training wheel for exercise. "It's real easy to buy a horse and let somebody else do all the work with him, but I like to touch every piece of 'em and know what's going on," he says. "Baggy Pants has all the ability in the world, but she's a little crazy sometimes."
In the National Football League, as with his horses, Delhomme is known for his preparation and work ethic. In both, however, he also knows that success might ultimately be beyond his control. Despite his impressive college career, Delhomme never fit the mold of the prototypical NFL quarterback, and many scouts felt his mobility and arm strength were lacking. Delhomme was passed over in the 1997 NFL draft, but pursued his dream of making an NFL roster as an undrafted free agent. The Saints signed him that year -- and cut him at the end of training camp. In the spring of 1998, hoping for playing time and to stay on the radar of NFL teams, Delhomme decided to try his luck in NFL Europe.
"That was the first time I'd really been away, going to Amsterdam," he remembers. "I was 22 years old and had been through college and grew up a little bit, but it was tough to leave and a little scary going to a different country. It was only 12 or 13 weeks, not a long period of time. You only really have 35 guys on a team and you all live in a hotel, so you become close friends in a short period of time. You don't have the facilities you have in the United States, but it was a great experience. I got paid to see the world."
Delhomme didn't get much playing time on the Amsterdam Admirals, despite waging a spirited campaign for the team's starting quarterback position. The job ultimately went to another unknown journeyman -- Kurt Warner. Warner's improbable rise to Super Bowl MVP in the 1999 NFL season, and his continued dominance, has been a source of inspiration for Delhomme.
"Kurt and I share the same agent, and we usually talked every time the Saints played the Rams the last three years," says Delhomme. "I was very happy for him, and he deserves everything he's gotten. Watching him has given me a great deal of confidence, because we played on the same team, and we battled it out pretty good in training camp. I didn't feel I was too far off."
Delhomme did another tour of duty in NFL Europe with the Frankfurt team and got another chance with the Saints at their 1999 training camp -- where he was again cut from the roster.
"The first time was when I was a rookie, so I knew I was getting cut," he says. "And as a quarterback, sometimes it's like being a kicker, and sometimes it takes a while to find a good job. The second time, I was coming off a great year in NFL Europe, went to training camp, and I just didn't play well. ... That's the breaks. There was some interest in other teams for bringing me in for workouts. And so I never gave up."
Delhomme returned home, continued working out and tended his horses. But he says that watching the NFL on television as a spectator was torture. "I've been home during the season before, and I love the horses, but I tell you what, 10 weeks into November, I've had enough of 'em. I'm dying for the phone to ring, and it was sure easy to tell the horses goodbye when the phone did finally ring."
The Saints signed Delhomme to their active roster in late November of their miserable 1999 campaign. The team was suffering from mediocre play by quarterbacks Billy Joe Hobert and Billy Joe Tolliver, and the Saints were limping toward season's end with a 2-12 record. With nothing to lose, head coach Mike Ditka gave Delhomme a chance to start a nationally televised Christmas Eve game against the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys were still in contention for a playoff spot, and no one expected the Saints to even remotely challenge America's Team.
It was Delhomme's first start in the NFL, and he proceeded to have a storybook game. He threw for two touchdowns and rushed for another touchdown, almost singlehandedly beating the Cowboys, 31-24. It was practically the lone highlight of a wretched season and inspired a front-page headline in The Times-Picayune the next day titled "Cajun Christmas."
Delhomme takes a momentary break from shoveling horse manure to reflect on that game.
"Naturally, I rank that as one of the highest moments of my career. It was my first start, and you ask any quarterback about their first start -- look at (Aaron) Brooks' first start, he beat St. Louis -- it's a special moment and it's something I'll always treasure. But I want to have more moments like that. That was good, that was fun, but, shoot, that was three years ago. It's time to get some more moments like that."
Surprisingly, Delhomme is more proud of his outing in his second start, a somewhat ugly loss to Carolina that ended the 1999 season.
"That was the best thing that happened, that Carolina game," he says. "The Dallas game, everything went well. ... We go to Carolina, and Ricky (Williams) needs 120 yards to break 1,000. He has 14 carries for seven yards. I throw four picks -- two were legitimate, two were tips. I came back from that game with more confidence than the Dallas game. I faced adversity, I stayed in there, and I fought the whole game, playing a team better than us. You take the good with the bad. To be good, you've got to fail. And that game was a failure."
The Carolina loss didn't stop Delhomme's fans from campaigning on local radio talk shows and Internet sites for Delhomme to be named the Saints' starting quarterback for the 2000 season. The arrival of head coach Jim Haslett's new regime and signing of free agent quarterback Jeff Blake quieted Delhomme's supporters somewhat, but even three years later, with current starting quarterback Aaron Brooks firmly entrenched as the team's starter, Delhomme has a large local and vocal fanbase.
"I love that," says Delhomme. "That's the way we are, people from Louisiana. We're proud of who we are and proud of our kids, I guess you could say. I've been adopted by the fans, and I think a lot of it has to do with the way I play. I'm a yes-sir, no-sir, yes-ma'am, no-ma'am type of guy. I play hard and try to do my best. And I guess I have that Cajun accent -- that doesn't go away. I didn't even know I had an accent until I left college."
Once the 2000 season began, Delhomme admits, he quickly realized he was still somewhat green. "It was a rude awakening," he says. "That was the first time I felt like I was really learning football." The difference between the Ditka regime and Haslett's new program, he says, "was like night and day."
New Saints offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy had seen a tape of the Dallas game and Delhomme's potential. "I knew he was a fierce competitor, and the players obviously responded to him," McCarthy says during an afternoon break from watching game film at Saints headquarters. "Then when we started working with him in what we refer to as quarterback school, and you could tell he was very raw.
"I think fundamentally, he wasn't coached a lot. And we're real pleased with his development. He's mastered the mental part of the offense, and I think in his skill development, we've changed some of those things from when he first got here, as far as the way he drops, holding the ball, just certain fundamental mechanical things for quarterbacks that will enhance his play."
Delhomme's attention to detail is evident as he continues his afternoon work, washing down the horses, guiding them on and off the training wheel, and cleaning out their stalls. The chores also allow for personal moments: he affectionately pets Dark Man, the oldest horse nearing retirement from racing, and beams when his wife and Jazzy, their Chihuahua puppy, arrive at the barn with cold water. His language is as plainspoken and down-to-earth as the mud beneath his feet and is peppered with exclamations of "shoot" and "aw." He'll often refer to his father as "Daddy."
He's a world removed from some of the unfortunate excesses and egos of the current NFL landscape -- and the shameful police-blotter actions of NFL players like Ray Lewis, Sebastian Janikowski and former Saints wide receiver Albert Connell. Bring up the subject of players suspended for drug use and various offenses, and Delhomme's face tightens. "It makes you kind of wonder," he says. "I look at it from a point where I wasn't drafted, I was a free agent, I wasn't given anything. I had to work for everything. Why would you want to mess it up? Why would you want to jeopardize this wonderful career that you could possibly have in this league? I mean, if you can't put the time in. ...
"We play professional football, for God's sake," his voice rising. "It's a game. You're getting paid a lot of money. If you can't enjoy it and do what's right, that's when I have a problem."
That charged emotional tone is part of an entirely different side of Delhomme -- one usually only seen by his teammates. The latest example of Delhomme's fiery on-field persona came in the recent Cincinnati preseason game, when he was the first Saint to run over with some choice words for a Cincinnati defender who gave Aaron Brooks an extra shove out of bounds.
"He gets revved up out there," says Haslett. "He's not laid-back on the field, he's usually screaming and yelling something: 'Goddamn! Goddamn, get the run going!' Sometimes on the sideline I have to say, 'Relax, Jake, go yell at him, don't yell at me,'" Haslett says laughing.
"Jake's like that every day in practice," says Saints quarterback coach Mike Sheppard. "He's an upbeat guy and a real live wire when he gets on the field. He has no problem, for example, letting another teammate know when he expected him to do something else, and a sense of when it's right to get after it a little bit."
Delhomme's excitability can have its downside, too. "Usually with most quarterbacks you deal with, you try and get them to play the game faster, in a controlled mode," says McCarthy. "If Jake has a fault, it's that when he gets in there, sometimes he sees it too fast and rushes himself, instead of letting the game come to him a little more. That's going to change when he gets more game experience."
As the 2002 season opens, Delhomme has his best chance yet to get that opportunity. After spending the last two seasons as the team's No. 3 quarterback, he's now unquestionably the team's No. 2 quarterback behind Brooks. Still, that title carries an awkward job description. Realistically, there are only two scenarios that will propel Delhomme to the starter's job: Brooks gets injured or plays so poorly that Haslett decides to make a change. (At press time, Brooks' vocal unhappiness with his current contract has only made the second scenario more awkward.) It's still doubtful that Haslett would pull Brooks, as the head coach has been steadfast in keeping the Saints without the kind of rotating-quarterback controversies that have poisoned teams such as Buffalo and Atlanta in recent years.
The Saints are fortunate because Delhomme and Brooks have a strong bond. "Jake and I have always gotten along," says Brooks. "I've never been the type of person that steps on someone to get what they want, and Jake's not that type of person, either. And his wife and my fiancee have established a pretty good relationship. The thing about Jake, is that he's always looking out for the best interest of the team."
Such sentiments are more than just a scripted party line. "You're looking at two guys that have a lot of common ground on their careers," says McCarthy. "Neither one of them was a high draft pick, with Jake being a free agent, and Aaron going in the fourth round, and then being traded (from Green Bay). So you're looking at two guys that have never been given anything, and have a very good relationship on and off the field. That's not always true at the quarterback position in the National Football League. And remember that these guys spend a lot of time together: they watch film together, they do everything together."
"In the offseason, Aaron and I will talk every couple of weeks, just to say, 'Hey, what you been up to?'" says Delhomme. "We're the same age, and we work well together. He pulls for me, and I pull for him. If I see something he should maybe try and do, I'll tell him. He'll do the same for me. And we can laugh at each other. If we throw an interception during practice, we can say, 'What were you thinking?'"
Whether or not Delhomme sees playing time in the 2002 season, he's clearly making strides in his bid to be a starting NFL quarterback. During the offseason, both Green Bay and Kansas City brought him in for workouts, even though the Saints had the first-refusal rights to match any outside offers for Delhomme. (Neither team made Delhomme an offer.) At 27, Delhomme still potentially has a long career ahead of him, evidenced in the play of current veteran quarterbacks Vinny Testaverde and Rich Gannon. Gannon's a particularly appropriate comparison, according to McCarthy.
"I told Jake this preseason that he has as much pull in the locker room as any backup I've seen since Rich Gannon, who was my backup quarterback in Kansas City," says McCarthy. "I think that says a lot about the type of person Jake is and the way he goes about his business, to have that respect. The locker room's the most critical and most important room in this whole building, and in every NFL facility. The locker room is the key, and Jake has respect in our locker room."
As Delhomme finishes his farm work and dusk starts to set in the Breaux Bridge summer, Delhomme has five more days to enjoy at home before the whirlwind of training camp and the pending season. For now, there are the simple pleasures of cracklin' and boudin appetizers waiting inside the house, and a pot of crawfish etouffee on the stove for dinner. The horses are fed and happy, and they'll be waiting for him when his football career -- however it plays out -- is finished.
"This is my fifth year, and the average life span in the NFL is three and a half years," says Delhomme. "I've already beat that, and I want to keep on going. I'm still young, and I'm still waiting for a shot."