Though Cajun QB lacks spice, he has winning ingredients

Super Bowl

Panthers -- Patriots

January 28, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

HOUSTON - Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme has gone from the "Crawfish Capital of The World" to the nation's largest sporting event.

Now, if everyone would just learn his name. No, not Delhomme (pronounced duh-LOME). It's the first name, stupid. It's Jake, not Jack.

"Jack - I've been called that all my life," said Delhomme, 29. "I have a cousin, an older cousin, who was a coach at my high school. He was Jack. Now, he's the mayor of my hometown, so it was always `Jack.' I just kind of got used to it. I don't have that much of an ego to let that bother me."

Nothing does. In the week before the biggest game of his life, the world's media have gathered around Delhomme to listen and tell his story, the one about the Cajun who came from the land of gators, crawdads and sugarcane fields to lead his team to one of the greatest turnarounds in sports history, and possibly a Super Bowl championship.

The only problem is that nobody knows much about him. When the Panthers signed him to a two-year, $4 million contract in March, even Carolina linebacker Dan Morgan raised an eyebrow.

"No, I had no idea who he was when we picked him up as a free agent," Morgan said. "Now I know, and I'm glad we got him. He came in and never looked back."

The Panthers are hoping that Delhomme turns into another Kurt Warner or Tom Brady, obscure quarterbacks before they won championships. Carolina doesn't ask Delhomme to win games, just to not lose them. Carolina relies on a strong running game, but Delhomme still completed 266 of 449 passes for 3,219 yards and 19 touchdowns this season.

He has been just as important as running back Stephen Davis. Seven times during the regular season, with Delhomme as the quarterback, Carolina scored the decisive points inside the game's final two minutes of regulation or overtime.

He isn't always pretty when he throws. Sometimes, he'll commit the cardinal sin of scrambling one way, and then throwing back across his body and into the middle of the field, a la Brett Favre, without Favre's arm strength. But Delhomme is a winner.

"He has a knack for finding a way to complete a ball when you think he is going to be sacked, or there is too much pressure, or that, wow, he can't throw that ball in there," said Panthers wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad. "He never gives up on a play. He stays alive, and it's fun out there for him. I think his will to win and looseness come from where he grew up."

Delhomme was reared in Breaux Bridge, La., (population 7,300), which is about 120 miles west of New Orleans, and has the distinction of being called the Crawfish Capital of the World. On the way to Breaux Bridge, there are signs in English and French. Delhomme lives in a remodeled cottage that belonged to his grandfather, and he lives next to his parents, Jerry and Marcia, who live next to his brother, Jeff. All told, there are 21 Delhomme grandchildren in town.

Jake spent most of his time in some kind of cattle and sugar cane fields and groomed horses. He is involved in a partnership with his brother and father buying and training thoroughbreds. They still do the grunt work.

On Monday, Delhomme could be the Most Valuable Player and off to Disney World. Within a week, he could return home and shovel manure out of a barn.

Broadway Joe, he ain't.

"The horses are important to me," Delhomme said. "Family comes first, then football and then the horses. It was part of a work ethic when I was growing up. Daddy did not force it on us. We went out, we worked and we learned. We took pride when we went to the races and did well.

"When you grow up you want a good career, and a lot of people want to move," Delhomme said. "That is not the most important thing back home. Yes, you are going to work, get a job and take care of your family, but you have to enjoy life. We enjoy life where we are from. Everybody gets caught up in the hustle and bustle of life, but I don't know what it is. Families do not really stray too far away."

Delhomme's job has forced him to move several times. Coming out of Louisiana-Lafayette College, he was signed as a free agent by the New Orleans Saints, which eventually led to stints in NFL Europe with the Amsterdam Admirals and the Frankfurt Galaxy. In his second season in Europe, Delhomme led the Galaxy to the World Bowl title.

But back in the NFL, he was just a No. 2 quarterback. In the past six years as a backup and practice squad player, the Saints cut him three times. But along came the Panthers, and Delhomme couldn't have landed in a better position. Delhomme was signed to back up Rodney Peete, but he replaced Peete in the first game once Carolina fell behind 17-0 to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Delhomme threw for three touchdowns in that game as Carolina rebounded for a 24-23 victory. He hasn't relinquished the starting role, and has tons of experience around him in Peete, a 15-year veteran, and offensive coordinator Dan Henning, who has been in the league for 25 years.

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