American Football: Delhomme keeps alive the spirit of Forrest Gump

Super Bowl XXXVIII: Clean-cut kid from the Bayou graduates from NFL's wasteland in Europe to spearhead push for glory
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The Independent Online

If it is true that something about the Super Bowl can bring the worst out of America, we know now there is another side to the most vigorously thumbed coin in all of sport. On it is the name of Jake Delhomme.

Not only is he a clean-cut 29-year-old from the Bayou country who has led, against all predictions, the Carolina Panthers to a meeting with the New England Patriots here on Sunday, we can bet that if he wins, as maybe the least glamorous quarterback in the history of the gridiron, another Forrest Gump script will soon enough be pushed into Tom Hanks' mailbox.

Even the word "led" is a little highfalutin'. Delhomme, who a few years ago was operating in the NFL wasteland of Europe with the Amsterdam Admirals and the Frankfurt Galaxy and struggled to become the back-up to the back-up at the New Orleans Saints, doesn't really lead.

Every so often he throws a touchdown pass - usually it goes through the air less like a flaming arrow than a wounded duck - but more often than not he is happy to hand the ball to the bright and durable running backs Stephen Davies and DeShaun Foster.

"If I throw the ball just once in the Super Bowl, and we win it," Delhomme says, "I will not lose a wink of sleep. I'll just go home to Breaux Bridge, Louisiana [if you didn't know, it's the crawfish capital of the world] saying to myself, 'Hey, I helped do what we went down to Houston to do. I helped win the Super Bowl. None of that other stuff matters, not in the long run."

This week Delhomme sat on one of the podiums set up for the "star" players in the magnificent new Reliant Stadium, the home of the new National Football League franchise Houston Texans and a replacement for the old Astrodome, which was once described as the eighth wonder of the world but now awaits the wrecking ball.

Delhomme had a shifting audience of hundreds of reporters and television men. They came for a soundbite from this unlikely inheritor of the American Dream, then lugged their tape recorders and cables away in pursuit of more staple Super Bowl fare. You know the kind. Sometimes it makes Hunter Thompson's gonzo journalism seem like the form guide.

The best Jake could do to keep his audience was reveal that his greatest sporting hero is a horse, the late Seabiscuit. "I just saw the movie after earlier reading the book and it's a wonderful story." he said. "Some football players, and I guess I'm one of them, are like some horses. They have real talent but sometimes it takes a little while for them to come on to it."

Delhomme grew up on a horse-breeding and training farm in Louisiana and his father, Jerry, says: "He's a good quarterback, but I have to say he's a helluva groom. He's got those long arms that can really get around a horse."

If Delhomme noticed that some of the crowd shifted a little impatiently, he didn't show it. He's happy to do his work as well as he can, and if there is a Super Bowl anti-hero ready to grab the headlines, as there almost invariably is, he suggests he is happy to let the darker dramas pass him by.

Last year in San Diego, the gonzo star was Barrett Robbins, the Oakland Raiders centre. On the eve of the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Robbins went missing. He was eventually found in a drunken stupor across the border in one of Tijuana's less salubrious watering holes. The Raiders were beaten in his absence and when they got over their rage they discovered that Robbins was mentally ill. For the uninformed, it had been simply another case of Super Bowl personality meltdown.

Maybe the most spectacular examples of the phenomenon involved Eugene Robinson of the Atlanta Falcons, five years ago, and Stanley Wilson of the Cincinnati Bengals, in 1989.

On both occasions the curse struck in Miami. Robinson, a leading "athlete for God", finished up in a police cell after asking for the price list of a scantily dressed undercover woman police officer. Wilson disappeared and was eventually found using cocaine in the bathroom of a hotel room. He was carried back to team headquarters wrapped in a shower curtain and, unsurprisingly, didn't make the game. The Falcons and the Bengals both lost.

Some ferocious characters did, however, make the leap from ignominy to a huge Super Bowl ring. Three years ago in Tampa, Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens sat on a similar podium to the one occupied by Delhomme this week, and resolutely refused to discuss his involvement in the street murder of two fans at the previous year's Super Bowl in Atlanta.

The District Attorney's office claimed to have evidence that Lewis had been in the company of two of his friends when they had bought a knife attached to brass knuckles, and that after the incident he had discarded a blood-stained white fur coat in a rubbish dump. But the case against Lewis and his companions failed and Lewis, a superb line-backer, was considered the most valuable contributor to a brilliant destruction of the New York Giants.

John Matusak, a defensive lineman of the Los Angeles Raiders, also gained a winner's ring despite returning to his team hotel at dawn after a night in the French quarter of New Orleans before the game in 1981. Matusak was later apprehended by the California Highway Patrol, who discovered a magnum revolver and a machete in his glove compartment.

Such lurid memories may have been a reaction to the gentle talk of Jake Delhomme, but if he gets the job done on Sunday, the NFL, ever conscious of its image, will certainly not complain. It will be a triumph, indeed, for some of America's better values, and maybe it is time for another Gump.

How Gumpish is he? The Carolina offensive tackle Jordon Gross gave a strong hint when he revealed that sometimes Delhomme's team-mates have to ask him to repeat his call at the line of scrimmage. Said Jordon, "He can be an excitable guy and sometimes he gets in the huddle and spits out the play real fast. Guys have to ask him to repeat it." Jake owns up with a sheepish grin. "When you're getting after your opponents you want to give it out to your guys straightaway on the line and just keep going," he says. "Maybe that's why I may start talking a little gibberish."

For the moment, though, his nerve is holding up as well as his quiet humour. When he was told someone had driven down to Breaux Bridge and been disappointed to find not a single alligator in his backyard, Jake shook his head and replied, "That's amazing ... but you know we do have electricity down there; we are part of civilisation. In fact, for a little town in the Bayou we're not doing too badly at all. We've produced a running back for the Houston Texans, a Miss America and maybe a Super Bowl-winner. That's not too bad to be going on with."

Delhomme, who waited so long for his run at America's big show, earns $2m (£1.09m) a year. It may not compare with the $250m recently handed to the infielder Alex Rodriguez by the Texas Rangers, one of the worst teams in baseball, or the $90m given to the teenage basketball star LeBron James, but Jake says: "After receiving three pink slips in my career, you better believe I'm living the dream." When his gridiron career is over, he says he will go back to the horse farm and see if he can find another Seabiscuit. It is, after all, the kind of thing Forrest Gump would do.