Deserving of Hall of Fame honor, Fourcade’s Saints days make one wonder what might have been

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John Fourcade

John Fourcade will be inducted into The Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame on Aug. 4. It was good, welcome news for him and he deserves it, based on his brilliant prep career at Archbishop Shaw alone. John is a long-time friend and I could not be happier for him.

After inexplicably going undrafted out of Ole Miss, Fourcade had to fight his way to even get a look in the NFL, with that long-shot peak coming from his hometown New Orleans Saints as a replacement player in 1987. He would work his way onto the roster and eventually, onto the field among the team’s regular players.

In 1989, Fourcade got his first shot against the NFL’s best as a starter for his hometown team.

My first year as a reporter covering The Saints was 1989 and Fourcade was a remnant of the 1987 strike season and the third-string quarterback, at best, heading into camp. Dave Wilson, a supplemental first-round pick, was the backup to The Cajun Cannon, Bobby Hebert. A week into camp, John was getting more reps and I reported that I believed he would move into the backup spot and Wilson would be shown the door.

I was, literally, called an idiot and laughed at by the announcers at WSMB, my local affiliate. Although I can’t remember the announcer’s name now, I will never forget him shouting at me, on air, that, “John Fourcade wasn’t a pimple on Dave Wilson’s ass.” He also suggested, on air, that the station drop me.

The station didn’t drop me and as I predicted, by the end of training camp, John was the backup and Wilson moved on.

Bobby Hebert had a clause in his contract that paid him $250,000 if he started 14 consecutive games in a season. By the 14th game, at Buffalo, the Saints were mathematically out of playoff contention. Saints then General Manager, Jim Finks, opted to start Fourcade.

Was it to save a buck? Who knows? Ask Bobby Hebert his opinion, but have ear plugs. The response will be long and loud.

I was in Las Vegas covering the opening of The Mirage and the Ray Leonard vs Roberto Duran rubber match that was part of the casino’s grand opening. My phone rang around midnight. It was John shouting into the phone that he was going to start. I broke the news, again on WSMB and was again laughed at. A few hours later, the Saints made it official.

With Fourcade under center, the Saints went on a three game winning streak to close out the 1989 season, posting victories over the Bills, Eagles and Colts, all teams that entered the respective games with winning records. Fourcade’s statistics over those three weeks were quite impressive.

In the snow at Rich Stadium, Fourcade threw for 302 yards and two touchdowns in a 22-19 victory over a very good team, led by Marv Levy and Jim Kelly. At home against one of the best defenses in the NFL, Fourcade passed for 286 yards and three scores as the Saints downed an excellent Philadelphia squad 30-20. In the season finale at home against Indianapolis, Fourcade passed for 291 yards and two scores and rushed for a third touchdown against another team that came in with a winning record.

Hebert’s contract was up at the end of the season and the Cajun had no intention of signing a cheap contract. On New York’s WFAN, I predicted that the final game of the 1989 season would be Bobby Hebert’s last as a Saint.

After insultingly being offered a backup quarterback salary, Bobby Hebert began a holdout that would lead to him missing the entire 1990 season, despite a big offer from Al Davis’ Raiders.

The Saints had claimed Hebert’s rights. He signed with New Orleans after the USFL folded, claiming he was a free agent. Hebert eventually won and his case was the catalyst for the NFL’s free agency. True story.

After an off season filled with endorsements, personal appearances and having been the Grand Marshall of one Mardi Gras parade or another every night of Carnival, it was time for training camp back in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. John Fourcade was the ruler of his domain. Life was good.

And then, as if it were a bleak Hollywood movie, tragedy struck.

Just before the end of preseason, John’s long time girlfriend and likely future wife, Christine Frischertz, went into the hospital for minor surgery.

I was visiting WVUE and Ron Swoboda asked how Christine’s surgery had gone? I said I didn’t know but it was nothing major, but I decided to call her room. John’s sister answered. That wasn’t the voice I was expecting. Something was wrong.

“Alan, she’s dead,” she said. It was that blunt, abrupt, shocking. I was in shock. John was worse. Christine, a beautiful and vibrant young lady had died during surgery.

The Saints had one last preseason game that week and I overstepped my boundaries as a reporter and stood in front of John’s locker after the game. There would be no interviews today. The other reporters understood. They nodded their heads and moved along.

Over the next few weeks, John would call or show up at my house late, late at night. He was suffering, and rightly so, tremendous depressed. Saints fans didn’t see this side of their new star. Only a few of us did.

The 1990 season opened with a Monday Night Football showdown at the Superome against Joe Montana and the 49ers on Sept. 10. At the time, Joe and company were beyond elite. They were too good. But the Saints had one of the best defenses in NFL history, led by the Dome Patrol of Rickey Jackson, Vaughn Johnson, Sam Mills and Pat Swilling.

The pressure on Fourcade could not have been greater.

A combination of poor play by Fourcade and outstanding play by a superb San Francisco defense led to Fourcade throwing three interceptions. He had a miserable night statistically, completing just 12-of-34 passes for 186 yards with the turnovers.

It was not the performance the Saints were looking for or the performance Fourcade needed to cement his position. Thanks to four Moeten Andersen field goals, the Saints held on until a game ending field goal notched a 13-12 win for San Francisco.

The new week started just as the last one had ended. John was calling and arriving late at night. At a team practice at the Superdome, I once again overstepped reporter boundaries and asked Jim Finks if I could speak with him privately. We walked a few yards from Swoboda and Brian Allee-Walsh, the only other reporters there at the time.

I told Mr. Finks that John was maybe more depressed than the team knew. That maybe they could and should talk with him. I was trying to help my friend and this was not an easy message to deliver.

Finks inhaled and exhaled and then stared me directly in the eyes. Almost to the point of rage, he pointed a finger at me and said something I won’t repeat here and then added that if John couldn’t get the job done, they’d bring in somebody who could.

After a terrible 32-3 loss at Minnesota in which Fourcade went just 9-of-23 for 149 yards with three more interceptions, the Saints came home and righted the ship with a 28-7 win over Arizona. Fourcade was not as bad but still was not sharp, completing 11-of-23 passes for 151 yards with a touchdown and another interception.

Then came a bye week. Finks found that “somebody” in the person of Steve Walsh.

He cost the team a first-round pick and third-round pick in 1991, as well as a second-round pick in 1992. It was a future-killing deal for a mediocre player who would play the rest of the season for the Saints and never play for New Orleans again. Walsh was Troy Aikman’s backup in Dallas and would never be anything more.

After Fourcade started against Cleveland following the bye week, Walsh replaced him and had an excellent game. He would start the remaining 12 regular season games for New Orleans and a playoff game at Chicago in which he was replaced by Fourcade.

Hebert came back with a big contract in 1991, the Saints started 7-0 and won their first-ever division championship, though Walsh was called on to start seven games that season when Hebert was injured. Walsh played in just two games in 1993, starting one for the Saints. He moved on to Chicago in 1994 before playing for St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Indianapolis, becoming a true journeyman.

Fourcade never played a down in the NFL after the 1990 season, lingering on the indoor football league circuit for teams known as the Miami Hooters, Milwaukee Mustangs, Mississippi Fire Dogs and Mobile Seagulls through 2001.

Hebert was a solid, winning quarterback with the Saints and he is deservingly in the Saints Hall of Fame but I’ll always wonder what might have been had Christine not passed away. Today, without a doubt, team officials would have counseled a player in John’s situation. What might have happened if John had been helped when he clearly needed help?

On the professional level, in any league, it is pay for play. It is all about productivity and what you have done most recently, the “what have you done for me lately?” mentality. Some players have longer leashes than others. Those are typically players that an organization invested heavily in. It was also obvious that the Saints organization lacked the kind of belief and confidence in Fourcade that an organization must have in its starting quarterback.

We gave each other a big bear hug on the field after his first start, a win, on that very snowy and cold day Buffalo. I ran into John outside the lunch hall at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse just minutes after he had been released by the Saints in 1991. It was a stark reminder of how quickly fortunes can turn. We should all appreciate what we have while we have it.

While Fourcade was not an accomplished NFL quarterback, the New Orleans Saints won seven games that he started. Not many people can make that claim.

I plan to be in that number when John marches into this Hall of Fame. I am happy for him. I’m proud of him. But I cannot avoid wondering what if?

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