NEW ORLEANS — Over the years, Bobby Hebert has had some uncomplimentary things to say about Tom Benson.
But Wednesday, the ex-Saints quarterback had nothing but praise for the team owner in a “Toast to Tom Benson” luncheon on the very floor of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome where Hebert played for the Saints from 1985-89 and 91-92.
The event was a fundraiser for New Orleans Super Bowl Host Committee and drew a crowd of about 800.
“Without Tom Benson, this team would have been the Jacksonville Saints, and right now, I’d be the founding father of the Seahawks Nation,” Hebert said as he outlined how local sports history — not to mention his own career — was influenced by Benson. “With Mr. Benson, I wouldn’t have been part of the first winning season and first playoff team in 1987.
“With Tom Benson, there would have been no Who Dat Nation, no Super Bowl win, no Sean Payton, no Drew Brews, no Cajun Canon. Thank you, Mr. Benson, from all of us love our hometown, and who love the Saints. We love our local favor. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.”
Benson, who was also saluted by everyone from James Carville and Mary Matalin to a hotel doorman, seemed most pleased by the remarks from Hebert, who sat out the 1990 season in a contract dispute with the team.
“At that time, I grabbed him and nearly knocked him over his head,” Benson said. “But he felt like it was business and their time as players (is), short so they want to make as much money as they can at that time.
“That was a long time ago, too, and he and I have been friends ever since.”
Another ex-Saints player, running back Deuce McAllister, said that his relationship with Benson had been a life-changing experience.
“I have seen the growth of this organization, not just from when I got there in 2001, but from being a kid growing up in Mississippi,” he said. “To think of where we are now, which is one of the leading franchises in the National Football League.
“And a big reason for that is the way that Mr. Benson treats his players, his team, his staff. You couldn’t want anything better, and that’s due to the mindset of the people he’s brought in, determined to be the best.”
Dennis Lauscha, president of both the Saints and Hornets, whom Benson purchased earlier this year, recounted a story from the controversial weeks following Hurricane Katrina, when Benson informed everyone that the Saints would be returning to New Orleans in 2006, albeit with some strong persuading on the part of the NFL after a flirtation with San Antonio.
“He told us, ‘We’re going home and we’re going to be a part of rebuilding the city,’ ” Laushca said. “We’re going to give you the resources to do to whatever you can do to make us a champion.
“He meant it, he believed it and his actions spoke louder than his words. And we were able to win a championship.”
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu also praised the return of the Saints and the rebuilding of the Superdome as the prime example of the city’s recovery.
“We were on our backs,” he said. “But out of despair can come world-class and first-in-its-class work from a group of people who decided never to say never, not to say ‘No’ and become world champions.
“The work the Saints have done has been so critically important to this city. And when it was time keep the Hornets here, you also stepped up.”
Perhaps the most emotional part of the event was the talk by Rita Benson LeBlanc, Benson’s granddaughter and owner/vice-chairman of the board of the Saints.
In 2008, when Benson made the winning bid to bring the Super Bowl to New Orleans for the 10th time, LeBlanc said “Paw-Paw literally flew out of his chair, leaping and laughing and all of us holding on to each other.
And in 2010, when the Saints won the Super Bowl XLIV, it was “the greatest expression of pure joy imaginable.”
But it was up to Hebert to put in it perspective.
“If you’re in a relationship with anybody, you’re always going to have confrontations and you’re going to have good and bad,” he said. “You may not be on the same page, agree about everything.
“He’s a better owner now because he has more experience and better people around him. This is a day we look on the positives.”