In New Orleans, offensive heroes are as rare as snowflakes. Oh, the Saints' fans cheered for their Cajun quarterback, Bobby Hebert, and guys like wideout Eric Martin and running back Dalton Hilliard have always been sturdy players who gave it their best shot. But for some reason the cheering always died—in the playoffs, for instance, or whenever New Orleans played the San Francisco 49ers, who made a habit of breaking the Saints' hearts in the Superdome. But the fans are keeping their fingers crossed now, and maybe, just maybe, they've found a guy to take them to the promised land.
That would be Wade Wilson, a 34-year-old quarterback who was cut by the Minnesota Vikings after 11 years with the team and was third string with the Atlanta Falcons last season. On Sunday, Wilson got the Saints over their first hump. He engineered a last-minute field goal drive that beat the 49ers 16-13 and gave New Orleans a 4-0 record and a two-game lead in the NFC West. Terra incognita for this club. Five of the last six games against the Niners in the dome had ended in defeat for the home folks, by margins of one to six points. And the one New Orleans had won, 10-3 in 1991, came when quarterback Steve Bono was struggling through his first start for San Francisco.
On Sunday, Wilson moved the ball coolly and carefully, picking the right receivers and scrambling when he had to. Routine stuff for Joe Montana and Dan Marino perhaps, but big thunder in this town. "What's the difference between Wade and Bobby Hebert?" said tight end Hoby Brenner. "Bobby would let his emotions carry over in a kind of uprage. Wade'll get mad too—but first he'll settle down, then he'll tell you why he's mad."
This is the way it happened on Sunday. With the Saints leading 13-10, Steve Young drove the Niners the length of the field for a field goal to tie the game at 13 with 1:14 left. New Orleans got the ball on its 23 with two timeouts available. Seven plays later the Saints were on the San Francisco 32 with 10 seconds to play.
Wilson completed four of six passes on the drive, two of them to Martin, who had uncharacteristically dropped two balls earlier in the game. "He stayed with me," Martin said. "He had confidence in me. Makes you feel good."
On the fourth play of the drive Wilson scrambled for eight yards and took a ferocious sideline hit from safety Merton Hanks. But Wilson came back and got the Saints into position, and now it was time to turn the game over to Morten Andersen, the kicker. "We looked at each other before I went on the field," Andersen said. "Two guys who knew we were going to win the game for each other." His 49-yard field goal was good, and Wilson and Andersen were the toasts of the Quarter.
Roll the clock back to January 1988, the dying moments of the NFC Championship Game between the Vikings and the Washington Redskins in Washington. Down by a touchdown, Wilson brings Minnesota back to a fourth-and-goal on the Redskin four-yard line. A little option pass to halfback Darrin Nelson, one step to the end zone—and the ball is dropped. The Skins go on to the Super Bowl and demolish the Denver Broncos. "I reflect on that a lot," says Wilson. "How close can you get? It seemed like everything peaked at that moment."
It has been a career of frustration and disappointment for Wilson, starting way back. He grew up in Commerce, Texas, a 6'3", 210-pound drop-back passer who idolized Roger Staubach. He was going to make a name for himself at Texas or maybe Texas A&M. Sorry, not this trip. SWC schools were running the veer and the wishbone, and they were looking for mobile quarterbacks.
So he enrolled at East Texas State, an NAIA school in Commerce. "I wanted to go away to college," Wilson says, "do the whole experience, get away from home. So I wound up a five-minute drive from my house."
The Vikings took Wilson in the eighth round of the 1981 draft, signing him for an $8,500 bonus plus annual salaries of $30,000, $35,000 and $40,000. Wilson apprenticed under Tommy Kramer, stepping in when Kramer was hurt. Then in 1987 the Vikings picked up Rich Gannon. "Mike Lynn, our general manager, called Gannon 'our future,' " Wilson says. "So where did that leave me? An All-Pro in front of me, a wonder kid behind me. My rèsumè read: Wade Wilson, terminal backup."
One other thing about Wilson made people nervous. In '85 he learned that he had diabetes. He lost 25 pounds. His career seemed over. He battled back, but the Vikings were still jittery. The questions were finally answered, first in '87, when Wilson, the job finally his after Kramer was injured, came within a heartbeat of the Super Bowl, and then in '88, when he put together a Pro Bowl year. After that season, though, the injuries started coming—broken finger, dislocated thumb, separated shoulder. When Dennis Green arrived as coach in 1992, he saw a 33-year-old quarterback who had taken too many hits. Wilson was cut.
Six days later he was a Falcon, playing behind Chris Miller and Billy Joe Tolliver at first, and then making another marvelous comeback last December, when his three starts produced 1,040 passing yards and 10 TDs. "I felt great," says Wilson. "I'd built myself up in the weight room in Atlanta. There's no wear and tear.
"I'd told the people there, 'I want to end up here. I don't want to be a football gypsy.' They told me I'd compete for the job in '93, but in their hearts they knew Chris was the starter if he was healthy."
Wilson took advantage of the new free-agency system last winter and made a trip to New Orleans. If you come, the Saints told him, Hebert is gone. So Wilson went—for a three-year, $6 million package. "We'd always liked Wade," says Saint coach Jim Mora. "He'd played well against us. He's gutsy and smart, with a great work ethic."
Last Saturday, when the 49ers worked out in the dome, San Francisco coach George Seifert was asked about Wilson. "If we didn't have to play against him," Seifert said, "I'd say it's kind of neat, seeing a guy who appears to be going down do well."
Kind of neat indeed.
Wilson directed a 45-yard drive in the waning seconds to set up the winning field goal.