This was January, 1990, and John Fourcade was the crown prince of New Orleans. Rex, King of Carnival, had nothing on him. The former Ole Miss star and New Orleans native had come off the bench to lead his hometown New Orleans Saints to three straight victories to end the 1989 season.
Replacing Bobby Hebert as the starter at quarterback, Fourcade threw for 302 yards and two touchdowns as the Saints stunned the then-mighty Buffalo Bills. The next week, Fourcade threw for three more touchdowns, drawing Monday night raves from Al Michaels and Frank Gifford, as the Saints defeated the Philadelphia Eagles. In the season finale, Fourcade threw for nearly 300 yards and two more touchdowns and the Saints torched Indianapolis.
Fourcade’s unlikely storyline put Cinderella’s to shame. Undrafted out of Ole Miss, he had played in the Canadian Football League, the USFL and the Arena Football League before getting a chance with the Saints.
And I know what you’re thinking: Where is he going with this? This was more than 30 years ago and Fourcade’s Saints career flamed out quickly after that. Well, the truth is, I’ve been waiting to tell this story for more than 30 years, so bear with me. Remember, this was January of 1990 and New Orleans was hosting the Super Bowl. John Fourcade was the toast of the town – and he knew it.
“I had waited a long, long time for what was happening,” Fourcade said Wednesday afternoon during a stop in Jackson. “I had been cut in Canada, cut in the NFL, played in every league known to man. Now I was in the NFL, with my hometown team, playing well and I was milking it for all it was worth.”
So, the NFL Commissioner’s Super Bowl party was on Thursday night. And Fourcade was the toast of that party, too. He double-dated that night – a blonde on one arm and a brunette on the other. Both looked like runway models. But they had to share John that night. Everyone wanted to shake his hand, slap his back, get his autograph and buy him a free drink.
“Yeah, I remember all right, at least some of it,” Fourcade said. “By the end of that party I was feeling no pain. And we didn’t quit when the party ended. We kept going.”
There was just one problem, Fourcade was supposed to speak early the next morning at a New Orleans inner city school. What’s more, he was sharing the podium with President Ronald Reagan who was in town for the Super Bowl.
“I overslept,” Fourcade said. “Hell, they said they called me several times but I never heard my phone.”
Finally, a friend banged loudly on his door, and roused him. “You gotta drive me,” Fourcade told him. “No way I can drive.”
So Fourcade arrived at the school, disheveled and bleary-eyed. He was hustled backstage where he was introduced to Reagan, who shook hands with Fourcade and said, “Nice to meet you, young man, but you don’t look much like a quarterback.”
To which Fourcade answered, “Nice to meet you, too, but you don’t look much like a president.”
Reagan guffawed at that, much to Fourcade’s relief. The Secret Service agents did not crack a smile.
“I didn’t even think before I said it,” Fourcade said. “I couldn’t think. I could barely focus.”
Fourcade, one of the most mercurial athletes in Mississippi’s proud college football history, will turn 60 this October. He probably would not make the list of the 10 best quarterbacks I ever covered. This is not to say he couldn’t play, because he surely could. He accounted for 6,700 yards of offense at Ole Miss. He broke most of Archie Manning’s college records and some of Fourcade’s records stood until Eli Manning broke those.
Fourcade surely would be at or near the top of my list of the toughest football players. I covered him at Ole Miss and then with the Saints. He endured some brutal beatings both places. At Ole Miss, Fourcade operated Steve Sloan’s veer offense, which pretty much insured he would get smashed on nearly every play.
“They hit me if I handed off, hit me if I pitched, hit me if I ran with it and hit me when I threw it,” Fourcade said. “You play quarterback in the veer, you get clobbered. It’s guaranteed.”
Ole Miss was where he had the first two of his 23 football-related surgeries. Yes, 23, including four on his knees, which have both been replaced. He walks with a decided limp. He’s had several shoulder surgeries, back surgeries, neck surgeries and more.
“I am 59,” he said. “My body is 99.”
There were any number of concussions along the way. Thankfully, Fourcade still has his memory – or memories, lots of those.
Here’s tough: Fourcade had his throwing hand broken before his senior season at Ole Miss. The night before the season opener with Tulane at the Superdome, he sat in his hotel room, a cast on the hand, sick to death he would not play. So, he took a butter knife off his room service plate and cut the cast off. “Wasn’t easy. Took me a while,” he said.
Yes, and the next next morning he told then-Ole Miss coach Steve Sloan he was ready to go. He didn’t start, but he played – and played well – and helped the Rebels to a 19-18 victory.
“I still had three pins in my hand,” Fourcade said. “I had to hide them from the officials.”
He suffered a separated shoulder in the fourth quarter of that Tulane game, but played the entire game the next Saturday, a victory over Memphis.
Fourcade never enjoyed a winning season at Ole Miss. Sloan’s Rebels usually scored enough points to win; they just couldn’t keep the other teams from scoring more.
Yes, Fourcade says, he sometimes wonders what would have happened had he accepted other scholarship offers, such as the one from Bear Bryant at Alabama or Charlie McClendon at LSU. After starting four years at Shaw High School, he was recruited by virtually everyone, including Notre Dame, Oklahoma and all the SEC schools.
“I loved Coach Bear and I was going to Alabama until an assistant coach told me I wouldn’t start there until I was at least a junior,” Fourcade said. “Same thing at LSU. Both were stacked at quarterback. Steve Sloan and David Lee recruited me for Ole Miss and they both said I’d have the chance to start as a freshman. I didn’t want to sit on the bench for two years.”
Ask Fourcade the highlight of his Ole Miss career and you’ll get a quick answer.
“My last game, no doubt,” he said. “Last play of my last game. I score a touchdown and we beat Mississippi State. Never forget it. You score the winning touchdown to beat your arch-rival on the last play of your college career – how could that not be my best memory?”
Fourcade was 3-1 against State – and those were some terrific Mississippi State defenses, featuring the likes of Johnie Cooks, Tyrone Keyes, Glen Collins, Billy Jackson and so many more.
Fourcade made his first high school start as a 13-year-old ninth-grader. “We ran the veer, same offense we ran at Ole Miss,” he said. “I got beat up. I was a kid. I was playing against grown men that had beards. They almost killed me…”
Fourcade paused for a moment. … “The thing is, I loved it,” he continued. “I just loved to play football.”
He loved it so much he didn’t quit playing when the Saints cut him after the 1990 season. No, he kept throwing and running – and getting dinged – in football’s netherworld. In indoor football, he played for the Miami Hooters, the Milwaukee Mustangs, the Mississippi Fire Dogs and the Mobile Seagulls. He was both quarterback and head coach of the Fire Dogs and the Seagulls.
Ever seen an indoor football game, played on a compressed field surrounded by hockey walls? A better name for it might be demolition football. The collisions are often brutal and often include the walls.
Fourcade didn’t seem to care. He just wanted to play, and when he could play no more, he coached: the Florida Firecats, the Tupelo Fire Ants, the Shreveport-Bossier City Battle Wings, the Fairbanks (yes, Alaska) Grizzlies, the Acadiana Mudbugs, the Rio Grande Valley Magic and the New Mexico Stars in Rio Rancho, New Mexico.
He didn’t quit the Stars. They quit on him in 2016, folding after a 5-1 record. For Fourcade, that was enough. And it came 26 years after he shared the podium with President Reagan.
These days, Fourcade is still recovering from his last knee replacement, living on well-earned NFL disability and pension and working part time for ESPN Radio in New Orleans.
“No complaints here,” he told me. “I loved all of it. And, miracle of miracles, I can still get around.”