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Tiny town in Cajun country goes crazy over Carolina quarterback

BREAUX BRIDGE, La. - At the edge of a park where Jake Delhomme played peewee football, there's a cypress sculpture of a crawfish about the size of a refrigerator.

There's no monument to the Carolina Panthers' starting quarterback, but that could change soon.

Already, a local bar in this Cajun town of 7,500 has named a hamburger steak special for him. A musician is working on a song in his honor. A bank is putting up a Delhomme billboard. The marquee outside a restaurant reads: "Congratulations Jake."

And the conversation in Breaux Bridge, where drivers tap their car horns whenever they spot friends, has a familiar theme lately: the hometown kid's astonishing ride to the Super Bowl.

Delhomme (pronounced deh-LOME) went all the way to NFL Europe before landing a spot with the New Orleans Saints. The Saints even cut him twice before making him a backup to Aaron Brooks in 2001. Delhomme won his only start of 2002, then signed as a free agent with Carolina.

On opening day this season, Delhomme came off the bench to rally the Panthers to a victory. Carolina continued to win, and the excitement in Breaux Bridge reached a crescendo when the Panthers defeated the Philadelphia Eagles for the NFC title.

Next up is next Sunday's Super Bowl in Houston against the New England Patriots.

Delhomme, who had an avid following in college at Louisiana-Lafayette, was the talk of his town when he made the Saints' practice squad six years ago. Now that he's the starter of a Super Bowl team, Breaux (pronounced BRO) Bridge is in a state of Delhomme delirium.

All of Carolina's games this season were broadcast by a local radio station in what is normally Saints country.

"Everybody's talking about the Panthers," Ronald Latiolais, who works for the mayor, says with a strong Cajun French accent. "People that wasn't concerned about football at all - they're now glued to that TV waiting to see Jake."

Latiolais wore a Panthers hat as he walked into the office of his boss and longtime friend, Mayor Jack Dale Delhomme. The mayor is the quarterback's first cousin once removed, and he jokes about how sharing the same name is like being part of a budding Cajun Camelot.

"It's like the Kennedys, baby," he says.

Much of the Delhomme family, including Jake, his brother Jeff and father Jerry, still live in Breaux Bridge, although Jake is rarely home during the season. All three homes are within sight of each other, along a highway that passes by cattle ranches, sugar cane fields and the occasional oil rig.

Jake lives in a modest one-story cottage that belonged to his grandfather, who trained and raced quarter horses. Jake, a horse trainer himself, moved the home onto his father's ranch, where the family now prepares thoroughbreds for races at nearby Evangeline Downs.

"We have no one in our family that has gone far away," says Jerry Delhomme. "When he's no longer playing ball, he'll be right back here."

The town was named for the Breaux family that built a bridge over the Bayou Teche - essentially a slow-moving river - about 145 years ago. The downtown, situated at the edge of a bridge, is just a couple blocks of two-story brick buildings and balcony-shaded sidewalks.

Gary Breaux, a descendant of the founding family, points out that the Panthers' QB is not the only town celebrity. Miss USA 1996 Ali Landry and Houston Texans running back Dominick Davis come from Breaux Bridge, as do three players on LSU's 2003 college football national championship team.

About 125 miles west of New Orleans, the town is known for its crawfish festival. Restaurants serve grilled catfish filet topped with shrimp etouffee (a stew) or crawfish au gratin. A waiter might check on restaurant patrons with a quick, "C'est bon?"

The Corner Bar is housed in a 110-year-old, handsome cypress building of high ceilings. It was a general store and later a dance hall. A message board says, "Wow, Jake!" and "We told U Haslett," a shot at Saints coach Jim Haslett.

"We knew what he could do because we had seen what he had since high school," bar owner Earl "Boogi" Hebert said, patting the area over his heart.

Now just about everyone who visits Mayor Delhomme wants to share in the hoopla. Many drop off memorabilia in hopes the mayor can get Jake to sign it.

"I pinch myself," Jerry Delhomme said. "When he was with the Saints, when we saw a jersey with Jake's number, we went bananas - and nine times out of 10, it was a cousin."

With the Super Bowl only four hours west on Interstate 10, a Cajun contingent is expected at the stadium. It doesn't matter if there are no tickets.

"We'll put up a sign that says, 'Breaux Bridge, La., hometown of Jake Delhomme,' have some crawfish and barbecue or something, and afterward go to a motel room to watch it on TV," says Randy "Crip" Cormier, the town's parks director. "You never know, we might get in."

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