Billy Joe Hobert: Villain, hero? Debate rages

MUKILTEO — And so 10 years later the prodigal quarterback has come home.

It is close to noon now and Billy Joe Hobert stands along the line at the driving range attacking a pile of golf balls from the edge of a green mat. Around him, a cluster of former Washington and Washington State football players gather for the start of a charity golf tournament. He does not mingle.

They seem to regard Billy Joe at a distance. Maybe it is because he has been gone. Maybe because there is still a sense of deep mystery about a man who could win every college game he started yet seem to so carelessly drag the fortunes of an athletic program around like a piece of tissue stuck to the bottom of his shoe.

Whatever the reason, their hesitation hangs in the air, a sign that the inner club is not yet open. Surely he must see it, must feel the furtive glances taken his way. But if he does, he will not show it, for as the others mill about, shaking hands and slapping backs, he plunges into the range balls with a vengeance.

"There it goes!" Billy Joe shouts as he smacks a ball, sending it soaring until it is a speck against the morning gloom. The ball sails over a distant netting until it becomes just a sound, crackling through a thicket of far-off tree branches.

"Did you see that one!" Billy Joe is roaring now. "Did you see where it went?"

A reporter standing next to him admits that he had lost sight of the ball.

"Ah, dawg, you're killing me!" Billy Joe shouts. "Now I'm just going to have to do it again."

He gives an exaggerated sigh, pulls out another ball, cocks the club and heaves back into his backswing.

The University of Washington has never known quite what to make of Billy Joe Hobert. That he's even at a function sponsored by the big purple W is noteworthy enough. It's not like he's been asked around all that much, what with the $50,000 loan and the probation that followed.

A few years ago, the school celebrated its 1991 national championship and Billy Joe is quick to point out that he, the quarterback, was not invited. College officials kept telling him they sent something but he swears he never saw it.

And what difference does it make anyway? It's the principle of the thing; he didn't feel welcome.

He shrugs. "I don't get offended," he says. "You really can't offend me."

And over the next several hours as he whacks away on the golf course, Billy Joe will be the happiest man on earth. He sings songs, humming in a smooth, carefree voice tinged with just the slightest bit of cowboy, because after all, anybody named Billy Joe is going to have a little bit of cowboy in him.

"He's just such a rascal ... but a good rascal," says an old friend of former football coach Don James. .

Yet his arrival back home after eight years in the NFL must be so perplexing for those who run the University of Washington, for no football player who has ever pulled on the purple and gold has generated as much discourse as Billy Joe Hobert.

A decade later and the argument still rages — either he gave the school its finest moment with the national championship or he is its greatest villain, who kicked a budding dynasty into the abyss. When it comes to Billy Joe, opinion usually doesn't rest in middle.

"Extremes!" he says with a small laugh. "It's been that way my entire life. Excluding the last five years, there hasn't been a year that's gone by without something extreme happening in my life."

But it does matter. It matters a lot. He loved James like maybe no coach he ever had and while he won't raise the subject in conversation, it bothers him that James might have quit as UW's coach because of him.

Like the hesitation of the former football players, this fear also hangs in the air.

"It's something that has been eating at him for the last few years," says Vic Porter, one of Billy Joe's oldest friends. "He feels he needs to apologize to Don James. Billy felt it was his fault that Don James retired.

"We talked about this a lot, he wanted to come back because he missed everybody here and he felt he had been away long enough. He felt it had been long enough where — how do I say this? — people wouldn't be mad at him."

Billy Joe has returned, though, in a lot better shape than when he left. He has a wife and five children spread over two marriages and there is a difference. He is not a wild-eyed teenager careening through life.

Instead, he has moved home to Puyallup to hang out his shingle in real estate just like his father did decades before. He wants to be a part of Seattle again and, yes, he wants to be a part of Washington football.

Toward the end of his NFL career, he did some radio work and he found that he liked it. Now that the Huskies are on KJR, he thinks he could be a good fit for the game broadcasts.

He says he has spoken to several different people involved with the program and they all think it sounds like a great idea. And yet as earnest as he appears, as hopeful as he sounds, you somehow get the idea the highest levels of administration at the University of Washington would rather broadcast the games in semaphore than let Billy Joe Hobert near a live microphone.

"I've got no choice but to deal with (the loan and probation)," he says. "But I consider it a blessing. That guy 10 years ago isn't alive today. That guy died a long time ago. I have five fantastic kids and a fantastic wife. I don't care if people will put me down and say mean things about me. It's a blessing because it shows how far I have evolved."

He stops in midswing, looks up and his eyes are very serious.

"Up until recently I didn't defend myself," he says. "But now I've got more than myself to think about."

Few college athletes have had a year like Billy Joe Hobert's 1992. He won a piece of the national championship on the very first day when he led UW to a victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl. And by the middle of the following fall the Huskies were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the nation. Then the loan was uncovered and the bottom dropped out.

Technically, Billy Joe insists, he did nothing wrong. The loan — or actually a series of loans totaling $50,000 — made by a nuclear engineer in Idaho named Charles Rice and arranged by a longshoreman and Hobert friend Rude Finne, was not illegal. But the fact that it had no specific payment schedule and that Billy Joe had no assets to claim made it of great interest to the NCAA.

And it probably didn't help his case when he said he borrowed the money to buy cars, guns, stereos, golf clubs and lavish the rest on wild weekends during which he threw "hundreds of dollars" at his friends. Soberly at the time he conceded: "It wasn't the smartest thing I did because I ended up blowing it, and now I've got all the bills and nothing to show for it." He was suspended, and within days had left campus, his college career over.

The following summer, the Pac-10 put the school on two-year probation. James, the coach, resigned the moment the punishment was announced. And even though several Huskies were implicated in various wrongdoings, it was the reckless quarterback everybody blamed. It made things easy, a face to a scandal that threatened to tear the UW apart. Not long after, the death threats started pouring in.

"You know the death threats never bothered me," Billy Joe says, chuckling slightly. "It's the ones you don't know about that worry you. My first year with the Raiders, there was a death threat when we came up here to play the Seahawks. There must have been 25 cops all over the place. At the time I'm the world's highest-paid statistician, just standing there holding a clipboard. And at one point during the game I look around and nobody is even close to me. Nobody is standing within 20 yards of me.

"I'm thinking, 'Well, this is going to be interesting.' "

What did it matter? He was a one-man wrecking crew, careening out of control, fully intent on self-destruction and the ruination of all around him.

"Regardless of how bad I was behaving, I did have a conscience," he says. "I just didn't care."

His first marriage ended, but soon he was married again, to a former college soccer player named Danielle who worked in Al Davis' Raiders office. They had two children but the partying continued.

He highballed his way out of the Raiders and into Buffalo in 1997 after four years and just eight starts. And when he admitted after four weeks with the Bills that he hadn't bothered to read the playbook, he was cut on the spot.

That night, he started driving back to California, jobless for the first time in years. He stopped somewhere in Minnesota, where the Monday Night Football game was on television and as it turned out, the Vikings were playing and all around him people cheered and laughed and shouted to the screen. Billy Joe sat there alone watching the scene and for the first time it seemed clear all that he had destroyed.

"He felt like he had thrown it all away," Porter says. "Getting cut from Buffalo might have been the best thing that happened to him. He started taking things one step at a time after that."

A few weeks later, when the Saints called, Billy Joe left determined to salvage what was left of his smoldering career. And the next summer, he found his salvation in the strangest of places: a dormitory room in LaCrosse, Wisc.

Now, the storyline of wayward athletes suddenly finding safety in God is a well-worn cliché, one that often leads to much eye-rolling and uncomfortable throat clearing from a more skeptical general population. But remember this is Billy Joe with a lifetime of extremes trailing behind. The Lord would not appear to Billy Joe in subtle ways.

"I had just hung up with my wife promising to be a good boy when I was intending to be anything but," he says. "I was heading out the door, in fact I was out the door when I stopped to check my hair in the mirror. That's when I saw myself. And I don't know why I did it but I just said 'God, if you're out there give me a sign.'

"Oh man, how can I explain this to the secular population without sounding like a total goofball? I took what I saw in the mirror as how God saw me at that moment. I felt right then like I was the devil's right-hand man."

Rattled, Billy Joe closed the door and tumbled into his bed, where he spent a disconcerting night praying into the darkness. The next morning, as he walked off the Saints practice field, he spotted a man named Jacob Aranza — a holy roller from back in New Orleans. Instinctively, he backed away, but the preacher persisted.

"He said he was praying in his prayer group the other day," Billy Joe says. "And he looked at me and said 'God said I should visit LaCrosse, Wisc., and go see Billy Joe.' "

Hobert was stunned, and an eerie sensation tingled down his spine.

"Here I was supposed to be this big, bad quarterback dude, but there I was on a football field about to choke up," he says.

He shakes his head. "It was weird, dude."

That night he called Danielle and the first words out of his mouth were "Hey honey, guess what I did today?" Then for the next few minutes he proceeded to read her passages from the Bible. And when he was done there was a long silence on the other end of the phone.

"Well, that's all well and good," Danielle finally said. "Let's see how long it works."

But the truth is religion has taken like nothing else in his life ever had. It might shock people who 10 years ago called him "Billy Dough" that he actually has given money away to friends in need. Lot's of money.

"A few thousand here, a few thousand there," he says with a shrug.

The dormitory in LaCrosse was four years ago and since then his marriage that was on the verge of disaster has thrived.

"They say people can't change," Danielle says, "but believe me, I am witness to the fact that they can. He's been an unbelievable person and husband."

Regrets? Yeah, he has regrets, enough mountains of them to build another Cascade range.

Just start with the tattoo — a large golf ball sitting on a tee, that runs for about four inches on the outside of his left calf. Above the ball is printed the words "Tee it high, let it fly." He got it at a friend's bachelor party when he was 19 after a night of drinking. It wasn't until a few years later when he looked down at his leg with utter despair over what he had done.

"It cost me $42 to get it on and it will cost me $3,000 to take it off," he says. "So I guess it's there. Oh well, I'll leave it as something for my kids to see, so they can see how dumb it is to do something like that. I mean, come on, a golf tattoo?"

But the tattoo is there, like a scarlet letter brandished to this body to remind him of just how out-of-control he had once been.

He wishes he had worked harder on football, because by the time he finally discovered himself in the dormitory room in LaCrosse, Wisc., the NFL had gotten stronger and faster around him. And that's when his body started to fall apart. First came a shot to the Achilles that ruined his 1998, then a blow to the head the next year that actually left him unable to feel his arm for several hours. After that, he knew he was about done with the game. Indianapolis kept him on its bench in 2000 and then released him last August.

"If it wasn't for the injuries, I think you would have seen the difference in his career," Danielle says. "He was really on the verge of turning it around."

Only there is no time to pine for a football life lost. Billy Joe's existence is here now, in real estate with a cell phone that chirps endlessly. He believes he can be good at real estate, very good actually. Already he's sold four houses in just four months.

But there is something that pulls at him at the same time, something that wasn't there in the past — feeling. And he says, "I have to take care of my clients, I have to help them with their financing and make sure they can afford what they are doing. My whole family grew up poor, I know what it's like. I made a lot of money in my life and I couldn't care less about the pennies."

The day has grown long and the golf outing is coming to an end. What an afternoon it has been. Earlier, Billy Joe saw Don James for the first time in years. They greeted each other warmly.

"He doesn't owe me an apology, that's not the case," James says later from his home. "I resigned because of what the league did to us. I don't think he did one thing that was an NCAA violation."

Now Billy Joe drives his cart up toward the last hole which looms in front of the late day sun. Somewhere in this glare his wife and his children are supposed to be waiting.

He purses his lips and lets loose with a whistle that sounds something like a cross between a cooing pigeon and a boomerang.

"It's how I call my kids," he says.

In the distance, a little head pops up over the edge of a bunker, then another. And if you peer closely you can see a little wave. Daddy's coming.

"Ah look," Billy Joe says as shapes get bigger and he can see his two youngest daughters "they're wearing their matching pink dresses."

The prodigal quarterback jams his foot on the pedal of the golf cart and speeds toward the end of the day. His children come running.

Billy Joe Hobert has finally come home.