Saints quarterback Drew Brees is starting to look the Super part
Jan. 30, 2010 at 1:01 p.m.
Updated Jan. 29, 2010 at 7:30 p.m.
PHOTOS () —
By Pete DiPrimio
The News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Ind.)
Drew Brees can't walk on water — until photos suggest he can.
Brees isn't too good to be true — until actions show he is.
He's too short to be a dominant NFL quarterback — until he proves the ridiculousness of that statement by making four Pro Bowls in the last six years.
Oh, yes. The former Purdue All-America, known for his serious side as he prepares to lead the New Orleans Saints against the Indianapolis Colts in Sunday's Super Bowl showdown, does have a sense of humor.
Flashback to September of 2000. The state is shaken by the firing of Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight. His last-straw act — grabbing the arm of a student who asked him, "What's up, Knight?" in defiance of his zero tolerance restrictions.
Purdue is preparing for a football game. Brees is gathered with assistant coaches going over the game plan. Head coach Joe Tiller arrives to observe. Brees looks over and says, "What's up, Tiller?"
"I said, 'Brees, if you ever call me Tiller again, I'm going to knock that birthmark off your face,'" Tiller says with a chuckle. "We all got a big laugh over that."
Brees minimized his jokes at Purdue, maximized his performance. He set two NCAA passing records, 12 Big Ten records and 18 school marks. He was a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist, a two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year, the 2000 Maxwell Award winner as the nation's outstanding player and the 2000 Academic All-American of the Year. He led the Boilers to the 2000 Big Ten co-championship and a Rose Bowl berth.
"Drew might have been the best practice player I've ever been around," Tiller says. "He was all business and still is. Watch him on the sidelines. He has that focus about him. The first thing he does is grab those photos (teams take to show defensive formations). He's already looking ahead to the next series."
Such focus doesn't cost Brees perspective about what's really important. For instance, he and wife Brittany, also a Purdue grad, pledged $2 million for the university's academic center. He's contributed so much to charity organizations in West Lafayette, San Diego and New Orleans that he was named the 2006 NFL Man of the Year.
He used part of the six-year, $60 million contract he signed four years ago to boost the Brees Dream Foundation charity, which is trying to raise $2.5 million for projects to rebuild schools and athletic fields in New Orleans, plus cancer research. Overall the foundation has raised or committed to more than $4.5 million.
"Drew is a better person than a player, and he's a great player, because he was raised that way," Tiller said. "He's a very compassionate guy. He's very sensitive toward his teammates. He never tries to upstage anybody.
"He's a caring guy who has a difficulty saying no. He's kind of a sucker in that way. That's why he started his foundation. That way he can pick and choose who to help out."
Do you believe in destiny? Brees does. After beating Minnesota to make the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history he talked about the parallels between the city of New Orleans and the team and "the way we united and fought through so much adversity to get to this point. Now we've finally been able to bring an NFC Championship to this town."
Brees led the way and fans began viewing him in savior terms. When New Orleans opened 13-0, he became "Breesus" (black and gold shirts were made asking "What Would Breesus Do"), a play on Jesus, and if some took offense, they weren't Saints fans.
Black and gold T-shirts appeared that read "What Would Breesus Do?", "Breesus is My Homeboy," and "Sweet Breesus." PhotoShopped Internet photos appeared showing Brees walking on the Mississippi River in front of St. Louis Cathedral.
This is nothing new. Saints fans find religious meaning in many of their team's stars. Running back Reggie Bush was called "Saint Reggie" and "The Savior" shortly after he was drafted as the NFL's No. 2 pick in 2006.
Brees' divinity status took a brief hit when New Orleans lost its final three regular season games, but beating Arizona and Minnesota to reach the franchise's first Super Bowl restored fervor to Brees Mania.
Some athletes flee role model responsibility. Brees embraces it. He's a family man with wife Brittany, whom he met at Purdue, and cute-as-can-be son Baylen Robert, who just turned 1. Rather than live in isolation in some mega-million-dollar mansion in a gated community, they live in the Uptown part of New Orleans (the city's oldest neighborhood) in a 120-year-old home that needed $50,000 worth of repairs from Hurricane Katrina damage.
Brees walks his dog, Alex, in the neighborhood. He talks with neighbors. He shops and eats, but doesn't party, in the French Quarter.
Mostly, though, Brees works and prepares like few others. In his four seasons in New Orleans, no quarterback, not even Indianapolis' Peyton Manning, can match Brees' totals of 122 touchdown passes, 18,298 yards and 1,572 completions. He also leads with 142 completions of more than 25 yards.
For those who wondered if he was too short to play the position, the 6-foot Brees became the first quarterback 6-foot or under to lead the NFL in TD passes (he had 34 this past season) since Fran Tarkenton in 1975.
"His height was never an issue with us," Tiller said, "and I didn't think it would be an issue in the NFL because I knew he'd get with a coach and a system that would capitalize on his abilities. That's happened with Sean Payton and New Orleans."
The Saints were looking for a quarterback when Sean Payton took over as coach four years ago. They considered going after a young Dallas quarterback named Tony Romo, but the Cowboys said no way.
Brees, meanwhile, seemed damaged goods coming from San Diego. He had dislocated his right (throwing) shoulder in the 2005 regular season finale when Denver defensive tackle Gerald Warren landed on it. It totally tore his labrum and partially tore his rotator cuff. San Diego, with talented Philip Rivers ready to go at quarterback, cut Brees. Most teams figured Brees would never be the same and passed on him.
Miami was sort of interested, but was so concerned about Brees' shoulder (the Dolphins figured there was just a 25 percent change of a full recovery) that it never made an offer. Instead, it signed aging and injured Daunte Culpepper.
That left New Orleans. The Superdome was wrecked from Katrina and team officials seriously considered leaving for San Antonio or Los Angeles. Fans needed something to believe in and a winning football team would be a huge boost. So officials signed a Superdome lease through 2025. Now they needed a team good enough to fill the place.
Payton loved Brees' accuracy, intelligence, courage and leadership. He believed Brees' shoulder would be fine. When Brees first arrived in the spring of 2006 he couldn't throw a football 10 yards. But he was ready for the season. He threw for 4,418 yards and 26 touchdowns against 11 interceptions in his Saints debut.
Last year Brees threw for 5,062 yards, missing by Dan Marino's NFL record by 15 yards. This season he led the NFL in touchdown passes (34) and quarterback rating (109.6). He set a league accuracy record by completing 70.6 percent of his passes. He threw for 4,388 yards, the fourth straight season he has surpassed 4,000 passing yards.
Yes, Peyton Manning is billed as the greatest quarterback in NFL history, but it is Brees who has won two straight Sporting News offensive player of the year awards. That's chosen by a panel of 636 players, coaches and executives.
Did Tiller see this coming? Brees, after all, was a second-round pick who barely played as a rookie behind 38-year-old Doug Flutie and who had a losing record as a starter after his first two seasons.
"I don't want to suggest I had a crystal ball," Tiller said, "but nothing Drew does surprises me. He's very talented. He was very under-rated by the professional people when he came out. What I witnessed him do and accomplish at the college level was amazing.
"Not only has Drew matured and developed into a real field general, but he's with a coach who knows what his strengths are and plays to them. This system complements him perfectly."
New Orleans' 15-3 record is fueled by offense. It led the NFL by averaging 31.9 points and 403.8 yards. It has a deep, talented receiving corps and one of the NFL's most explosive multipurpose threats in Reggie Bush.
Brees has been a postseason machine. In the 45-14 win over Arizona he was 23-for-32 for 247 yards and three touchdowns. In the 31-28 win over Minnesota he was 17-for-31 for 197 yards and three touchdowns. That's six touchdowns and zero interceptions under high-stakes pressure.
In Miami he'll go against Manning, a four-time NFL MVP with one Super Bowl victory on his resume.
"You have a quarterback matchup where Drew is going to be compared to Peyton, and that's fine," Tiller said. "Drew will play his type of game and be successful. I'm sure Peyton will, too. People will come away saying they've seen the two best quarterbacks in the NFL right now going at each other. It's going to be an entertaining game."
(c) 2010, The News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Ind.).
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