All-Pro quarterback Drew Brees has revived New Orleans's moribund football franchise and lifted the city's battered spiits Here's where he makes his Crescent City connections off the field.
IT WAS NOT a hot and humid and steamy and quiet New Orleans night in the clichéd "Stanley Kowalski sweating though his undershirt" sense, but rather a wet and wintry and cold and quiet New Orleans night that Drew Brees returned to hours after falling one game short of the Super Bowl. Luckily, the glum weather was good for preserving the gumbo.
It was nearing three a.m. when Brees walked up the steps of the Uptown New Orleans home he and his wife, Brittany, had bought the prior winter. The couple - college sweethearts who met at Purdue University - had spent almost a year restoring the 100-plus-year-old place, a project that included making $50,000 of Hurricane Katrina-related roof repairs. Brittany was stuck in Chicago, where victorious fans were cheering their Super Bowl-bound Bears after the 39-14 dismantling of the Saints. Brees, though, had taken the team charter back to New Orleans and driven himself home from the airport. The drive, normally 30 minutes, had taken him nearly two hours. Saints fans had lined the road from the team's private air terminal, forming a two-mile collection of cars and people and banners and umbrellas. Brees had inched along in his car, signing autographs and shaking hands while people thanked him for turning in the best season of his six-year NFL career - one that earned him the starting quarterback's job in the Pro Bowl - and for leading the Saints to their best season in the team's 39-year history. For hurricane-weary New Orleans, the Saints' success could not have come at a better time.
The fans at the airport were just the beginning, though. When Brees got home to his empty house, he found that he wasn't really alone, after all. "I had balloons tied to my front door," Brees says, recalling the scene. He's at the Saints' training facility and has just finished a preseason practice on one of those stereotypical New Orleans days - 95 degrees, 70 percent humidity. "I had cookies sitting on my porch. I had brownies. I even had gumbo there, in a Tupperware container, on my front doorstep. Only in New Orleans are you going to have one of your neighbors leave you gumbo on your doorstep. It's pretty awesome."
"Pretty awesome" is a good way to describe Brees's tenure in the Crescent City. He arrived in March 2006 and found a city still trying to put itself back together. Brees was doing the same. On the first day of practice for the 2006 season, he was barely able to throw passes beyond 10 yards. In his last game as a San Diego Charger, Brees had been injured in a freak play, and he sustained seriously torn ligaments in his shoulder. The Chargers released him, and most other NFL teams refused to pick him up. The Miami Dolphins, who decided to go with the injured Daunte Culpepper rather than take a chance on Brees, told the Austin, Texas, native that they believed he had only a 25 percent chance of ever playing professional football again.
The Dolphins, interestingly enough, finished last year with a losing record and cut Culpepper. The Saints, on the other hand, were propelled into the playoffs by Brees's surgically reconstructed shoulder, by the inventive offensive schemes of first-year head coach Sean Payton, and by the number-two overall draft pick in 2006, Reggie Bush. The team, and particularly Brees, could hardly have been a better fit for the city. "I think it is amazing how, when I got here, I was rebuilding a shoulder and a career," Brees says. "And this organization was rebuilding a team - a franchise. And New Orleans and this whole region was rebuilding too. So we've all been kind of going though this rebuilding process together. And last season, you really felt like we could all do it together. Although we fell short, our season gave a lot of people hope, not only for the future of our organization and the team, but for the future of New Orleans."