It's always dangerous to put anyone on a pedestal, especially a professional athlete. But there doesn't seem to be a single person with a bad thing to say about Brees, who takes seriously the notion of public figure as role model. Even before he led the Saints to the Super Bowl title in 2010, his extensive charity work and foundations helped New Orleans recover from the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. If more athletes were like Brees, fewer fans would be cynical about sports.
First-class team: Green Bay Packers
Even in a sport like football, played by some of the best athletes in the world, there are some players in a class of their own. Collectively, the Packers separated themselves from the pack, so to speak, in last season's playoffs. Here are the first-class athletes to watch on the gridiron this season at the collegiate and professional levels.
First-class speed: Chris Johnson
Most NFL tailbacks are fast. Some are really, really fast. And then there's Johnson, who ran the 40-yard dash in a record-tying 4.24 seconds at the NFL Combine in 2008. Drafted in the first round by the Tennessee Titans, he's been a Pro Bowl starter in all three of his NFL seasons and rushed for 2,006 yards in 2009, the fifth-highest total in league history. Give him a step and he runs for a mile.
First-class arm: Peyton Manning
Manning may be best known for his pre-snap machinations, pointing out defenders and shouting out audibles. None of that mental stuff would matter, however, if the dude didn't have a golden arm. The Colts quarterback can make any throw on the field, and he's done it for 13 NFL seasons. He's thrown for nearly 55,000 yards and 400 touchdowns, winning four MVPs and a Super Bowl along the way.
First-class leg: Shane Lechler
When the football leaves Lechler's right foot, it's like it's been shot out of a cannon. No punter in NFL history can match his 47.3-yard career average, which he's accomplished in 11 seasons with the Oakland Raiders. An eight-time All-Pro selection, he averaged 51.1 yards per punt in 2009 and once went 33 straight games with at least one 50-yard boot.
First-class mind: Andrew Luck
Call Stanford's quarterback a nerd and it won't bother him a bit. An architectural design major, he brings to the football field an architect's attention to detail. He loves the intellectual rigor of game preparation and winning mind games with opposing defenses, which helped him lead the Cardinal to an 11-1 record and an Orange Bowl victory last season. How much does he enjoy college life? He passed up a chance to be the No. 1 pick in the draft in order to stay in school and earn his degree.
First-class hands: Larry Fitzgerald
There are receivers bigger and faster than the 6-foot-3, 218-pound Fitzgerald, but no one is any better once the football nears its intended target. It starts with his body control as he leaps and positions himself to make the catch, then ends with the strong, flypaper hands that have earned him the nickname "Sticky Fingers." In seven seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, he's caught 613 passes and dropped very few. He has 65 touchdowns and five Pro Bowl selections to his credit.
First-class accuracy: Kellen Moore
His size (6-foot, 191 pounds) and arm strength aren't impressing anyone, especially NFL scouts. That's OK. All Boise State's quarterback does is complete passes and win games. In three years as a starter, Moore has completed an amazing 68.2 percent of his throws, including 71.3 last season. No wonder he has a winning percentage of 95.0 as he takes a 38-2 record as a starter into his senior season.
First-class toughness: Ray Lewis
The NFL is full of intense, violent men. Still, Lewis stands apart. For 15 seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, the 6-foot-1, 250-pound middle linebacker has played defense with maniacal fervor and a passion for destruction. A 12-time Pro Bowler, Lewis loves delivering the big hit. And after 1,909 tackles, he's always the one getting up. If there's anyone who embodies the modern-day gladiator, it's this guy.
First-class moves: LaMichael James
Oregon's offense is predicated on getting good athletes into open space. That makes it a perfect fit for James, who has the raw speed and elusive moves to make defenders look silly. As a sophomore last season, he ran for 1,682 yards, most in the nation, and finished third in Heisman voting. He scored 22 touchdowns, including two in the national championship game against Auburn — the Ducks' only loss of the season.
First-class winner: Tom Brady
Arguably more than any other position in sports, quarterbacks succeed or fail because of their intangible qualities. Leadership. Fortitude. Poise under pressure. That's why No. 1 overall draft picks with great physical skills can be colossal busts, and how a former sixth-round draft choice can become one of the greatest winners in league history. Brady has gone 125-37 as a starting QB for New England, leading the Patriots to three Super Bowl championships.