Brees and New Orleans: The perfect marriage
The public face of this hurricane-scarred region fittingly has a birthmark on it.
Drew Brees is the star quarterback in an area that loves its New Orleans Saints as much as a good bowl of gumbo. Some fans are so gaga that they will come to Sunday’s NFC Conference title game against visiting Minnesota dressed as “Breesus” religious figures. Brees has even become the first athlete ever chosen for the prestigious ceremonial role of King Bacchus in next month’s Mardi Gras festivities.
About the only local tribute left for Brees to receive would be New Orleans changing its nickname to "The Big Breesy." That doesn’t sound like much of a stretch if the Saints win Super Bowl XLIV.
But what truly makes this love affair so special is that the feelings go both ways.
After signing as a free agent in 2006, the success of the Brees-led Saints lifted the spirits of an area devastated by Hurricane Katrina the previous year. The rebuilding didn’t end there. Brees continues to spend his time and money helping the Crescent City become whole again through his Brees Dreams charity foundation (www.drewbrees.com).
One of his first pet projects was renovating a destroyed high school athletic field and antiquated weight room. Brees donated more than $700,000 through fundraising and personal contributions. Because of all the other construction needed, the Lusher Charter School wouldn’t have had the finances to address its athletic facilities until the middle of this decade.
“This has brought life back into the community,” Lusher CEO Kathy Hurstell-Riedlinger said during a Thursday telephone interview. “It was going to take New Orleans five to 10 years to really come back from the storm. Those kids in school didn’t have that time. This was going to be their only time in high school. He readily recognized this was a gift he could give that would not only serve the school but a lot of other children in the neighborhood.”
Ironically, none of this would have happened without a decision made by a formerly beloved Bayou football icon.
Brees was heavily courted in the 2006 offseason by then-Miami coach Nick Saban, who had joined the Dolphins after winning a national title at Louisiana State University. But Saban got cold feet when receiving negative medical reports about the right (throwing) shoulder that Brees injured in the 2005 season-finale while playing for San Diego.
Brees left Miami without a contract and headed to meet with Saints officials. The contrasts between the two visits couldn’t have been more striking.
“You’re looking around at a lot of the neighborhoods and there are still boats in living rooms and trucks flipped upside down on top of houses,” Brees said during a news conference at Saints headquarters. “Some houses were just off the foundation and totally gone. You say, ‘Man, what happened here? It looks like a nuclear bomb went off.’”
Brees, though, said he “tried to look a lot deeper than just on the surface.” He became excited about the possibility of helping to resurrect both a city and nomadic Saints squad that had finished 3-13 the previous season. And if he needed further convincing, Saints management provided it with a six-year, $60 million contract that no other team was willing to offer.
“They had as much confidence in me as I had in myself,” Brees said. “That meant a lot to me. Everybody else was counting me out a little bit.”
Brees has rewarded that faith with four amazing seasons. He was never better than in 2009. Brees set the NFL’s single-season accuracy mark (70.62 percent) while guiding a more balanced Saints offense to a 13-3 record.
“He definitely has a quick release, but he’s also a smart quarterback,” Minnesota cornerback Antione Winfield told media on Thursday. “I’m sure he studies a lot of film. It’s kind of hard to trick him. He knows what coverage you’re in. Once he’s at the line and he gets the ball, he knows exactly where he’s going with it.”
Brees and his teammates will be going to South Florida for Super Bowl XLIV with a win Sunday. Such an accomplishment would show that while New Orleans isn’t completely back to what it was pre-Katrina, the Saints have never been better.
“Do you play the game for any other reason than to be the best and try to win a championship?” Brees asked. “That's why I’m here.”