Brees walks in the footsteps of his World War II veteran grandfather
Drew Brees is known for his cool and composure, but the New Orleans Saints' quarterback struggled to control his emotions several months ago while standing on a beach in Okinawa as part of a USO Tour.
Sixty-three years earlier his grandfather stood on the same beach under far less idyllic conditions. Ray Akins was a member of the first Marine units to storm the island during World War II, and as Brees tried to mentally put himself in the boots of his granddad, who participated in what has been called the bloodiest land battle in the Pacific, his mind raced, his heart pumped and his eyes welled.
"Tears started rolling down my face -- tears of pride," he said a few days in advance of Memorial Day, which has taken on added significance for him this year. "I was just so proud to know that my grandpa was a part of that. It was really an emotional experience, one of the greatest things I've ever had a chance to do."
What made the experience even more moving for Brees was that he actually spoke to his 84-year-old retired grandfather -- who remains one of the top-five winning prep football coaches in Texas history -- after landing on Okinawa. He phoned him as the caravan made its way from an airfield to the beach where Akins' unit landed on the first day of the battle on April 1, 1945.
"I asked him, 'Grandpa, what were you thinking when you came ashore?' " Brees recalled. "He said, 'I was just trying to live to be 20.' He was 19 and his birthday was in May. As he was telling me this, my eyes were just welling with tears. I was thinking about what that must have been like. I mean they were kids, 19- and 20-year-old kids that had this huge responsibility and huge burden on their shoulders. A lot of them died."
U.S. forces reportedly sustained more than 12,000 casualties in the Battle of Okinawa. Akins was part of a special weapons company.
Brees has always been a big supporter of the military. His other grandfather served in the Army during World War II, and his father was drafted during the Vietnam War, though he did not see combat because the war was near its end.
Brees studies military history and takes any available opportunity to show his appreciation for servicemen and women. Last year he did a USO Tour to the Middle East.
"When I did that trip, I was asking them afterward, 'Where else would we have an option to go on a USO trip, because I would love to do this again?' " Brees said. "They named all these places and Okinawa was one of them. I told them I've been wanting to go to Okinawa because my grandfather was a Marine in World War II, 1st Division, and he was on Okinawa for 82 days -- from the day of the invasion [until the war ended]. ...
"So to be there, actually standing on the beach where he came ashore, is one of the coolest things I've ever done. I'll remember it for the rest of my life. And to be talking to him on the phone, he knew exactly where we were. As we were driving down to the beach, I'm talking to him and he's recalling everything as if it were yesterday. He's like, 'Yeah, you're at Yomiton Airfield; we came on the beach and we stormed up the hill because our first objective was to capture Yomiton Airfield. It was a really strategic point because we needed it for all of our supplies to be able to land. And then we were going to invade to the North.'
"As we get down to the beach, I'm just picturing what it would look like, going back in time 63 years. Again, I was just so proud of my grandpa."