Purdue opened last season at USC, with Brees making his first start. The Trojans won 27-17, but Brees completed 30 of 52 passes for 248 yards and two touchdowns. Shawn approached Brees after the game. "Hey, Drew, remember me?" he said, and Brees snapped at him. "I don't remember my exact words," says Brees. "I know what I wanted to say was, 'Remember you? You're the reason I wanted to win this game.' That's the way I feel about all the coaches who didn't recruit me."
Two that did were Hal Mumme at Kentucky and Joe Tiller at Purdue, both first-year coaches who were itching to throw. In the end Purdue's highly regarded academic program in management and the chance to play in the Big Ten swayed Brees.
Standing on the Mollenkopf Athletic Center indoor practice field before an off-season workout, Purdue sophomore tight end Tim Stratton had a Brees story to tell. "One day last fall we were practicing indoors," Stratton says, "and a few of the quarterbacks and some other guys were having a contest to see who could make the most accurate throws. They're going at it, when Drew just walks in and grabs a ball. There were two soccer goals against the wall, about 40 yards away and about three feet apart. Drew puts it on a line right between them. End of contest."
Others have stories, too. Junior wideout Vinny Sutherland remembers drifting across the back of the end zone early in the second quarter of last year's game against Minnesota, hopelessly lost in red-zone traffic. "I couldn't even see Drew," says Sutherland. "All of sudden, there's the ball, about 10 feet away from me. I just put my hands up, almost in self-defense, and grabbed it."
Senior Randall Lane recalls running a deep corner route in the same game and coming out of his last cut in time to see Brees make a seemingly desperate heave just as he was hit. "He took a serious wallop," says Lane, "but when I looked up, here came the ball, right over my shoulder." Another touchdown, this one from 46 yards. Lane laughs. "Around here," he says, "we call him Cool Brees."
When Tiller, who came to Purdue from Wyoming in November 1996, signed Brees as part of his first recruiting class, he wasn't sure what he was getting. As they watched Brees practice behind Dicken in the fall of 1997, Tiller and his staff grew enamored with Brees's uncanny accuracy—"Every ball was on the receiver's body," says Tiller—but they had doubts about his readiness to take over. "Hell, yes, I had doubts," says Tiller. "I was so sure he was going to be a great player for us that I went out and recruited a junior college quarterback [David Edgerton], in case Brees fell on his face."
Not even close. Brees won the starting quarterback job in the preseason last year and matured with each week. His once suspect mechanics are now textbook. Late last spring quarterbacks coach Greg Olson popped a tape into his office VCR for a visitor. The play on the tape was a third-down pass on the comeback drive that resulted in a 25-24 Purdue victory at Michigan State. Brees drops straight back but finds himself under siege from at least three blitzing defenders. He begins backpedaling to his left, one step, two, three ... eight steps backward, staying balanced and keeping the pursuers at bay until he fires a pass to Lane, who's crossing the field from left to right, for a 10-yard gain and a first down. The footwork is extraordinary, surely a by-product of all those tennis matches. The pass is freakish. "About as impressive a throw as you'll ever see," says Olson.
Michigan State coach Nick Saban, who was an NFL assistant for six years with the Houston Oilers and the Cleveland Browns, says, "Brees reminds me of Joe Montana. He makes you feel that, play after play, you're about to do something big against him, and then he does something big against you. It's incredibly frustrating for a coach or a team."
Brees's quick feet and sweet accuracy have given rise to his one major flaw. "He tries to make every throw," says Tiller. "Sometimes you just can't." Hence those 20 interceptions.
In mastering Tiller's complex offense, Brees has taken a Peyton Manningesque approach to preparation. Often assistants leaving the Mollenkopf Center at 11 on weeknights during the season run into Brees just arriving to study tape. He has to go in late because most of his evenings are occupied with maintaining a 3.20 grade point average in industrial management, which requires him to take courses like multivariate calculus, economics and physics. "Most of the courses he takes, I wouldn't consider," says Stratton.