The Fuzzy brown birthmark on Purdue quarterback Drew Brees's right cheek approximates the size, shape and texture of a small woolly-bear caterpillar. For the first 19 years of Brees's life, the birthmark invited occasional wide-eyed shock, a lot of harmless derision and more than a little humor, but nothing beyond that. It was there on Jan. 15,1979, when Chip and Mina Brees named their newborn son after Cowboys wide receiver Drew Pearson. On first viewing his son, Chip recoiled at the sight of the brown patch, and Mina wondered if she had caused it when she fell on her right side while running on an icy footpath not long before delivering Drew. "That's where an angel kissed you," Mina would tell him as he and the birthmark grew up together, a touching image offset by Drew's rugrat buddies who called the spot leech, roach and turd. Surgery was considered when Drew was three, but doctors assured the family that the mark was harmless.
When Brees arrived at Purdue in the summer of 1997, fellow freshman recruit Ben Smith was stunned that a football player was wearing on his face what appeared to be a goofy Purdue pep decal, like the ones cheerleaders apply to their cheeks in hopes of a close-up on television. "It looked like a Purdue Pete," recalls Smith, who would become Brees's close friend. "I was thinking, Man, that guy's a sad dude." One night at a dance club a woman who was dancing with Brees wet her thumb and wiped at the birthmark, prompting fall-down laughter from Brees's friends and the following response from Brees: "It ain't comin' off." During Brees's freshman year, in which he played backup quarterback to Billy Dicken, his teammates named the birthmark Per-nick, after Matt Pernick, a walk-on wideout at Purdue in 1997 who had perpetually wild hair, much like the horizontal burrs on Brees's face.
Then last fall everything changed. Brees went big-time, and Pernick—the birthmark, not the player—went with him. On Halloween night, after Brees had passed for 362 yards and four touchdowns that afternoon in a 36-14 win over Iowa, Brees's roommate, linebacker Jason Loerzel, went to a costume party dressed as...Brees, complete with a number 15 practice jersey and one fuzzy eyebrow from a pair of Groucho glasses glued to his right cheek. "I walked in the door, and everybody knew who I was supposed to be," says Loerzel. Brees and his friends had once amused themselves at parties by guessing the number of people (women, usually) who would approach Brees and ask what was on his mug. Suddenly people stopped asking. In nine short weeks last autumn the birthmark had become Cindy Crawford's mole or Ricky Williams's dreadlocks, at least in West Lafayette, Ind.
During an autumn rich in exceptional college quarterbacks, of whom Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb and Akili Smith would go one-two-three in the NFL draft, Brees, a sophomore, was among the most spectacular. He threw for more yards (3,983) and touchdowns (39) and for a better completion percentage (63.4) than McNabb of Syracuse, Smith of Oregon, Cade McNown of UCLA, Joe Germaine of Ohio State and Michael Bishop of Kansas State. He bettered Central Florida's Daunte Culpepper and Tulane's Shaun King in yards and touchdowns and led Purdue to a 9-4 season, capped by an Alamo Bowl victory over Bishop and K-State.
Last Oct. 10 Brees shifted coach Joe Tiller's spread one-back offense into fifth gear at Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium, throwing an NCAA-record 83 passes—"This year we're going for 100," Brees said jokingly during the off-season—and completing an NCAA-record-tying 55 of his attempts for 494 yards in a 31-24 loss. He also threw four interceptions in that game and 20 for the season, the one blot on his resume and the reason his pass efficiency rating (137.8) was lower than that of any other marquee passer in the class of 1998. Brees was voted second-team All-Big Ten, behind Germaine, by both the media and the conference's coaches. "Brees is more accurate than Germaine, and he's got a stronger arm," says Minnesota defensive coordinator David Gibbs, against whom Brees went 31 for 36, for 522 yards and six touchdowns, with no interceptions, in a 56-21 Purdue victory.
The cynics' response to Brees's breakout season is that Gwyneth Paltrow could throw for 300 yards a game in the Boilermakers' madcap offense. That's an easy out. "Sure, their offense is great," says Wisconsin defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove, "but you need an operator, and they've got one. He's as good as I've seen in the 19 years I've been in this league."
With the top 10 finishers in last year's Heisman Trophy voting having left for the NFL, it's no stretch to imagine Brees's mug, birthmark and all, soon filling wall space at the Downtown Athletic Club. Turd no more. Over the winter Loerzel and Ben Smith began exploring ways to produce temporary tattoos in the shape of Brees's birthmark to sell outside Ross-Ade Stadium at Purdue home games the next fall. Stroking the fuzz with the index finger of his left hand while sitting in a steak house near campus in the off-season, Brees laughed and said, "I'll tell you what. At this point it's staying right where it is."
This is a Texas story being played out in Indiana. Drew's maternal grandfather is Ray Akins, one of the most successful coaches in the history of high school football in Texas. Drew's mother excelled in four high school sports and was a baseball cheerleader at Texas A&M, where she met Drew's father. After Mina divorced Chip in 1987, when Drew was eight and his younger brother, Reid, was nearly six, she was married for 10 years to Harley Clark, a state district court judge and former Texas yell-leader who is credited with inventing the famous Hook 'em Horns salute. Chip married Amy Hightower, whose father, Jack, was a congressman from north Texas and later a state supreme court judge. There's more: One of Drew's uncles is Marty Akins, an All-Southwest Conference quarterback at Texas in '75 who started for two years in the same backfield as Earl Campbell. Cut Drew open, and you'd find a Lone Star beating where his heart should be.
One afternoon last spring, at Mina's house on the west side of Austin, Ray Akins, a 74-year-old former Marine, bent down to make an imaginary snap like the center he once was. He has thick, gnarled hands and a twisted nose that was never protected by a face mask. After slogging with bazookas and flamethrowers through the jungles of the South Pacific during World War II, Akins returned home to Texas in 1946 and played four years of football at Southwest Texas State. Shortly thereafter he embarked on a 38-year coaching career during which he won 302 games, the third most in state history, before retiring in '88. Most of those victories came in 24 years at Gregory-Portland High, near Corpus Christi on the Gulf Coast. "We won with little Mexicans and a few spoiled white boys," says Akins.
Brees has often been his grandfather's shadow. Between the ages of five and 10 he spent the last five summers of Akins's coaching career attending two-a-day preseason practices at Gregory-Portland, where assistant coach Ronnie Roemisch often shaved Brees's head over a trash can and then watched him roam the practice fields under a scorching sun. "I worshiped the guys who played for my grandfather," says Brees. "I worshiped him too." When Akins retired to a ranch 50 miles north of College Station, Drew and Reid would visit every summer. They helped with chores—"I had to bust their heinies a few times," says Akins—and listened to their grandfather's tales. "He would tell us stories about the war and about football and about the value of hard work," says Drew. "He's an amazing man."