This was the last place the awestruck children and disbelieving adults expected to see Aaron Brooks, shivering in the near-freezing New Orleans night, a cup of lukewarm hot chocolate in his hand, his breath forming clouds of vapor. The kids stood off to the side whispering, while the adults seated nearby stared. Didn't the young quarterback, who saved the season for the surprising Saints, have anything better to do three days before the team's most important game in a decade than sit in the muddy backyard of the Waldo Burton Boys' Home, a school for disadvantaged kids, and watch a Christmas pageant?
"It's simple," Brooks explained as the Waldo Burton choir launched into The Twelve Days of Christmas. "I told Jaret I'd be here, and I would never let him down."
Scanning the choir, Brooks's eyes locked on Jaret, a panic-stricken 11-year-old who would soon herald the all-important three French hens. "Look at him," said Brooks, waving at the freckle-faced boy to whom he serves as a Big Brother. "He needs me." Spotting Brooks, Jaret broke into a wide grin. Moments later his lines were flawlessly delivered.
After the show, Brooks signed autographs as the bashful Jaret clung to one leg. "I needed this," Brooks said. "It's what makes me happy."
In New Orleans 'tis the season to be happy—and for the Saints and their fans, that blissful state has seldom been achieved in December. Much of the credit goes to Brooks, the second-year quarterback who on Sunday continued his meteoric ascent from obscurity by passing for 285 yards with no interceptions in leading the Saints to a 23-7 victory over the Atlanta Falcons before a sellout crowd at the Superdome. New Orleans is 10-5 and champion of the NFC West. The Saints finish their regular season this Sunday in New Orleans against the St. Louis Rams.
When Jeff Blake, the Saints' starting quarterback, injured his right foot on Nov. 19 against the Oakland Raiders and was lost for the season—one week after tailback Ricky Williams had been shelved with a broken right ankle—New Orleans seemed to be finished. But in the four games since, Brooks, who a year ago was the third-string quarterback in Green Bay, has done the unthinkable: He's led the Saints to the playoffs for the first time since 1992 and become so popular that area stores can't keep his number 2 jersey in stock.
"I've wanted to watch him play from the moment he arrived, but I never thought it would be so soon," says New Orleans general manager Randy Mueller, who pursued Brooks for several months before, on July 31, trading a third-round draft pick and linebacker K.D. Williams for Brooks and tight end Lamont Hall. "I don't want to overstate this, but with his ability to beat you with his arm or his legs, he reminds me of a young John Elway."
Most evaluations of Brooks's play sound similar—equivocations followed by superlatives—but he has merited more of the latter. He has won three of his four starts, all against division rivals, and set single-game franchise records for yards passing (441 in a loss to the Denver Broncos) and yards rushing by a quarterback (109 in a win over the San Francisco 49ers). "I think Brooks is going to be very, very good," says Broncos defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, "and I don't say that too often."
Brooks possesses the strength and speed (4.5 in the 40) to evade rushers, but prefers to stand in the pocket and use his cannon arm. "What impressed me most was his poise in the pocket," says Brett Favre, Brooks's mentor in Green Bay. "He has a lot of confidence back there and doesn't want to run. I would run before he would."
But the 6'4", 205-pound Brooks, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the comedian Jimmie Walker, the star of the '70s sitcom Good Times, is a dangerous runner when need be. Consider his most breathtaking play to date. Late in the fourth quarter against the Niners, he twice reversed his field while evading the rush before firing a 22-yard touchdown between two defenders to wideout Willie Jackson. "That was an unbelievable play by an awesome player," says Saints offensive tackle Kyle Turley. "We had no idea how good he was."