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She also encouraged a brief escape last February, when they traveled through South Africa for three weeks. It was a crucial trip at a crucial time. "We just totally lost ourselves in the trip," Drew says. "We went on a safari, went wine-tasting, went to a rugby match, dived to see great white sharks in the Indian Ocean. I needed that break."
He also got a dose of perspective when they spent a day in an impoverished Port Elizabeth township. "It was hard to look at: kids on the street with no water, no food, no clothes," Brees says. "It was a slap in the face. After that, how could I not appreciate just having a chance to change things? It made my work easy."
It didn't matter that almost no one expected him to start again for San Diego, just as long as he still believed he would. With every month of work he felt his burden lifting. Even after San Diego acquired Philip Rivers in a draft-day trade with the Giants (page 65), he remained confident. Preparation was his salvation. So when Rivers missed the first 29 practices of training camp during a contract dispute, Brees's hard work paid off with a starting job he has refused to cede. "He showed tremendous resolve," Flutie says. "His career was on the line, and he prepared like it. And it's nice to have help."
Indeed, it's no coincidence that Brees's dominance has dovetailed with the rise of second-year tight end Antonio Gates, a budding star who never played college football. After arriving at Michigan State with the intention of playing basketball and football, the 6'4", 260pound Gates was offended by a suggestion from Nick Saban, then the Spartans' coach, that he drop basketball altogether. "He'd just come from the NFL, and he told me I was a guy the league would want," Gates says. "If I'd listened to him, I probably would've been a first-round pick. But I was a young kid with a rebellious streak."
So Gates left East Lansing, gave up football, and attended two more schools before landing at Kent State, where as a senior he was an honorable mention basketball AllAmerica and led the team to the Elite Eight. Still, a future in the NBA seemed unlikely. "When there are more NFL scouts at your games than NBA scouts," says Gates, "you get the message."
Gates was passed over in the NFL draft but was courted by several teams. He finally signed with the Chargers because "they were the only ones who told me the truth--that if I worked hard, I'd have a chance."
He has become one of Brees's favorite targets, catching five passes, three of them for touchdowns, against the Saints. A speedy, soft-handed receiver whose size makes him a mismatch for safeties and whose speed creates a mismatch for linebackers, Gates leads all NFL tight ends in catches (54), yards (602) and touchdowns (eight). "We've always had LT," says Brees, in a nod to LaDainian Tomlinson, his close friend and the team's leading rusher. "But now I have so many other options."
Indeed, as good as Brees has been, the Chargers' turnaround is a team affair. Brees got another weapon with San Diego's mid-October trade for former Tampa Bay wideout Keenan McCardell, who's caught 15 balls for 209 yards and a score in three games. All but one of the starters on the offensive line are new, and that unit has allowed only 12 sacks. The defense, revitalized under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and his 3--4 scheme, is the NFL's second-ranked unit against the run. And just think: Tomlinson, last year's lone bright spot (1,645 rushing yards, 100 catches, 17 total touchdowns), has been nursing a groin injury and has yet to hit his stride.
No matter. Brees has become the team's unquestioned leader, and it's impossible to argue with the results: A career 59% passer, Brees has completed a gaudy 66.1% of his throws for 1,854 yards and 18 touchdowns (with only three interceptions). His 108.7 passer rating puts him in the league's top three. Not bad for a guy the Chargers didn't want--and probably won't have for much longer. Brees will be a free agent when the season ends, and the Chargers are unlikely to re-sign him, given their $40 million investment in Rivers.
But Brees demurs when asked about his future. He's still focused on the most important item on his wish list: a Super Bowl win. "But you know what was never on that list?" he asks. "Be the starting QB. Because I expected that. Even if no one else did."