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Marching In
Tim Layden
January 22, 2007
It's the unlikeliest NFL story in ages: Drew Brees and the Saints, recovery projects both, are one win away from the Super Bowl. That's what character and commitment can do
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January 22, 2007

Marching In

It's the unlikeliest NFL story in ages: Drew Brees and the Saints, recovery projects both, are one win away from the Super Bowl. That's what character and commitment can do

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It wasn't dull when Bush misplayed a pitch from Brees as the Saints were trying to kill the clock late in the fourth quarter, giving Philly one last chance--which was snuffed out by the New Orleans D, with help from a Philly false-start penalty on fourth and 10. The safe move would have been to keep the veteran McAllister in, but throughout the second half he was wracked by dehydration cramps that would require intravenous fluids after the game. Still, when the Saints needed that final first down, McAllister was back on the field.

"Deuce is absolutely a warrior," Brees says, "and he's a true teammate in the strongest sense of the word. At the end of that game the Eagles earned themselves a big dose of Deuce McAllister."

It's no surprise that Brees has brought a team to the verge of the Super Bowl. The surprise is that the team is the Saints. Brees was the quarterback on San Diego teams that won a combined 21 regular season games in 2004 and '05. With All-Pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson, whom the Chargers took fifth in that 2001 draft, the franchise seemed loaded for a string of postseason runs.

But in the final game of 2005, with the Chargers out of playoff contention, Brees dived for a fumble in his own end zone, and Gerard Warren, the Denver Broncos' 325-pound tackle, landed on him. When Brees stood he held his right arm as if he were resting the elbow on a fireplace mantle, his shoulder gruesomely dislocated.

More than 1,700 miles away in Birmingham, renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews watched a replay of Brees going down. "I thought, my God, what an injury," says Andrews. Four days later he examined Brees and diagnosed a rare 360-degree tear of the labrum, the ring of cartilage around the entry to the shoulder joint. During surgery Andrews discovered a deep, partial rotator cuff tear. He says the damage in Brees's shoulder joint represented "one of the most unique injuries of any athlete I've ever treated."

Andrews and two other surgeons mended the labrum with the unheard-of total of 11 surgical anchors (three or four is common) and also repaired the rotator cuff. The 90-minute procedure was performed arthroscopically--a godsend for Brees. If the doctors had had to cut through shoulder tissue, his recovery would have been prolonged by months.

Still, Brees faced an arduous rehabilitation, with long odds. "Lord, I was just hoping to give him a functional shoulder," says Andrews. "An average athlete would not recover from this injury."

Andrews handed Brees off to Kevin Wilk, a physical therapist and clinical director at Benchmark-Champion Sports Medicine in Birmingham who has been rehabbing Andrews's patients for 18 years. " Dr. Andrews told me, 'You've got your work cut out for you,'" Wilk says. "I had never seen an injury this severe in any elite-level throwing athlete. We were in uncharted waters."

Brees attacked his rehab voraciously. He moved in with his in-laws, Pete and Kathie Dudchenko, who live in Birmingham, and spent four months of seven-hour days at Wilk's clinic. Told he could be out of his sling in four weeks, he lost it in two and a half. Told he would have full range of motion in 12 weeks, he achieved it in eight. Told he would throw a football in four months, he was outside on the lawn of the clinic playing catch with New York Giants safety Will Demps, who was rehabbing an ACL, in a little more than three months.

"His recovery has been one of the most remarkable of any patient I've ever treated," says Andrews. "And the biggest thing was Drew's motivation and toughness."

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