The man has
something important to say to Drew Brees. It is a warm afternoon early in the
new year and Brees, the 28-year-old quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, is
walking through Audubon Park, a 400-acre preserve not far from the century-old
home that he and his wife, Brittany, bought last spring in New Orleans's
Uptown. The man is walking with his wife and pushing an infant in a stroller.
He extends his right hand to Brees as they pass on a walking path. "Thank
you for what you've done for this city," he says. "I want you to know
that we appreciate it."
Brees squeezes the man's hand and nods. "You're welcome," he says.
"And thank you."
Now a red SUV passing on St. Charles Avenue honks its horn twice and the driver
leans out the window in slow-moving traffic. "Thanks, Drew!" she
Brees smiles and
waves back. "That happens 10 times a day, at least," he says. "And
it's never 'Good game,' or 'Can I have your autograph?' It's always somebody
saying thank you." He looks at the ground and shakes his head, as if again
humbled by the remarkable place where he has landed.
"He is a god
down here right now," says chef Emeril Lagasse, owner of three New Orleans
restaurants and a Saints season-ticker holder for two decades. "He is the
A year ago the
quarterback was wounded and the city reeling. Brees lay in a hospital bed with
a shoulder injury so severe that even his surgeon wondered if he'd play again.
The San Diego Chargers, who'd drafted him out of Purdue in 2001, had cast him
aside with what Brees considered an insulting contract offer, and he and his
wife were reconsidering their plans to start a family. New Orleans, meanwhile,
lay in ruins, struggling to find traction after Hurricane Katrina. Now they are
joined. Brees is steering the Saints on an improbable ride toward their first
Super Bowl--"Without him we just wouldn't be here," says right tackle
Jon Stinchcomb. "It's that simple"--an emotional journey that has given
New Orleanians weekly respite from the otherwise unrelenting work of
football for a job," says Brees. "But all this, it goes way beyond
football can be pretty good. Last Saturday night the reborn Louisiana Superdome
was filled again, as it has been for every home game this season, quivering
with a desperate, ear-splitting energy as the Saints won just the second
playoff game in their 40-year history, a 27--24 victory over the Philadelphia
Eagles. Next Sunday, New Orleans plays for the conference championship against
the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.
Brees completed 20
of 32 passes for 243 yards and a touchdown. He did not throw an interception
and has thrown just one in the last seven games. It was yet another solid
performance in an All-Pro season during which he led the NFL with 4,418 passing
yards. Yet Brees did nothing of greater value for his team on this night than
put the ball in the hands of Deuce McAllister.
Selected 23rd by
the Saints out of Mississippi in the 2001 draft, nine spots ahead of Brees,
McAllister rushed for 143 yards (a Saints playoff record and his highest
single-game total since '03) and one touchdown and scored another on an 11-yard
swing pass from Brees. Twice he put his stamp on the game. On a five-yard
touchdown run that brought New Orleans within 21--20 with 9:36 to play in the
third quarter, the 6'1", 232-pound McAllister was hit at the four and drove
a pile of a dozen players into the end zone. And after the Eagles punted with
1:56 to play, trailing by three with two timeouts left, McAllister carried
three times to earn the first down that sealed the victory as 70,001 fans
McAllister is the
Saints' alltime leading rusher, but he had never been in a playoff game until
Saturday. Last season he tore his right ACL and missed the final 11 games; and
this season he had to sublimate his ego by sharing his position with Heisman
Trophy--winning rookie Reggie Bush. But the load-sharing has had its benefits.
"I haven't had to carry this team," McAllister says. "Now my body
is in the best shape it's ever been in at the end of a season. And you've got
to run the ball in the playoffs."
Bush ran it too, as
part of a wild night that began for him with a crushing, video-game hit from
Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown that left him crawling across the turf in pain.
He returned to rush for 52 yards on 12 carries, including a 25-yard scamper in
the first quarter and a four-yard touchdown in the second, both on signature
cutback moves. "I find myself getting ready to block whenever he's got the
ball," says Brees. "It's never dull with Reggie."