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Ellis (Pee Wee) Brewer isn't like the other dads of Florida's junior class, the famous faces that flashed on your television the night the Gators won the national title last April. Pee Wee never played championship tennis like Joakim Noah's dad, Yannick, never logged a minute in the NBA like Taurean Green's pops, Sidney, or Al Horford's dad, Tito. All Pee Wee ever did was toil in the fields of rural Portland, Tenn., day after day, raising 100 acres of tobacco, mostly, but also strawberries, corn and soybeans. To help make ends meet, he had a trash-collecting route on the side. � Sixty-two-year-old Pee Wee Brewer (nobody in Portland, the Strawberry Capital of Middle Tennessee, calls him Ellis) has never been famous. "But," says his son Corey, Florida's high-flying swingman, "he's special to me." � It was Pee Wee who taught Corey his work ethic, rising every day before dawn to head into the sun-parched tobacco fields. It was Pee Wee who installed the wooden backboard in the driveway, setting the scene for all those late-night games involving Corey and his older half brother, Jason Rogan, who'd go on to play at Tennessee- Chattanooga. And it was Pee Wee who dressed young Corey in a pair of oversized coveralls and let him come along to watch when he slaughtered hogs. "Whenever they needed someone to drive the tractor, they'd come get Corey. He liked to do all that stuff," says his mother, Glenda, a special-ed assistant at Portland High and Pee Wee's wife of 20 years, a woman who speaks in a delightful Tennessee accent, pronouncing Corey as CO-ray and tobacco as to-BACKER-er.
"Corey was always in the fields with the tobacco and our dad," says Jason. "I think that's why he and Dad are so close."
Yet Pee Wee never made it onto your television last April because he never made it to Indianapolis for the Final Four. Pee Wee's heart troubles began in 1999, and since then he has been plagued by ill health. Open-heart surgery. Three balloon angioplasties. A brown-recluse-spider bite that caused the removal of his right little finger. He's seen Corey play live only once during college--last season at Vanderbilt, when Corey scored a career-high 26 points--and when it came time for Corey's finest hour, Pee Wee just couldn't summon the energy to join Glenda and Jason in Indy.
Not that Pee Wee was alone, mind you. "My husband has a bunch of friends, and since he's been sick, they come every day to see him," says Glenda. On that fateful Monday night more than 40 friends and family members joined him at the Brewer household in Portland, where they ate pork chops and mashed potatoes and watched Corey and the Gators on Pee Wee's favorite TV, in the kitchen. Not long after Florida had beaten UCLA 73--57 and Corey had run into the stands to hug Glenda and Jason, he placed a call above the din of the RCA Dome. "Daddy, we did it!" he screamed, and his old man might have shed a tear or two.
Despite his absence from the Final Four, Pee Wee would play a key role for the Gators--for 2006--07. To hear the Florida players tell the story, Pee Wee is one of the main reasons these national champions passed up the NBA draft and decided to return en masse for one more season in Gainesville. Corey says he was nearly out the school door when he had the Big Talk with his parents on the phone a week and a half after the title game. Corey would almost surely have gone in the first round, and finances were on his mind. "My dad can't work, and my mom's a teacher," he says. "Basically, my mom tries to take care of all the bills on her teacher's salary, and she works only nine months of the year. So it's hard, but we get by." In the end, Corey says, "it came down to my dad."
"You don't have to [go to the NBA] for us," Pee Wee told his son over the phone. "You do what's best for you. School isn't a bad thing; it's a good thing. This isn't about money. It's about living your life the way you want to live your life."
Corey, a communications major, decided to stay in college, and so did the rest of the Gators, which was no accident. "Knowing Corey's situation financially, his decision to come back to school was a way bigger story than me or Al," says Noah. "I was, like, If this guy's coming back, there's no question what I'm going to do." And so, for the first time in 10 years all five starters from a national champion (including senior guard Lee Humphrey) returned to play in college the following season, with a big assist to the one father among the juniors' dads who never played professional sports.
Since then, life has gotten even harder for Pee Wee. His diabetes worsened in October, and that month doctors had to amputate his left leg below the knee. When his condition deteriorated in November, Corey flew home for a day and surprised his dad. "My husband had a fit when he saw him come in," says Glenda. "That just made his day. [Pee Wee's] receding on the top, and Corey came and kissed him on the top of his head. He loves his dad, and his daddy loves him." Corey spent his entire time with Pee Wee, talking and laughing and watching football on the tube, and darned if Pee Wee didn't start getting better.
He still has a long way to go, though. Pee Wee started physical rehabilitation last week, so that he could begin the long process of learning to walk again. "Hopefully, everything will work out once he gets his prosthetic leg," says Jason, "but he's in good spirits, and I think by summertime he'll be O.K." Pee Wee watches all of Corey's games on television, and so far the season has been more challenging than expected. The Gators have lost twice; Corey has just returned from a bout of mononucleosis; and one talking head from ESPN said Corey had made the wrong decision by returning. Said he'd jeopardized his NBA first-round status. Said, in effect, that Pee Wee had given his son the wrong advice.
Not true, says Corey. "I still feel like I made the right decision," he maintains. "You never get this time back, and I feel like I'm having the most fun I've had in my whole life, just going to school and playing basketball and not having to worry about anything, really." After all, Glenda says, insurance will take care of Pee Wee's medical bills. And if everything breaks right, one of these days he'll be able to see Corey make his NBA debut.