Last Thursday night, in a private upstairs room at Commander's Palace, the landmark New Orleans restaurant, Drew Brees convened what he calls his "secret society." In the dining room were seven of the city's richest men and biggest boosters, power players who have anonymously teamed with Brees for such post-Katrina causes as the refurbishment of Tad Gormley Stadium in City Park and the funding of the New Orleans Ballet Association's flagging after-school program. Brees calls the group (two of the members were absent that night) the Quarterback Club. As a token of thanks for contributions past—each man gave at least $25,000 in 2009—and future, Brees dispensed black-and-gold cuff links engraved with QB.
"I'd like to propose a toast," he said, lifting his champagne flute. "All of you care so deeply about the future of this city, not just from a business perspective but from a philanthropic perspective, and it's so desperately needed right now. A toast to you, and to New Orleans!"
"Hear, hear! To New Orleans!" the group responded.
Earlier in the Saints' bye week, their quarterback had spent two hours working on another of his pet projects, the Lusher Charter School, for which he'd help raise the money to build a new football field, weight room, scoreboard and running track after the September 2005 hurricane had devastated the facilities and the surrounding Uptown neighborhood. Now, nine days before New Orleans's playoff opener against the Cardinals in the Superdome, Brees chatted up and rubbed elbows with the men he knew could help him do real good for the city.
"Some guys might be playing 10 hours of Madden today, which is cool," Brees said as he took his seat after his toast. "But this is my outlet. This is what I love to do."
History can turn on the cruelest of events. Four years ago Brees, then with the Chargers, was playing against Denver in San Diego's season finale, a game that meant little because the Chargers had failed to make the playoffs. Brees, who'd been franchised by San Diego in 2005, was set to become a free agent when the final whistle blew. In the second quarter there was a loose ball. Brees dived for it, as did Broncos defensive tackle Gerald Warren. In the scrum Brees's right shoulder was dislocated, and the resulting damage—a total tear of his labrum and a partial tear of the rotator cuff—made the Chargers' off-season decision an easy one: They would let Brees walk, and Philip Rivers would become the starting quarterback.
Two teams were interested in Brees. The Dolphins were energized after going 9--7 in coach Nick Saban's rookie season. The Saints were in the dumps after going 3--13 and were unsure of their future after Katrina had ripped apart their city and left the Superdome an unplayable wreck. But Miami ultimately didn't trust that Brees's shoulder would heal in time for him to start the 2006 season, while first-year New Orleans coach Sean Payton loved Brees's leadership, accuracy, smarts and moxie so much that he didn't care.
"When I visited New Orleans," Brees said last week, "I saw it all, the good and the bad. The city was devastated. Brittany [Drew's wife] and I saw the Lower Ninth Ward. Unbelievable. Cars lying on top of houses. Boats through living-room windows. I felt like I was driving through a World War II documentary. But I just thought, This is a chance to be part of something incredible—the rebuilding of an American city. I felt like it was a calling. Like I was destined to be here."
Imagine the difference—for football, for New Orleans—if Saban had ignored the medical prognosis. He would have had Brees, not Daunte Culpepper, at quarterback, and he might have stayed with the Dolphins rather than bolting for Alabama. Quite possibly the Crimson Tide wouldn't have been hoisting the national championship trophy last week. And the Saints might well be playing in San Antonio or Los Angeles instead of packing the refurbished Superdome for a playoff game, with a new lease at the stadium through 2025.
"I can't even think about that," says Owen Brennan, executive director of the Krewe of Bacchus, which runs the most storied Mardi Gras parade. Brees has been appointed the King of Bacchus for the 2010 edition, the first athlete so honored. "It's a nightmare. Don't even say it. Ooooo. What he's done for this city is absolutely immeasurable."