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It is for his vital role in that rebirth, for his willingness to immerse himself in New Orleans's recovery while relentlessly pursuing his own, that Drew Brees is SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's 2010 Sportsman of the Year. It is the 57th such honor the magazine has bestowed since its founding in 1954, and in the truest spirit of the award his influence reaches far beyond the walls of the stadium.
IT IS NOT A GOOD TIME to be anyone's hero. Not with the gaping maw of endless news cycles, cellphone camera photos, social media and gotcha blogs, all lying in wait for the Tiger Moment that reveals the lie and exposes the hypocrisy. And the higher the pedestal, the harder the fall. Brees is acutely aware of this reality but unafraid. "People are waiting, if not to catch you doing something bad," he says, "then to catch you doing something that can be twisted into something that looks bad. But I'm aware of my position. Kids hang on your every word and action. You have an influence on their lives. And I believe this is who I am. It comes pretty naturally to me. I mean, I don't avoid using drugs because kids are watching me; I avoid doing drugs because it's not a good idea to use drugs." In Brees's best-selling memoir, Coming Back Stronger, published last July, he wrote of his marriage to the former Brittany Dudchenko, 34, whom he met in 1999 when both were students at Purdue, "... when I put the ring on Brittany's finger, I said, 'For better or for worse, till death do us part.' Period. No matter how bad it could possibly get, I am committed. It's not about happiness. It's not about a feeling. I committed myself to her for the rest of my life, and I promise never to walk away."
Maybe the idolization of athletes has always been a lousy idea, but the concept will not die soon or easily. It is very much alive on Halloween in New Orleans, where the Saints will play the Steelers in a Sunday-night game at the Superdome (another symbol of the city's climb back from the horror of Hurricane Katrina). By mid-afternoon the streets are bustling with costumed revelers—vampires, superheroes and villains, political figures, Troy Polamalu. But the most ubiquitous costume, by far, is a number 9 football jersey. There are slender women wearing number 9 in tight-fitting pink and gigantic men wearing number 9 in the size of parachutes. There are little children in snuggly number 9s. There is retro number 9, Pro Bowl number 9 and camouflage number 9. There is a cluster of young women with matching T-shirts that say KREWE DU DREW on the back, above a little gold, sequined number 9.
Part of this is organic: Fans wear jerseys to football games, and a lot of them wear the star quarterback's jersey. And while any city with an NFL franchise claims some degree of connection to the team that plays there on Sundays, there is a special bond between the Saints and New Orleans that predates Super Bowl victories and devastating storms. It goes back to the early days of the franchise, born in the fall of 1967, when veteran players like Billy Kilmer and Doug Atkins would stumble down the beer-and-bourbon-soaked streets and share with the townsfolk in the futility that comes from playing the first 20 years of existence without a winning season. Plus it is Halloween. Yet none of this fully explains the number 9 revolution in the city on game day. Says NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, "It's hard to point to a relationship in our league, between a player and a city, that's more meaningful than the Saints and Drew Brees."
New Orleans proper is nearly 70% black, and, says Ronald Markham, the 32-year-old African-American CEO of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, "It is a city with many schisms." Yet African-American fans wear number 9 too. "I'll say this: Drew is definitely an honorary brother," says Troy Henry, 50, a black businessman who finished a distant second to Mitch Landrieu in the mayor's race just before this year's Super Bowl. "He transcends race, and he does it with class and dignity."
On a French Quarter side street, Tom Church, a lifelong Saints fan from Jennings, La., is wearing number 9 in black. "It's because of what he did for the city just by coming here," says Church. "And the way he conducts himself. Can you imagine if Ben Roethlisberger lived here? A guy like that would go crazy in this town." Over on Royal Street, one block south of Bourbon, Kelly Hale of New Orleans rocks her shiny gold number 9 jersey. "He's a good family guy," says Hale. "He seems like a nice person. That means a lot."
This love between quarterback and city took root unexpectedly in the winter of 2006. Brees had suffered a catastrophic injury to his throwing shoulder while playing for the Chargers, who had selected him with the first pick of the second round of the 2001 NFL draft. San Diego, which had acquired the rights to Philip Rivers in a draft-day move in 2004, effectively jettisoned the rehabbing Brees by offering him a contract that guaranteed only $2 million. Backup money. The Miami Dolphins showed interest but lowballed Brees when team doctors were skeptical about his chances of coming back.
The Saints, meanwhile, threw themselves at Drew and Brittany Brees. Their courtship was both skilled (a dinner in the chef's kitchen at Emeril's and a film session in which coach Sean Payton promised to tailor his wide-open offense to Brees's strengths) and clumsy (an accidental tour through the parts of the city left most damaged by Katrina barely six months earlier, devastation from which the Saints had hoped to shield Brees). Yet Brees felt something familiar. As a child he had attended weekly Baptist church services; like most of his peers he was there largely from habit rather than devotion. One Sunday at age 17 he felt something stronger, as if the scripture were speaking to him, giving him purpose. Now in 2006, with only the Saints and their bludgeoned home showing belief in him, he sensed that purpose again. "As those few days went by," says Brittany, "Drew and I felt that maybe we were being called to New Orleans for a reason."
The central reason was for Brees to play quarterback, which he has done surpassingly well. That first season he threw for a league-high 4,418 yards and led the Saints on a surprise run to the NFC title game. Two years later he became just the second quarterback in NFL history (after Dan Marino) to throw for 5,000 yards in a season (5,069, to be exact), and in 2009, the Super Bowl season, he completed 70.62% of his throws' the most accurate season ever by an NFL quarterback. "He always had unbelievable instincts, great athletic feet, the whole skill set," says New York Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, Brees's quarterbacks coach for four years in San Diego and still a close friend. "Now, with experience and age, he's just mastered his craft."
SOLID QUARTERBACKING alone might have been enough to deify Brees in New Orleans, so beaten was the city after Katrina and so in need of a rallying force. But it is Brees the person who has earned the lasting trust and love of New Orleanians.