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Tim Layden
December 06, 2010
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December 06, 2010

Sportsman Of The Year Drew Brees


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Consider: Late in the afternoon of Wednesday, Nov. 10, as Brees was running through a long checklist of bye-week obligations, he detoured to the Lusher Charter School, not far from his home in Uptown New Orleans. The four-story, 77-year-old brick building, previously a traditional high school, was vacant when flooded by Katrina and had slouched into a rotting, mold-choked shelter for displaced residents. In the storm's aftermath New Orleans educators, including Lusher CEO Kathy Hurstell Riedlinger, reopened the building as a charter high school. During the renovation they were contacted by The Brees Dream Foundation, which helped raise $671,000 to restore the school's athletic field, scoreboard and running track. In October 2009 those facilities were christened the Brees Family Field. Drew wrote a $38,000 personal check to rebuild the weight room.

Here Brees jumps from his Mercedes into the middle of the Lusher Lions' football practice. Coach Louis Landrum's team, in its second year of varsity competition, had won four of 10 games and qualified for the Louisiana state playoffs against powerhouse Evangel Christian of Shreveport. Brees calls the players into a circle and animatedly recounts to them the story of David and Goliath before breaking the huddle with a shout. "They've got a tough game," Brees says after leaving the school. "They could lose 70--0 to that team. I wanted to get them fired up." (In fact, Lusher would lose by the relatively respectable margin of 47--6 to a school with multiple Division I prospects.)

In the nearly eight years since The Brees Dream Foundation was established to support cancer research and the care and education of children in need, it has contributed or committed more than $6 million in Louisiana, San Diego and West Lafayette, Ind., home of Purdue. In addition to its work with the Lusher school, the foundation is in the final stages of completing $1 million in funding for the American Cancer Society's Patrick F. Taylor Hope Lodge in New Orleans, a residential facility for patients undergoing chemotherapy, and $100,000 for completion of G.W. Carver High's Field of Dreams in the Ninth Ward.

In total the foundation has worked with nearly 50 New Orleans schools and organizations, providing $300,000 to New Orleans Outreach for after-school assistance; $127,550 to the New Orleans Recreation Department to help with initial costs in the restoration of Pontchartrain Park; $78,000 to Best Buddies Louisiana, which facilitates one-to-one friendships for adults with intellectual disabilities; and $74,000 to the Greater New Orleans Rebuild Child Care Collaborative, to restore child-care facilities lost to Katrina. "A lot of people have a foundation just to have a foundation," says Mark Brunell, an NFL warhorse who was Brees's backup with the Saints in 2008 and '09 and now plays behind Mark Sanchez with the Jets. "Drew has a foundation that does all kinds of things. The guy cares. He's genuine."

From the high school practice in Uptown, Brees stops briefly at home to swap a Saints golf shirt for a dress shirt and sport coat, and then rushes off to Brennan's restaurant in the French Quarter for a meeting of what he calls his Quarterback Club, a group of nine New Orleans businessmen brought together by Brees to pool their creativity and wealth. (Each man commits at least $25,000 a year to Brees's foundation.) "In times of crisis, communities look for leaders, and Drew has become one of those leaders," says club member John Payne, a Caesars Entertainment Corp. executive. "Drew's day job is a high-pressure, full-time job, but he believes passionately that it's part of his role to stay energized and stay involved. He looks at it as a responsibility."

That infectious sincerity is why future Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson found himself uncommonly engaged while watching Super Bowl XLIV on television. He met Brees in 1997 when they played together on a high school all-star team in Texas—Brees from Austin, Tomlinson from Waco. "The guy's work ethic stood out from the jump," says Tomlinson. "He was smart, he was a leader. You could just see he was going to be special." In April 2001 the Chargers took Tomlinson with the fifth selection in the draft (Michael Vick went first, to the Falcons, with a pick the Chargers had traded to Atlanta) and chose Brees 27 spots later. The two played together for five seasons; when Brees needed a throwing partner on an off-season afternoon, it was often Tomlinson he'd call. So on that February night in Miami, when Brees took a knee to finish the Super Bowl, Tomlinson felt a deep kinship. "I was screaming," says LT. "It's like I was right there with him. I called him and told him, 'I'm proud of you, man.'"

That sincerity is also why Billy Miller, who played tight end with Brees for four years in New Orleans, and Miller's wife, Rachael, rewrote their will. If the couple were to die or otherwise be incapacitated, the care of their children—sons Caine, 13, and Jaden, 8, and daughter Celeste, 5—would be entrusted to Drew and Brittany Brees. "There is nobody in the world we trust more," says Billy, who now operates the Elite Performance Factory, a gym in Southern California. "Our values line up perfectly."

Miller came to know Brees best not in the locker room or on the field but during USO trips the two have taken together. Brees has been on five such NFL-sponsored trips in the last five years, visiting troops in Afghanistan, Dubai, Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, Kuwait and Japan. His admiration for the military springs from his relationship with his 85-year-old grandfather, Ray Akins, a legendary Texas high school football coach who fought on Okinawa in World War II and still works 100 head of cattle on a ranch in New Baden, Texas. But Brees's appreciation for soldiers goes beyond his family's legacy. "Think of the sacrifices they make," says Brees. "I'm away from my son for a day, and I can't wait to see him. Some of those guys are gone for 15 months."

Brees has also flown in fighter jets a handful of times, once pulling 9.2 G's in an Air Force F-16 with the Thunderbirds. "It gives those guys a chance to promote what they do," Brees says of the rides, "and they appreciate that you're interested." It's also yet another chance to compete. On a tour of Iraq in 2008, Goodell, Brees and Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora were roommates in Saddam Hussein's former guest palace, where the commissioner got a sense of Brees's fire. So when Goodell flew with the Thunderbirds during Super Bowl week in 2009, he told his pilot, "I've got to do 9 G's, and I can't pass out or throw up, or Drew Brees will never let me hear the end of it." (Goodell made it through fine.)

Perhaps it should be mentioned—just for balance—that Brees is not perfect. Back in eighth grade at St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Austin, young Drew took the occasion of a class party on Lake Austin to moon his classmates from the dock as he jumped into the water. The school suspended him, and worse, his parents held him out of the season-opening flag football game against his team's biggest rival. "It crushed me," says Brees. "And it took me a long time to get over that." Saints legend has it that Brees helped engineer an epic locker room prank so diabolical that nary a teammate will spill the details. And while he's unfailingly cordial with autograph-seekers under most circumstances, don't approach him during private time with his family.

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