Yet Brees's foibles are rare and refreshingly harmless. "If a father gives his kid a number 9 Saints jersey," says Stinchcomb, "he's probably never going to have to do any explaining about the guy who wears that jersey."
A WEEK INTO football practice at Purdue in 1997, first-year coach Joe Tiller had grown impatient. His three returning quarterbacks, upperclassmen Billy Dicken and John Reeves and redshirt freshman Clay Walters, were making a mess of the spread passing offense that Tiller intended to unleash on the unsuspecting, plodding Big Ten. Three true freshmen QBs—Drew Brees from Texas, Jim Mitchell from Missouri and Ben Smith from Nebraska—were watching from behind the huddle when Tiller shouted, "Give me one of those young guys to run with the [first team]!"
Smith says, "I took two steps back and was trying to find somewhere to hide, because I sure didn't want to hop out there. It was a very stressful moment—I mean it was intense. Then just as I stepped back, Drew stepped up. He moved right in, took control of the huddle, brought the offense up to the line of scrimmage and ran the play. I remember it was a Four-Go route, and he threw to one of the outside go receivers, and he just put the ball right on the money. I was thinking right there: I'm going to have to find another position." (Epilogue: Smith became not only a starting safety at Purdue but also one of Brees's roommates and, to this day, one of his best friends.)
In retrospect it doesn't seem shocking that Brees was the player who stepped forward and stamped himself on the Purdue program. One year earlier his team at Austin's Westlake High had gone 16--0 and won the Texas 5A state championship game with a 55--15 squeaker over Abilene's Cooper High, and Brees was named the state large-school offensive MVP. But there were issues: He had torn his left ACL in a state playoff game in December of his junior year—scaring off college recruiters—and he was just barely six feet tall. By the middle of Brees's senior season Purdue was the only major program offering a scholarship. (When an SI writer profiled Brees in 1999, his friends chided Brees with the names of quarterbacks recruited by colleges in his home state, including Matt Schobel at Texas A&M and Major Applewhite at Texas.) It was to become a recurring theme in Brees's life: swimming upstream against the collective wisdom.
Brees backed up Dicken that first year and started for the next three. As a senior he led Purdue to its first Rose Bowl in 34 years, and he still holds Big Ten career records for passing yards (11,792) and touchdowns (90). He left behind the indelible memory of a 1998 game against Wisconsin in which he completed 55 of an NCAA-record 83 passes. "There's an It factor in sports," says Greg Olson, who was Brees's quarterbacks coach at Purdue and is now the offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "It's a hard thing to pinpoint. But I'll tell you what: Drew had it."
Evaluators at the next level were skeptical. NFL scouts endlessly debated Brees's height (again), his arm strength and the possible skewing effect of playing in Tiller's wide-open offense (which would be pedestrian by today's standards, just a decade later). At a poke-and-prod for scouts before the 2001 Hula Bowl in Maui, Brees was measured and announced by a stentorian clerk as "five-eleven-seven!" or 5'11 7/8". Brees refused to leave the stage until he was remeasured and announced as "six even!" to applause from the scouts. A month later he flopped at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis when coaches supervising drills dulled Brees's enthusiasm by telling him to simply complete throws at three quarters speed rather than passing in a game-speed rhythm. At one point Brees one-hopped a five-yard square-out. In the stands Brian Schottenheimer, who had seen Brees tear up the Big Ten, said out loud, "Who is this guy?"
On a long ride home to Purdue that night, through the mid-winter darkness on I-65, Brees said to a writer in his company, "Now I have to prove myself all over again."
With the Chargers he sat behind Doug Flutie as a rookie, then beat out Flutie in '02, but that only put him on a roller coaster that included four benchings in two seasons. Schottenheimer, whose father, Marty, was the head coach, recalls, "Every time Drew got benched, he would stand on the sideline with his helmet on, chinstrap buckled, ready to go. Sometimes for the whole game. Pretty powerful."
Slowly Brees made himself better. Sean Payton bristles when Brees is described as an overachiever. "He's an amazing athlete," says the Saints' coach. "Quick feet, explosiveness, anticipation." Yet Brees has the mind of an overachiever. He had always been hypercompetitive, but that was no longer enough. Following the 2002 season he began working out extensively with trainer Todd Durkin at Durkin's private gym in San Diego. A year later Brees met with former major league pitcher Tom House, now 63, a pitching coach at USC with a Ph.D. in performance psychology. House helped Brees minimally with throwing mechanics and significantly with the underpinnings of leadership. "Drew wants to please people," says House. "He cares too much. He needed to learn that you can't be everything to all people." What Brees took from the sessions was this: "I was too nice a guy, as a leader. I had this tendency that if people were doing things wrong, I would try to make up for it instead of calling them out. And that will burn you out."
The new Brees kept Rivers at bay for two years; then in the last game of the 2005 season Brees was trying to recover his own fumble when he was driven into the turf by Broncos defensive tackle Gerard Warren. Dr. James Andrews, who operated on Brees's shoulder, called it "one of the most unique injuries of any athlete I've ever treated," a rare 360-degree labrum tear with associated rotator-cuff damage. Andrews repaired the joint with 11 surgical anchors—three or four is common. Brees awoke from surgery right where he was as a senior in high school, as a senior in college and as a fourth-year pro: doubted.