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The little hired bus rumbles north across Lake Pontchartrain on the longest bridge in the U.S., 24 miles of roadway sucked up underneath the front of the vehicle and spit out the back in a monotonous sound track of tires against expansion joints. Thumpthumpthumpthumpthump. New Orleans fading in the distance, northern suburbs ahead on the far shore, water everywhere else. Drew Brees, quarterback of the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, sits idly in a hard seat. When he came to Louisiana five years ago, so much of this was foreign. Now it is deeply familiar. "New Orleans surprised me so much," says Brees. "People told me it was like the Vegas of the South. That's so wrong. This place is in people's blood, and they want you to feel that too." It is the Thursday morning of the Saints' bye week, and players have scattered in a precious escape from the routine and the violence. Brees remains behind for two extra days because there is more to his work than throwing touchdown passes.
Here the bus comes to a stop in front of Magnolia Trace Elementary School, in Mandeville, where Brees will speak to the students as part of an NFL-sponsored community program. Shrieks of joy rise from the sidewalk, where excited children and swooning teachers have gathered to greet their celebrity guest. Brees bounces out of his seat, pulls a black number 9 game jersey over his head and steams toward the front of the bus, clenching both fists. "The kids are pumped!" he shouts. He signs a small collection of memorabilia in the principal's office and then hustles down the pristine hallways of the school. Cafeteria worker Julia Collins of nearby Lacombe sticks her hand in Brees's path; he slaps it emphatically, and Collins runs back to work squealing. Teacher Laura Cangiamilla, seven months pregnant, poses for a photo with Brees. "This is Baby Drew," she says, pointing to the belly stretching her Saints jersey.
Now Brees stands on a stage in the school's gymnasium, and more than 400 students are spread across the tiled floor. He leads them in the Saints' traditional cheer. "Every time I say, 'One, two, three,' you say, 'Who Dat!'" implores Brees. He shouts it half a dozen times or more, cupping his hand next to his ear, and the response is ever louder. Then he asks for quiet, pressing his palms downward against air as if trying to suppress the noise with his hands. There are questions from the kids. What is the greatest challenge of your career? Is it easy to work as a team? Did you do a dance in the locker room after the Super Bowl? This one Brees turns back on the students. "Everybody who thinks they can dance," he shouts, "stand up and give me your best Super Bowl touchdown dance!" Instantly the floor is a beehive of jumping, gyrating, spinning kids, filling the air with celebratory screams. Brees watches like a proud father, or a mischievous co-conspirator.
Then there is another question. A little girl stands and reads nervously from a slip of yellow paper while a teacher holds the microphone. "What is your empowering word?" she asks, then timidly casts her eyes to the floor.
On the stage Brees, 31, raises a microphone to his mouth. Not laughing now. "My empowering word," he says, "is faith."
It is a word that in modern times can polarize—or politicize—an audience, ingratiating some listeners and repelling others. (Not this audience, the adult portion of which gasps in approval.) It's a word that the children have been taught but can't yet fully understand. For Brees the word is more than religion and spirituality, although it has been both of those, increasingly, through the years. Faith is more than Brees's empowering word. It is the central force in his life, slicing across family, football and community, carrying him to the top of his profession and to an iconic status in a still-wounded city that he has helped lift from despair.
When Brees blew out a knee in 11th grade and college recruiters largely abandoned him, it took faith to believe he would someday play college football. When the entire NFL passed on him in the first round of the 2001 draft, when the San Diego Chargers benched him four times and then brought in a young quarterback to replace him, when he tore up his shoulder in December '05, it took faith to believe he would be a star in professional football and lead a team to a Lombardi Trophy. When only New Orleans—the doormat franchise and the ravaged city—believed in him, he believed in New Orleans. When his estranged mother ended her life in the summer of 2009, it took faith for Brees to embrace and understand the complicated and sometimes fleeting power of a family's love. When he rises every weekday at 5:15 a.m., it takes faith to look a cynical public in the eye and nakedly embrace the earnest values of fidelity, fatherhood, service, selflessness and sportsmanship, knowing that the slightest error in behavior will bring a furious blowback.
Yet is faith not also the essence of sport? A fan's unwavering faith in the home team. A player's faith in the workaday value of practice done hard and right to extract the most from his physical gifts. A team's faith that its members can do more together than each could do alone. On the night of Feb. 7, 2010, Drew Brees led the New Orleans Saints to the first Super Bowl championship in the franchise's star-crossed history, a 31--17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in Miami. He completed 32 of 39 passes for 228 yards and two touchdowns, did not throw an interception and was named the game's most valuable player. For Brees it was the culmination of a four-year climb to a place among the best quarterbacks in football, and for the Saints the crowning moment in a 44-year romance with their home. For that city, nearly lost to a terrible storm, it was a critical step on a very long and ongoing path to recovery. "I needed New Orleans just as much as New Orleans needed me," says Brees. "People in New Orleans needed somebody to care about them. And it was the one place that cared about me."
And cares deeply still, every day. "People come up to Drew and don't say, 'Congratulations,'" says Saints veteran tackle Jon Stinchcomb. "They say, 'Thank you. Thank you for coming here.'"
When the Super Bowl was finished late on that Sunday night, Brees grabbed his one-year-old son, Baylen, and hoisted him skyward into the shower of confetti. The little boy's head was framed by oversized headphones to protect his eardrums from the noise. (He wears them for every game he attends.) Nearby stood Brees's wife, Brittany, unknowingly pregnant with their second child, another boy, Bowen, who would be born in October. And here were a city, a team and a man all reborn, new life reflected in the innocent eyes of a child.