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Brees takes leadership role beyond football
Super Bowl Football Heal


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MIAMI — Drew Brees had done his homework, as usual.

Asked what he thought about the New Orleans Saints' use of the fleur-de-lis on their helmets and uniforms, Brees responded with a brief history lesson.

He rehashed how Louisiana had adopted the symbol when it was a French colony, explaining that the fleur-de-lis (flower of the lily) was a symbol of the French monarchy at the time.

"So much of New Orleans' culture comes from the time when we were under French rule," said Brees, who grew up in Austin, Texas. "It's a big part of what New Orleans is all about.

"So when you look at that symbol, it is the symbol of the city. It's just like when you look at the American flag, when you sing the National Anthem and you stare at it. It makes you well up with pride. When we see the fleur-de-lis, it makes us well up with pride."

His explanation exemplified why Brees himself has become a source of pride among New Orleanians for his work both on and off the field. By helping a football-mad city finally experience what it's like to be part of a Super Bowl involving its own team — instead of hosting them for others — Brees has cemented his place in New Orleans' sports history.

By helping the city's post-Katrina renaissance through wide-ranging charity work and his constant promotion of the region's cultural assets, he's clearly one of its adopted sons. Indeed, he is so popular that candidates in Saturday's mayoral election joked during the campaign that they would drop out of the race if Brees decided to run.

Winning Sunday's Super Bowl against the Indianapolis Colts would only enhance his status.

That's saying a lot because the First Family of Football — the Mannings — live there, too, and are all but regarded as royalty in the Big Easy.

Colts quarterback Peyton Manning isn't just an opponent, he's practically a neighbor.

"My parents have gotten to know Drew and his family," Manning said. "I just have an appreciation for guys that play for the New Orleans Saints, that live there in the offseason, that commit to the city year-round as opposed to just playing there during the fall."

Manning's parents, Archie and Olivia, did all of that, quarterbacking for the Saints and putting down roots in the city.

"Drew has committed his efforts in the philanthropy part of it to the city, to the rebuilding of the city. As a native of New Orleans, I think Eli and I certainly appreciate that," Manning continued.

Brees, along with wife Brittany and 1-year-old son, Baylen, are well on their way to achieving similar Manning status.

Brees often compares the resurgence of his career after a serious shoulder injury at the end of the 2005 season to the recovery of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit that same year.

Cut loose by the San Diego Chargers, Brees entered free agency while rehabilitating from complicated surgery. The two teams most interested were Miami and New Orleans, but the Dolphins were unwilling to take a risk on Brees' then-uncertain recovery.

But Sean Payton, then in his first year as Saints head coach, made it clear he saw Brees as the best choice to begin rebuilding a losing team.

"He has complete command of what we are doing," Payton said. "When you do it successfully, immediately you gain respect from your peer group. When you work like he works, it's hard not to try to keep up. That is one of his great traits. He brings the level of competition up amongst everyone, not just the offense, but defensively. Those are unique skill sets, and there is a lot that goes into that. Knowledge, talent, work ethic, all of those things that fall under leadership. ... It's pretty special, and certainly I don't take it for granted. It's a big reason why we are sitting here right now."

At 6-feet, Brees is a few inches shorter than the prototypical quarterback. He looks more like a regular guy than a world-class athlete and has been underestimated much of his athletic career. Although he grew up in the home of the Texas Longhorns, the only schools to recruit him seriously were Kentucky and Purdue. Brees chose the latter, but despite leading the Boilermakers to their first Rose Bowl in more than three decades and becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist, most NFL teams passed on him before San Diego took him with its second-round draft pick in 2001.

In the past four years since nearly everyone wrote him off, Brees has passed for 18,298 yards, the most of any quarterback during that span. In 2008, his 5,069 yards passing made him only the second quarterback to throw for more than 5,000 in a season and left him 16 yards short of breaking Dan Marino's 1984 all-time NFL single-season record.

He has twice led the Saints to an NFC championship game and now to the Super Bowl.

His professional triumphs this season, however, have been offset by a personal blow.

His mother, Mina, an attorney from Austin, died of a prescription drug overdose last summer and her death was later ruled a suicide. The two had been estranged, and Brees has said he prefers to keep his feelings about his mother private.

"He's a real strong person and that's what makes him somewhat unique," Payton said. "I lost my mother in 2002 during the bye week when I was (an assistant coach) in New York. Sometimes the season and the league can rob you of something because of how consuming it is. ... That's some of the uniqueness in Drew Brees that he was able to put that (grieving) somewhere, grieve and still continue with all of the responsibilities that he had."

Brees threw for 4,388 yards and a league-leading 34 touchdowns in 15 games this season, sitting out the last one of the regular-season because New Orleans had already wrapped up the NFC's top playoff seed.

Even as the stakes rose on the field, Brees continued his work in the community.

When he first came to New Orleans in the spring of 2006, much of the area was still a wreck. And even though hospitals, supermarkets and basic services were still disrupted, that didn't stop him from calling New Orleans home.

He bought and renovated a century-old house near the Mannings in the historic Uptown neighborhood and, along with his wife, started leading efforts to rebuild schools, playgrounds and athletic fields.

"I've embraced the community of New Orleans just because it is a special place, and they've embraced me and my wife in a way that I can't even describe," Brees said. "There is nothing more that I want for them than a championship."