The things young sports fans dream of … you know them if you are one. Or you remember being one. Even if you aren’t a major sports fan, you almost certainly know someone who is one, and you know all about the happenings that would mean the world to them.
So many of my dreams, as a lifetime Saints fan, came true because of Drew Brees.
No, Brees has not announced his retirement a little less than two weeks after the Saints’ season-ending playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He’s dropped a few hints, though, both directly and indirectly. Both Brees and coach Sean Payton were evasive when speaking of the idea Brees would be walking away, but neither fought the idea too hard – the announcement, were it to come, would be for another day, another press conference, Payton said a short time following the loss to Tampa.
I suspect a legend has played his final game in New Orleans, and in the NFL as a whole. I don’t know what the future brings in that case for the team – be it led by Jameis Winston, Taysom Hill, a veteran outsider or a rookie draftee.
But I sure know what Brees has meant to me, as a Saints fan.
In 2006, I was fresh out of college – and a little less than a year into total upheaval. My family and I lived in St. Bernard Parish prior to Hurricane Katrina, and the flood the storm brought destroyed the community. People speak of a “new normal” in regards to current times, but that description was certainly apt for so many of us back then, adapting to new surroundings and circumstances.
The Saints were also in transition. A messy 3-13 season in 2005, where the team had no home field to really play on, led to the end of Jim Haslett’s run as head coach and the introduction of Payton, who would be one of the key figures in overhauling the roster. Part of that was finding a quarterback, and the Saints were linked to Brees when free agency started. They would ultimately sign him, choosing to gamble on the rehabilitation of what was a badly injured shoulder.
And I didn’t want him.
Not really among my best calls, to say the least. That draft, so I thought, was stacked with talented passers. Matt Leinart! Vince Young! Jay Cutler!!! How could we ever pass on all three, with the second overall pick at our disposal? It wasn’t that I thought Brees wasn’t a very good player: on the contrary, I had the memory of him carving up the Saints’ secondary burned into my mind, I believe connecting with Antonio Gates for scores three times in one afternoon.
But the injury was scary – and in a league where most teams could use a talented passer, all but one elected to pass on him. Given the team’s history, I wasn’t super confident the Saints’ out on a limb opinion would prove the correct one.
How right they were. How wrong I was.
My friends and I, for the first time ever, got season tickets (despite my Brees objections … hey, Reggie Bush! And ticket prices more affordable than they’d been in years, for the reopening). One of the best buys I’ve ever made.
I remember Brees dinking and dunking the Saints to a workmanlike win over the Cleveland Browns in his first game. He never really let it rip there – he would a week later, once the Saints fell behind by two touchdowns at Lambeau Field against Brett Favre’s Green Bay Packers. It truly felt like Brees didn’t want to push the shoulder – or was told not to – until he had no choice. He led the team back to a come-from-behind victory, the first of many of those.
That season, my thoughts evolved from “this team/this quarterback might not be bad” to “is … is this team good (think the “3” in “3-0,” the win over Atlanta in the Superdome reopening)?” to “this might be the start to something special.” Things went to a new level when Payton seemed to truly unleash his star passer on the world in a Sunday Night Football broadcast, the Saints visiting the Dallas Cowboys and Payton’s mentor Bill Parcells. The Saints jumped all over the Cowboys, and soon, every time I thought “well, we’re running this thing now,” Brees dropped back to pass again, and each time pushed the ball further and further up field.
This was a “new normal” we could all get behind.
That was just the beginning, of course.
In 2009, the Saints, led by Brees, gave us a championship. A 13-0 start, a teased collapse with three straight losses, and then a magnificent postseason run through Warner, Favre and Manning. Super Bowl Sunday was almost a blur, for me. The game went by quickly, and was decided … SUDDENLY. And there was immense joy.
But that Vikings game … I remember every detail of that Vikings game. I was there in person, and let me tell you … that crowd was there on a mission. There wasn’t a down of Vikings offense where the crowd wasn’t trying desperately to will something to happen – the noise level was insane WHEN THE VIKINGS WERE PUNTING, as if we could create a bad snap or botched kick out of thin air.
It’s hard to put what either win meant into words. I remember being a Saints fan as a boy and … not even dreaming they’d win the Super Bowl, but to just BE IN the Super Bowl. To be that team the sports world revolved around for two weeks. For so many years, I just wanted the Saints to have a star player of any kind – I was a bit too young to appreciate the Dome Patrol, and I came up on years of late Mora and Ditka rosters where … let’s say you wouldn’t have drafted a Saint to your fantasy team.
And enter this Brees person! From hoping you could have less than four quarterbacks start in a season for once, to seeing Jeff Blake injured, to an up and down run with Aaron Brooks … and this guy is just on fire every week. 4,000 yard seasons were layups, so let’s hit 5,000 yards. And hit it again, and hit it again, and hit it again. Division titles. Playoff games.
Brees stands as the NFL’s All-Time leading passer. I mean … we were juggling Billy Joe’s at quarterback not too long before he began here. The idea the guy with the most passing yards in league history would be a NEW ORLEANS SAINT was theatre of the absurd type stuff so long ago.
Of course, if this is the end, this season wasn’t what I envisioned for his exit, nor would I suspect it to be his. Myriad injuries, including a rotator cuff tear. His arm, perhaps in part due to the aforementioned injury, deteriorated and he was left to battle with smarts, guts and guile. He got more out of it than I’d expect anyone else to – 24 touchdowns and just six interceptions – and led the team to 10 wins in his 14 starts, including two playoff games. On a larger scope, it would hurt to see him go out on a run of tough playoff losses, one of which he, his teammates and his city were robbed of.
Mostly, though, it would hurt to know we couldn’t be there to see the end. There were many things that did not go ideally for him this season, but he deserves … or deserved … to have a full Superdome to see him in uniform for the last time, to send him off the right way.
My dreams for the Saints never, ever pictured a player like Drew Brees. He’s been beyond my wildest dreams.
If this is the end …
Thank you, Drew.