Brees eager to lead Saints to success, help New Orleans

Published 1:12 am Sunday, August 6, 2006

Drew Brees is beaming.

Whether the subject is his recovery from throwing shoulder surgery, the odds of turning around a 3-13 team, or the historic home he bought in a hurting city he wants to help, he’s happy to discuss it.

A big contract and an undisputed starting job have something to do with that, but not everything.

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“My wife and I love New Orleans, we love this team and I think we have a great opportunity to go and accomplish something,” the quarterback said after a recent practice at the New Orleans Saints’ training camp.

While Brees excelled during his past two seasons in San Diego, the Chargers’ decision to draft Philip Rivers in the first round of 2004 begged constant questions about Brees’ long-term future there.

When Brees tore cartilage in his right shoulder while trying to pounce on a fumble late last season, it gave leverage to those with the Chargers who argued the younger, unproven Rivers was the quarterback to keep.

Brees found himself shopping the free-agency market, hoping another team would bet heavily on his ability to return to form after surgery.

Enter the Saints, whose new coach, Sean Payton, craved a quarterback with leadership skills and a history of winning.

Longtime starter Aaron Brooks was on his way out after an uninspired and unproductive 2005 in which he was benched for the final three games. Payton trusted that Brees’ work ethic and desire to prove himself after being let go by San Diego minimized the risks that came with banking on a quarterback whose throwing arm required months of painstaking rehabilitation.

New Orleans gave Brees a six-year, $60 million contract.

“The main thing was just the fact that the Saints had as much confidence in me and my shoulder as I did,” Brees said. “They never blinked with anything that had happened with my injury. They saw the progress I was making. They just saw the glimmer in my eye. They knew that I knew I was going to be better than 100 percent by the time it was all said and done.”

Brees’ credentials as a winner go back to his high school days at Westlake in Austin, Texas, which was 28-0-1 in his two years as a starter there. He went on to become a Heisman Trophy finalist at Purdue, which made regular appearances in the Top 25 and in bowl games with him behind center.

The year Rivers was drafted — a vote of no confidence if there ever was one — Brees led the Chargers into the playoffs and appeared in the Pro Bowl.

“He showed the Chargers’ fans that he can lead their team … and I’m glad they let him get out of there,” Saints receiver Joe Horn said. “Now I have the opportunity to be on the end of some great passes that he gave those guys down there. I’m quite sure that Drew Brees and the whole organization will have a fun ride this year.”

Brees has looked strong through the first week of training camp. While he limits his number of throws to about 80 per day and the length of his passes to about 55 yards as a precaution, there are moments when his instincts take over and he rifles balls effectively into tight spots. In one recent practice he displayed distance and touch, hitting receiver Devery Henderson on a deep out route between zone coverage.

Brees and Payton often talk during practice, giving an onlooker the impression that they run the offense in tandem.

And while the rebuilding Saints will have an uphill struggle against a tough NFC South, Brees is not exactly lacking weapons in his new offense. Running back Deuce McAllister has looked strong coming back from knee surgery. Heisman Trophy winning tailback Reggie Bush is signed and in camp. Horn, who struggled with a hamstring injury last year, is healthy again.

“Our problem is going to be not enough balls to go around and that’s a good problem,” Brees said. “There are a lot of guys here who have that kind of renewed attitude like I do. They’re happy to be here and really excited about the possibilities. … Now I’m at the point where I feel like I’m into my prime and this is my opportunity — this is our opportunity — to do something great.”

As a Texas native, Brees said he always appreciated the passion for football in neighboring Louisiana and was intrigued by the prospect of immersing himself in the Saints’ devout following.

Rather than opt for an insular existence in an upscale, suburban development, he and his wife Brittany bought a 100-year-old home near scenic Audubon park in uptown New Orleans, close to Tulane and Loyola universities.

They have ventured into the French Quarter to take a “ghost tour.” A friend Brees described as a history buff is planning to visit so they can see the national World War II museum together.

Then there’s the food, whether it be beignets and cafe au lait or char-broiled oysters.

“I love the restaurants, we’ve done some touristy stuff and done some of the locals’ stuff, too, so it’s been fun,” Brees said.

Shortly after their arrival in New Orleans, the Breeses starting driving around town to take in both the beauty of surviving, historic neighborhoods as well as the vast expanses of devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina last summer.

“We got a reality check as to what really happened — the devastation, destruction — what really needed to be done to kind of really help the community,” Brees said.

Brees also makes appearances at charity events, has visited the city’s children’s hospital and will host a “Cocktails for Katrina” event with McAllister shortly before the Saints’ home opener on Sept. 25 — the money raised going to local youth programs.

“We really felt like we belonged here,” Brees said. “It was our calling, not only to play football and help this team win a championship, but also for what we could do in the community. That was important to us.”