Watching the praise roll in for Drew Brees on the occasion of his retirement from the NFL, I've been thinking back on someone I've come to know quite well over the years, someone who will go down not just as one of the great quarterbacks of all time but as one of the great people.
And I've also been thinking about how his career might not have happened the way it did if not for a phone call I made roughly 20 years ago.
I first became familiar with Drew when he led Westlake High School to the Texas state championship in 1996, beating Abilene Cooper -- which was then coached by Randy Allen, who currently helms the program at Highland Park -- by the score of 55-15. Though he finished with a record of 28-0-1 as a starter, he was basically ignored by major college programs; the best he got from Texas, where his uncle played, was a walk-on offer. Of course, today, we know Drew is a lifelong overachiever who excels at everything he does, whether in football, business, or whatever else he wants to do. He landed a scholarship from Purdue, and being snubbed because of his height -- which officially is 6-foot-3/8 -- merely provided him with one of his first chances to show the world what he's made of.
I personally got a close look at what Brees could do via my role with the Playboy All-American Preseason Team, which I picked (along with Gary Cole) from 1962 to 2011. (Incidentally, our track record selecting notable college players was pretty good: 52 of the players that we picked are currently in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and 32 became Heisman Trophy-winners.) Drew was our choice at quarterback ahead of his junior year, in 1999. In 2000, we couldn't decide whether to go with Brees again or Michael Vick, so we included them both, slotting Vick as the QB and Brees as a scholar-athlete.
What we used to do was, we'd have our honored players come to an Arizona resort for a long weekend in the spring. The players loved the chance to golf and fish, and we also had pro-day-type events where they'd test their skills, encompassing both combine-type events (minus the 40-yard dash) and things like a quick-draw contest and a mechanical-bull riding contest. We usually didn't have multiple quarterbacks, but with Brees and Vick there in 2000, we had them throw passes, to receivers and at targets. Here's how I remember the results of the targeted event: Brees put the ball through the hole 23 of 25 times, while Vick hit the target on 10 of 25 tries. (And, for what it's worth, I have to note that Brees hit this mark while also drinking beer, while the 20-year-old Vick was sticking to soda. )
Fast-forward to the 2001 NFL Draft, when the San Diego Chargers held the first overall pick. I called my good friend John Butler, the Chargers general manager (who sadly passed away in 2003), and asked him what he was going to do with the selection. He said, "We're going to take Vick." I said, "Well, you'd better send somebody to work him out first, because I think Drew Brees is a lot better." So the Chargers worked Vick out. When I got a call back, it was to let me know that I was absolutely right, and that the Chargers were going to try to trade the choice. They ended up swapping with the Falcons, who drafted Vick, then used the fifth overall pick to snag future Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson in the first round before grabbing Brees in the second. And the rest is history.
Brees will go down as one of the ultimate underdogs after proving doubters wrong at every level. But his career was also marked by twists of fate. Like in 2006, when he might have signed with the Dolphins (Nick Saban wanted him!) and not the Saints (where he put together some truly legendary seasons) if Miami's doctors hadn't been scared off by Brees' shoulder injury. Or in 2001, when he might have missed out on the chance to show his stuff in San Diego if I hadn't called Butler.
I know we're losing a great player with Brees' retirement. I also know he'll continue to be a factor in the growth of New Orleans. I've known a lot of people over the years, and what I have to say about Drew Brees is this: He's definitely a once-in-a-lifetime type of person.
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