On this Indigenous Peoples’ day, I’m in a noisy place watching the Saints play the Redskins.
I’ll give you a moment.
Irony aside, what just happened is that the Saints quarterback, Drew Brees, just broke the all-time record for passing yards. I don’t know how long that record will stand, because the league is constantly altering the rules to favor passers. But still, this is a big event, sports-wise.
I remember his first game. I was with Squirrely Joe, in a sterile sports bar in Las Vegas. The Chargers were getting their asses kicked. Down by 17, they pulled their venerable, highly-respected starting quarterback to put in the backup they thought would carry the team one day.
The first pass Brees attempted was terrible. With the cameras on him, the team went back to the huddle and he was almost laughing at himself, taking full responsibility for the failure.
Then he hit a pass, and another, and suddenly a defeated team was looking crisper, hungrier. Whatever he was doing in that huddle infected everyone; there was some magical energy Brees was putting out that changed the team. Of course the defense caught the bug too, and the game swung decidedly for the Chargers.
The Chargers lost that game; there simply wasn’t enough time for Brees to finish the comeback. But I knew, I KNEW, after that first terrible play, before he did anything else, when he was statistically the worst quarterback ever, that Drew Brees was the real deal. I knew by the way he handled that mistake, by the way he interacted with the other players on his team, that he was a leader, and that he expected more of himself, but allowed himself to make mistakes.
When the Katrina/Bush disaster hit New Orleans, Brees showed his true blue again. San Diego had given him up in favor of their new kid, and I understand that decision — Brees was having trouble with his shoulder. Down in New Orleans, when things were really bad, Brees was a good neighbor to many who needed one, and in the following months he worked hard to help rebuild the city. He’s going to retire a Saint, or blood will flow.
He knows that, but he’s playing year-to-year with them, rather than making things ugly by trying to extort a longer contract. He loves his job. He loves his team and the city that hosts him. He loves them enough to trust them to know when it’s time to say goodbye.
After all these years, when I watch him play I still see that rookie, after his very first terrible play. That’s the same football player who just set an all-time record, the player dark agents from Canton may eventually have to shoot so they can set up his shrine in the hall of fame. The same guy. Maybe he’s sharpened his skills a bit since, but his ability to inspire those around him was obvious from the beginning.
Football is a team sport like no other, a collection of specialists with a common goal, and leadership matters in football more than anywhere else. Linemen block just a little bit harder when they are protecting Brees; receivers run their routes a little more crisply. “84 jump into the stratosphere and push off passing 747 into the corner of the end zone” would sound almost plausible if Brees said it. There are better throwers in the league. There are much better scramblers and runners in the league. But there is no better leader.