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Brees takes leadership role beyond football

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Drew Brees had done his homework, as usual.

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

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

"So much of New Orleans' culture comes from the time when wewere 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 singthe National Anthem and you stare at it. It makes you well up withpride. When we see the fleur-de-lis, it makes us well up withpride."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 itto the city, to the rebuilding of the city. As a native of NewOrleans, I think Eli and I certainly appreciate that," Manningcontinued.

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

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

Cut loose by the San Diego Chargers, Brees entered free agencywhile rehabilitating from complicated surgery. The two teams mostinterested were Miami and New Orleans, but the Dolphins wereunwilling 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 alosing team.

"He has complete command of what we are doing," Payton said."When you do it successfully, immediately you gain respect fromyour peer group. When you work like he works, it's hard not to tryto keep up. That is one of his great traits. He brings the level ofcompetition up amongst everyone, not just the offense, butdefensively. Those are unique skill sets, and there is a lot thatgoes into that. Knowledge, talent, work ethic, all of those thingsthat fall under leadership. ... It's pretty special, and certainlyI don't take it for granted. It's a big reason why we are sittinghere right now."

At 6-feet, Brees is a few inches shorter than the prototypicalquarterback. He looks more like a regular guy than a world-classathlete and has been underestimated much of his athletic career.Although he grew up in the home of the Texas Longhorns, the onlyschools to recruit him seriously were Kentucky and Purdue. Breeschose the latter, but despite leading the Boilermakers to theirfirst Rose Bowl in more than three decades and becoming a HeismanTrophy finalist, most NFL teams passed on him before San Diego tookhim 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 quarterbackduring that span. In 2008, his 5,069 yards passing made him onlythe second quarterback to throw for more than 5,000 in a season andleft him 16 yards short of breaking Dan Marino's 1984 all-time NFLsingle-season record.

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

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

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

"He's a real strong person and that's what makes him somewhatunique," Payton said. "I lost my mother in 2002 during the byeweek when I was (an assistant coach) in New York. Sometimes theseason and the league can rob you of something because of howconsuming it is. ... That's some of the uniqueness in Drew Breesthat he was able to put that (grieving) somewhere, grieve and stillcontinue with all of the responsibilities that he had."

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

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

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

He bought and renovated a century-old house near the Mannings inthe historic Uptown neighborhood and, along with his wife, startedleading efforts to rebuild schools, playgrounds and athleticfields.

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

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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