WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - The talent scouts who grade high school football prospects track their picks through college and into the NFL. The touts make pronouncements about their ability to gaze into the future, but did any project Drew Brees as a Heisman Trophy candidate and a first-round draft choice four years ago?
"How hot a commodity was I?" Brees said in early August, echoing a question. "I was cold."
Purdue wants its first Big Ten title since 1967, and Brees is ready for one last season of outrageous passing statistics. You will not find a better match in college football between player and program. Four years ago, the Boilermakers were dead-end kids and Brees considered playing college baseball.
Brees has football, type Texas, in his blood. His maternal grandfather was a high school coaching legend on the Gulf Coast. He was named for Drew Pearson, a former Dallas Cowboys receiver. His parents were cheerleaders at Texas A&M.; He was a prep star in Austin, the state capital.
To the recruiting coordinators who counted, however, Brees was a damaged, puny prospect.
Brees was 6 feet in high school, and a tear in the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee brought a premature end to his junior season. The anticipated crush of college recruiters ended before it began, and Brees said he received offers from two major-college programs.
Both planned to rebuild and fill seats by stretching defenses and games with ridiculous numbers of passes. Kentucky had brought in Hal Mumme, while Purdue had given its latest building job to Joe Tiller. The Boilermakers did not have Tim Couch, so Brees packed for the "Cradle of Quarterbacks."
Skeptics argue Brees might not match the NFL success of previous Purdue quarterbacks like Len Dawson and Bob Griese, who won Super Bowls. So what. He has given a community something to cheer in the fall, and accelerated Tiller's turnaround of a program that had gone 12 years without a winning record before he - and Brees - arrived.
Tiller's one-back attack most closely resembles the West Coast offense.
"This guy [Brees] would be good in any system. Ours just happens to be user friendly," Tiller said. "He happened to be the right guy at the time. He's accurate, and that's one of the qualities we look for. We don't necessarily look for a strong-armed guy, and Drew Brees is not defined that way. He is gutsy, and has an ability to avoid the rush."
When did the Purdue staff know that Brees wouldn't red-shirt in 1997?
"On the first day of practice his freshman year," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said.
Brees was the backup that year, as Tiller reversed field from a style that had featured fullback Mike Alstott from 1992 to '95. The Boilermakers went to the Alamo Bowl in 1997, and returned there in 1998, with Brees as a sophomore.
One of the seven Big Ten records he set in 1998 came against Minnesota, as Brees threw for 522 yards. A week later at Wisconsin, he established an NCAA record with 83 attempts. His 55 completions tied the NCAA mark.
The schedule got stickier last season, with consecutive road games at Michigan and Ohio State. Brees chopped his interceptions from 20 to 12, but his touchdown passes dropped from 39 to 25. After a home loss to Wisconsin last November, Brees ended the speculation about an early departure for the NFL, and announced he would return as a senior.
"Cool Brees" wants to get cooler, as he continues to search for the proper balance between reserve and recklessness.
"I can only get so accurate," Brees said. "I've got to work on my game management, know when to try to make the big play or tuck it in and run."
He has picked the brain of Roger Staubach, who invited Brees to join him in throwing out the first pitch at a Chicago White Sox game earlier this month. He is friends with Peyton Manning. Brees is the franchise at Purdue, but he receives no slack from the coaching staff or his teammates.
There is a sizable, hairy birthmark on Brees' right cheek. Left tackle Matt Light will not disclose what nickname it was given by the offensive line, but he did share some of their marketing schemes.
"Take some double-sided tape, put hair on one side, sell them at our games," Light said. "I thought we could make some money. Everybody can be like Drew Brees."
Tiller after Brees' 20-interception sophomore season: "We would like him not to hit the open linebacker so much."
Brees absorbs it all with a competitive instinct that forced an end to Tiller's off-season Frisbee football games - the quarterback played too rough - and an attention to detail that is extraordinary.
Both of Brees' parents are lawyers. He carries a 3.41 cumulative grade-point average in Purdue's School of Management, and aches to be an Academic All-American nearly as badly as he would like to win the Heisman. He is late for class occasionally, but Brees is probably the rare 21-year-old who organizes his sock drawer.
Brees explained how he cut his weight from 220 pounds to 218. For most guys that size, two pounds is one less bag of Doritos or two fewer Bud Lights. Brees isn't from the Don Meredith turn-out-the-lights-the-party's-over school of Texas quarterbacks, however, but from the straight-arrow mold epitomized by Staubach.
"Drew has great peripheral vision on the field," Purdue wide receiver Vinny Sutherland said. "He's got blinders off the field."
Selected Purdue quarterbacks, with their career passing yardage totals:
Name Seasons Yards
Mark Herrmann 1977-80 9,946
Drew Brees 1997-99 8,124
Jim Everett 1981-85 7,411
Mike Phipps 1967-69 5,423
Bob Griese 1964-66 4,402
Len Dawson 1954-56 3,325
Gary Danielson 1970-72 2,748