FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The New Orleans Saints arrived during a Florida rainstorm Monday afternoon. Practice was moved indoors, to a different location, and the Saints had to put on their full gear at the team hotel before taking a one-hour bus ride to the Miami Dolphins’ facility.
For the team from the town that is still coping with the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, this downpour was hardly worthy of a single umbrella.
“Weather the storm,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said this week. “We know how to do that.”
Brees, of course, has come to symbolize the revival of the Saints and New Orleans. There is considerable work to be done to make New Orleans whole again, and no football team can cure all of the blues. To a degree, the Saints’ impact on the city has been overstated. The citizens left displaced by Katrina aren’t representative of the Saints’ season-ticket base. And winning the Super Bowl won’t solve the innumerable problems in the city’s depressed ninth ward.
But if the Saints have raised the spirit of New Orleans, that’s a good thing. If Saints players have contributed to the city’s comeback through their charitable deeds and community service, they should be commended.
And in this New Orleans story, Drew Brees is the real streetcar named desire.
Brees came to New Orleans as a free agent in the summer of 2006. Mending from shoulder surgery, Brees could barely raise the ceremonial No. 9 jersey for the photo at his introductory news conference.
Having to regenerate the strength in a right shoulder is small-scale stuff compared to the project of rebuilding the chronically inadequate Saints or the massive reconstruction of New Orleans.
Still, there was a mutual need. A mutual benefit. A traveling quarterback with a sore shoulder – in search of a new opportunity – landed in an imperfect place.
Which made it perfect, really.
And this much was clear from the beginning: Brees went all in.
“Drew Brees has been a godsend for a community that was on its knees,” said Jim Henderson, the Saints’ play-by-play voice. “He’s become the face of the franchise.”
When Brees and his wife Brittany moved to New Orleans, they didn’t seek the refuge of a gated community in a stylish suburb. No, they purchased a fixer-upper house in the city’s uptown neighborhood. And the Brees’ charitable arm, the Dream Foundation, has raised $2 million for Katrina-related endeavors. The projects included the restoration of a charter school that had been shut down and converted into an emergency shelter in the weeks and months after Katrina.
“I felt like it was a calling,” Brees said earlier this month. “An opportunity to come here and not only be a part of the rebuilding of the organization, but to be part of the rebuilding of the city and the region.”
When Brees made his free-agent visit in 2006, he was stunned by the visual displays of destruction in the wake of Katrina.
“You’re looking at a lot of the neighborhoods and there are still boats in living rooms and trucks flipped upside down on houses,” Brees said. “Some houses just off the foundation and totally gone. It looked like a nuclear bomb went off.
“But I looked at it as an opportunity to be part of the rebuilding process. How many people get that opportunity in their life to be part of something like that?”
Since Brees left San Diego to sign a six-year, $60 million deal in New Orleans, the Saints are 38-26 in the regular season, 3-1 in the postseason, and are competing in the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history.
Brees marked the occasion by putting on a bellhop uniform to greet the other Saints at the team hotel Monday.
“I’m here to serve,” Brees said.
He’s been doing that all season, having completed an NFL-record 70.6 percent of his throws for 4,388 yards, 34 touchdowns and a league-best 109.6 passer rating in the regular season.
Give Nick Saban some credit.
Truth be told, Brees’ first preference was to sign with Miami.
“When you think about Miami, the reaction is, ‘Wow,’ ” Brees said before last month’s NFC title game. “At the time, when you talked about New Orleans, there was a lot of uncertainty about everything involved with the team. Where were they going to play? What kind of shape was the Superdome in? All these things.”
This was February 2006. Saban was coaching the Miami Dolphins and couldn’t shake serious concerns over Brees’ shoulder. Saban traded for Daunte Culpepper instead, and Brees headed to New Orleans to find a higher purpose. Saban went to Alabama and won a second national championship. And the Dolphins are still trying to find a quarterback; they’ve started seven since rejecting Brees.
Funny that Brees and the Saints are on the Dolphins’ turf as they prepare for Sunday’s game. Emotionally, Brees put Miami behind him as soon as he listened to the recruiting pitch from Saints coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis.
“They had as much confidence in me returning from my shoulder injury that year as I had in myself,” Brees said. “And that meant a lot to me. Everybody else was counting me out a little bit.”
Without Brees, the Saints probably would have drafted a QB instead of running back Reggie Bush with the No. 2 overall pick in 2006.
“Who knows,” Brees said. “There were rumors of the Saints moving. Maybe the team would have ended up in San Antonio or Los Angeles.”
Brees came in.
The Saints stayed.
“I do believe everything happens for a reason,” Brees said. “This goes way beyond football.”