New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees left no doubt about how he feels about his adopted home state of Louisiana during the Walk-On’s Independence Bowl Kickoff Dinner last week at the Shreveport Convention Center.
“Louisiana is home,” said Brees, a Texas native. “My wife, Brittany and I, going back to 2006 when we first came here, we had no idea what to expect, but from the moment we stepped foot in New Orleans — really just this entire state — we’ve been welcomed with open arms. Such a special community and such a special group of people, different maybe with many other places, generations upon generations of people who have been involved in Louisiana.
“I was told very early on if you love Louisiana they’ll love you back. There’s truth to that. We’ve just tried to immerse ourselves in the community in a way that we can give back to New Orleans, give back to Louisiana.”
Brees and Brittany, who have four children, started the Brees Dream Foundation in 2003 to support cancer patients and research. The foundation also helps to provide assistant to Hurricane Katrina rebuilding projects.
In 2010, Brees was named Sportsperson of the Year in part because of his efforts in helping New Orleans recover from Katrina.
Brees, who is entering his 13th season as the Saints quarterback at age 39, spent about 40 minutes answering questions on stage from Shreveporter and Fox Sports broadcaster Tim Brando.
He spent some of the time talking about the current Saints situation. He also took a trip down memory lane, discussing his decision to sign with the Saints instead of the Dolphins in 2006 and talking about the “ambush” onsides kick in Super Bowl XLIV in 2010.
The morning of the dinner, Brees participated in the Saints mandatory mini-camp. He flew into Shreveport Tuesday evening.
The Saints won’t have veteran running back Mark Ingram for the first four games. Ingram was suspended for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Brees called Ingram and second-year running back Alvin Kamara the best running back tandem in the league and a “quarterback’s best friend.”
“To know we’re going to be without one of the one-two punch, you have to find a way to get by without him,” he said. “You don’t have a choice. So worry about the things you can control. I feel like those opportunities are going to go to other positions.”
That means other receivers might get more chances to show what they can do.
Brees said Ingram’s presence and leadership will definitely be missed in the locker room.
Asked to compare the potential of the 2018 Saints to that of the 2009 NFL championship team, Brees didn’t give a direct answer.
The Saints are coming off a 12-6 season that ending with a 26-24 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC divisional playoffs on the game’s final play.
That season followed three disappointing 7-9 seasons. Brees said there was a “bit of a transformation” following the 2013 season.
He pointed out that all at once the Saints lost players like Jabari Greer, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper, Malcolm Jenkins and Will Smith who had been a big part of the team’s run of success before the three losing seasons.
“We lost a lot for a little bit there where we didn’t quite have the leadership in positions that we really needed,” he said. “I felt like the margin for error was just very small.”
Brees gives credit to head coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and director of scouting Jeff Ireland for getting the franchise headed back in the right direction with the drafting of key players like Kamara and cornerback Marshon Lattimore and the acquisition of free agents like linebackers AJ Klein and Demario Davis, cornerback Patrick Robinson and safety Kurt Coleman.
He’s also excited about the return of tight end Ben Watson.
“At the end of the day it really is about the people, about the leadership, because you’re going to have to weather storms, you’re going to have to overcome adversity, and when you have guys that have been there, done that, know how to do that, it makes a difference,” he said.
During the Q&A, one of the most well-received stories was about Brees choosing the Saints over the Dolphins.
Playing for San Diego in the last game of the 2005 season, Brees tore his labrum against the Denver Broncos trying to pick up a fumble. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right (throwing) shoulder. There were reports of other problems with the shoulder, and some doubt, even in Brees’ mind, as to whether he’d be able to be a productive quarterback in the NFL again.
“I’ve always been a very confident guy, but this tested my faith and my confidence more than anything I’ve ever gone through,” he said. “Football and sports had always been my life, that had been something I’ve hung on to. It’s what I’ve worked for.”
Brees admitted there was some trepidation coming to a city still devastated by Hurricane Katrina. But he liked what Payton and the Saints had to say about being a part of the city’s recovery.
When he was being driven around the city by Payton and shown the massive damage, he said Payton tried to get across to him and Brittany that the city would come back and be a great place to live and raise a family.
Payton got lost in the heavily damaged Lakeview section headed back to the Saints facility.
“I remember looking back at Brittany in the car and she looks at me and coach Payton looks at us,” Brees said. “He tells me now that at the time he’s thinking, ‘I might as well just drive you to Miami right now.’
When he visited the Dolphins and then head coach Nick Saban, he said he spent time having his shoulder poked and prodded by doctors. He didn’t think Miami had much confidence in his ability to recover fully.
He said during his meeting with Saban, the coach told him that Miami’s doctors said the shoulder looked very bad and they thought he only had a 25 percent chance of playing again.
Brees basically told Saban that he would have to take his word that he was going to come back strong. And then he told him it didn’t matter because he was going to sign with the Saints anyway.
So on March 14, 2006, he signed a six-year, $60 million deal with the Saints.
“Deep down in our hearts, Brittany and I, we felt like, you know what, this is a lot more than just football. This is a calling. We belong here.”
Brees is a part-owner of the Walk-On’s franchise and he ended the discussion by saying how much it means to be the title sponsor of the Independence Bowl.
He said he remembers the day when Walk-On’s CEO and Founder Brandon Landry called to tell him about the opportunity.
“I remember the feeling I got, just how excited I was, to know we would be aligned with this great community in that way and also be a part of the Independence Bowl,” he said. “43 years now, that’s tremendous. I was always a big fan of the Independence Bowl growing up (in Texas). I think just now calling Louisiana home and knowing what a great fan-base we have up here in Shreveport, besides the Dallas fans. This is a huge deal for Walk-On’s. We have high aspirations for our company and our growth and this legitimizes us in a lot of ways.”
— Russell Hedges is Sports Editor of the Bossier Press-Tribune. He may be reached at email@example.com
— Featured photo Roger Braniff/Walk-On’s Independence Bowl