The Joy of Sacks
What's it like to watch your son get tackled for a loss—or throw a touchdown pass—on national TV each week? Drew Brees's parents wouldn't trade it for the world.
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IT’S NOT LIKE AMY BREES has never seen her stepson struggle. Even a two-time Heisman trophy finalist can throw an interception or come up on the wrong side of a big game. But getting hammered by the New York Jets? “This is like losing to ________ or ________,” Amy laments, referring to two Austin high school cream puffs that she prefers not to name in print, the sort Drew Brees carved up handily when he led the Westlake Chaparrals to the 1996 Texas 5A championship.
Six years later, 23-year-old Drew lines up behind center for the San Diego Chargers. On this Sunday afternoon in early November, Amy and her husband, Chip, have fired up the satellite—he in a Chargers golf shirt, she with lightning-bolt helmet earrings dangling from both lobes. They’ve been nice enough to have me over to watch the Jets-Chargers game, talk about Drew, and give me a taste of what it’s like to see your kid drenched in glory and grass stains on national television. Family members trickle in as Audrey Brees, Chip and Amy’s twelve-year-old daughter, regales her little cousin with the “San Diego Super Chargers!” fight song.
San Diego is coming off a bye week as perhaps the best team in the NFL (according to ESPN.com) and certainly its best shaggy-dog story. Before the Jets game, the Chargers were atop the American Football Conference with a 6-1 record, spurred by Waco native LaDainian Tomlinson’s running and Drew’s poise, which belies his status as a first-year starter. While a fairy-tale ending—Super Bowl XXVII will be played at the Chargers’ own Qualcomm Stadium—is unlikely, notice has been served: The Chargers are winners, and Drew is a star in the making, part of a generation of NFL quarterbacks that Sports Illustrated calls the best since Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, and John Elway’s class of 1983.
And to think, he wasn’t recruited by a single major Texas college. Drew didn’t even play tackle football until his freshman year at Westlake, but he is descended from stellar pigskin stock on his mother’s side. Mina Brees’s brother is Marty Akins, the star quarterback of the University of Texas Longhorns from 1973 to 1975, and her father is Gregory-Portland legend Ray Akins, the fifth-winningest high school football coach in Texas history. A World War II veteran, Ray felt that many of his fellow soldiers had withered under pressure and that that’s what had gotten them killed. “He decided he was going to become a football coach and train young men to work hard, be tough, and not give up when it looks like you can’t overcome adversity,” Mina says. “That was our family motto: ‘Never give up.'”
Chip and Mina, who are both attorneys, divorced when Drew and his younger brother, Reid, were still in elementary school. Custody was shared, though Mina’s place was home for school purposes. At Westlake, Drew worked his way up from freshman scrub to junior varsity backup, then almost quit right there, with no starter’s job in sight and the heat of August two-a-days testing his resolve. Mina urged him to keep at it, and sure enough, the JV starter hurt his knee. The next year Drew put together a 12-0-1 junior season, sweated out eight months of rehab following a knee injury of his own, and then led the Chaps on that 16-0 title run his senior year.
No one seemed to notice east of Mopac. “People would come up to us and say, ‘Oh, y’all’s phone must be ringing off the wall,'” says Amy, who married Chip in 1988. The family assembled a highlights video and sent it to coaches like Spike Dykes at Texas Tech and Hayden Fry at Iowa, but no scholarships were offered. To add insult to injury, UT’s recruiting coordinator under then-head coach John Mackovic had a son on the Westlake team. Drew didn’t particularly want to play in his hometown, but, says Chip, “There’s this mind-set that if the school in your backyard isn’t recruiting you, there must be something wrong.”
Not that it was any mystery. Coaches looked at Brees and saw not what he was (tough, savvy, hardworking) but what he wasn’t (tall, fast, strong-armed). It’s talk that still persists. During the Jets game, Amy lets out an exasperated sigh when the play-by-play man praises Drew’s accuracy but mentions that he doesn’t have a “shotgun arm.”
Fortunately Joe Tiller, the head coach of Purdue University, in Indiana, didn’t have any six-foot-four-inch howitzers banging down his door. “He told us, ‘I see a winner in Drew, and that’s what I want,'” Amy says. Tiller masterminded a pass-happy, complex offense that valued precision and intelligence. Drew broke all sorts of offensive records in three seasons with Purdue, taking the Boilermakers to the 2001 Rose Bowl. He also graduated, which is remarkable enough, but even more so considering he did it in four years (most players redshirt and take five), with a post-graduate Academic All-American scholarship to boot.
Being the parents of an NFL quarterback is an extraordinary thing, but it’s hard to imagine anything short of a Chargers Super Bowl that will replace high school and college as the Breeses’ fondest memories. Chip and Amy are still Westlake season-ticket holders, and the weekend after my visit, they would travel from Austin to West Lafayette for the Purdue-Ohio State game “on the way” to seeing Drew and the Chargers in St. Louis. They saw every one of Purdue’s games Drew’s senior year; before that, they mostly stuck to home contests, as Reid had Friday games of his own for Westlake. (Reid, now a junior at Baylor University, is a walk-on with the Bears’ baseball team.) Those Saturdays, they’d catch a six o’clock flight to Indianapolis, then tear across Interstate 65 to make the eleven o’clock start. “There were a couple of games where we walked in as they were lining up to kick,” recalls Chip, who says that the Rose Bowl was more memorable than the Texas high school championship. “We didn’t win, but just seeing the feeling the Purdue fans had for Drew . . .”
“The people in Indiana welcomed us like family,” says Mina, who was also a regular at Purdue games. “They appreciated the opportunity to win. Getting to know them was a tremendous experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.”
Under Tiller’s tutelage, Drew developed his game in exactly the right kind of offense at a time when the definition of a pro quarterback was changing. While no NFL team actively seeks out smaller players, the league is different than it was when Drew’s current Chargers teammate and backup quarterback, Doug Flutie, had to play in Canada (Canadian football is famously a haven for athletes who can’t cut it in the NFL). Mobility, leadership, and sophistication are in vogue; athletic ability is best demonstrated in the heat of the game, not measured with a stopwatch or a ruler.
But old stereotypes die hard. “Has great intangibles and mental toughness, but he is not as big or strong-armed as you would like, and that could really cost him,” Pro Football Weekly opined in its Spring 2001 draft preview. On draft day in April, Chip and Amy had signed up to be volunteers at Audrey’s elementary school carnival, but they traded off so that at least one of them could watch ESPN’s draft coverage at all times. When Miami and Buffalo didn’t pick Drew in the first round, Chip feared Drew might go to Dallas in the second—hello, pressure cooker, as the guy the Cowboys did take, Quincy Carter, could tell you. He’d forgotten about San Diego, which had opted to trade down from its first overall spot to take Texas Christian University standout Tomlinson (instead of Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick). The Chargers made Drew the first name called in the second round. Not going in the first round may have cost him money, but he has a better chance to win with LT as his teammate.
Though not on this day against the Jets: Tomlinson doesn’t get his usual yards, leaving Drew to battle through repeated third-and-longs while the San Diego defense struggles. It’s 21-0 New York when Drew pinpoints Curtis Conway in the end zone on a long second-and-goal. Chip and Amy pop out of their seats, slap ten, then kiss and hug—a touchdown ritual. “He’s thirty-five away from [Johnny] Unitas’ consecutive-game touchdown record,” Chip jokes. The proud father has been moving around the room during the game, but now he has to stay in his armchair, since the Chargers scored while he was there.
But at halftime, it’s 31-7 Jets. “I’m not going to rule out anything at this point,” San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer tells the CBS sideline reporter.
“You know what that means” Chip says grimly. “That’s the code word for ‘Flutie.'”
“This is all my fault,” Amy frets. “I shouldn’t have told him how the bye week made me nervous.” Or perhaps it’s the powder-blue uniforms. Or the anomalous presence of a certain writer. “I don’t think you’ll be invited back,” Chip tells me warmly but not necessarily in jest. In fact, Drew comes back out for the second half, but the game is already over. New York leaves Qualcomm with a 44-13 win.
Earlier, Chip had said that San Diego’s success so far is no guarantee of anything, thanks to a tough second-half schedule (and, indeed, after the Jets game, the Chargers lost two of four but remained in first place). But with Drew, it seems that the harder things get, the better off he is. Tell him he can’t do something—fully recover from a knee injury, play Division I-A football, win the Big 10 conference, get drafted by the NFL—and he’ll surely go and do it. When I ask Chip if anything about his son’s success surprises him, he says no.
“Drew just keeps affirming what we’ve seen him do in high school and what we’ve seen him do in college,” he says. “He has the opportunity to do some great things in San Diego. It’s a dream come true for him and a dream come true for us.”