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.