Editor's note: We ran the following Starting Point feature on Sept. 18, when Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints were building national acclaim. After the Saints' Super Sunday and Brees' MVP performance, we thought fans would be interested in re-reading his most humble beginings.
THE LATEST Sports Illustrated centerpiece photo shows New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees kneeling in the middle of a huddle, intently directing his offense.
The accompanying story breaks down the NFL’s dark horses and is entitled: “Why not us?”
“Tell me, would anybody have thought the Giants would be in the Super Bowl two years ago?” Brees asked the magazine Sunday. “Would anybody have thought the Cardinals were going to play in the Super Bowl last year?”
A more poignant and certainly ironic query would be this?
Would anyone in their right mind who witnessed Brees as a 'B' team freshman quarterback at Austin Westlake High School (Texas) in 1993 earmark him for the NFL?
"Not a prayer — not then,” said then Westlake varsity offensive coordinator Neal LaHue. “He had a pretty strong arm but he couldn’t run out of sight in a day.”
Said Jon Rodgers, then the starting quarterback on the freshman ‘A’ team: “He was skinny and scrawny too. In the weight room we’d have to put on smaller weights just so he could lift it up.”
Since those scrawny humbling beginnings, Drew, with a Ginsu competitive edge, a marksman accurate arm and Tony Robbins leadership skills, has done nothing but lift himself and teammates far beyond imaginable bounds.
He never lost a game as a starting quarterback at Westlake, earned All-American honors at Purdue – one of only two Division I schools to offer him a scholarship — and now he’s the NFL’s reigning Offensive Player of the Year, a three-time Pro Bowler and America’s most popular fantasy league quarterback.
Coming off a 358-yard, career-best six-touchdown performance Sunday against the Lions, Brees is the NFL’s hottest gun-slinging commodity.
“I think most people would start with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady,” said former University of Texas assistant and recruiting coordinator Randy Rodgers. “But in my opinion there is no debate who the next guy is and that’s Drew Brees. He’s well on his way to a Hall of Fame career.”
Rodgers has an interesting perspective, considering his son Jon was Brees’ quarterback competition and very good friend. Plus he was recruiting the best signal callers in the state and beyond for the Longhorns.
Though Brees led his ‘B’ team to an undefeated season, Jon Rodgers, a quicker, option-type was slated as the starting quarterback for the JV team in 1994. But during a scrimmage just before the season, Jon tore an anterior cruciate ligament and was lost for the season.
That elevated Brees to starter.
“And,” Randy Rodgers said, “the rest is history.”
TAKING THE REINS
Jon Rodgers and Brees were both starting quarterbacks in the eighth grade. Jon attended public schools, Brees went the private route.
Jon’s older brother Jay was the starting quarterback on the Westlake varsity and the lineage pointed to his younger brother eventually taking the reins.
But two factors worked against Jon.
One, his older brother had a very strong arm and LaHue was starting to stray away from the option, Jon’s forte.
The other factor?
“I remember watching the ‘B’ team in a game and Drew throwing this perfect fade route to the corner,” Jon said. “I thought if we got some good receiver he’s going to give me a test.”
When Jon tore his ACL, Brees was more than ready. He led the JV team to an undefeated season. By then Jon could see the writing on the wall.
“I knew it was time to step aside and find a new position,” Jon said. “You could see him catapulting into the spotlight and he wasn’t going to relinquish it.”
Also basketball and baseball teammates, Jon said Brees was the most competitive kid he’d ever seen, which showed the following year.
On the varsity, Brees led the team to 13 straight wins before he tore an ACL in the third round of the playoffs. Westlake went on to win the game but the following week, the Chaparrals lost to the eventual state champions.
In the spring, the baseball team put on a home-run derby/fundraiser and Brees, a standout on the team, couldn’t resist.
“He was still on crutches and he put them down, stepped into the batter’s box and the first pitch he drilled out of the park,” Jon Rodgers said. “He couldn’t continue but he didn’t want to let the team down.”
Years later, when a group of friends gathered at a bar in Waco before Brees’ wedding, Jon witnessed another side of his friend’s competitive spirit.
“We were all playing darts and it came down to Drew and another guy,” Jon said. “He had to hit two bull’s-eye in a row to win and bam, bam, bam, hit drilled three in a row. I remember him throwing his fists in the air, like he’d won the Super Bowl. The man just loves to compete.”
But never at the expense of trampling on a teammate or friend, Jon said. Quite the opposite.
At the team’s 10-year reunion two seasons ago during a Westlake game, Brees showed up unexpectedly before high-tailing back to New Orleans. “It was a tough turnaround but he’d do anything for us team,” Jon said.
Brees has also donated constantly to charitable causes put on by Jon Rodgers, a philanthropist in Austin, including Austin Sunshine Camps and the Alzheimer's Association of Central Texas.
“Whenever I’ve reached out the first words out of his mouth are ‘whatever you need?’ “ Jon Rodgers said. “But that’s Drew. He’s always been a great friend and teammate. He’s always had a good heart. You know you can always count on Drew.”
That’s why LaHue, now the head coach at Roosevelt High School in San Antonio, called Drew the best leader he’s ever coached.
LaHue said he could sense Brees’ greatness, not necessarily in the pocket, but the huddle.
“He’s just an unbelievable positive leader,” he said. “He was the hardest working guy on the field. What set him apart was he just had unbelievable intangibles.”
There were five legitimate Division I players on the 1996 team, including tackle Seth McKinney, now with the Buffalo Bills. Jon Rodgers, who moved to safety, McKinney and Brees were team co-captains.
Brees, coming off his ACL tear, wasn’t heavily recruited that year partly because his lack of size (6-0, 180) and partly because of so-so performances at summer camps.
Those were due largely because of his injury.
“He wasn’t completely rehabbed,” Randy Rodger said. “He was just throwing on one good leg. His times obviously were affected. His mechanics were thrown off. He definitely wasn’t one of the guys everyone was looking at.”
But Brees made sure he was 100 percent by the start of the season, a dream season to be sure. The Chaparrals won the 5A-II title and went undefeated (16-0) for the first time. Brees was the 5A State Offensive Player of the Year, throwing for 3,528 yards and 31 touchdowns.
Randy Rodgers, who picked out a pretty fair quarterback in Major Lee Applewhite for Texas, recalled watching Brees’ progression throughout the year.
“As Drew got more and more healthy, he just got better and better that year,” he said. “I remember sitting in the stands about week 6 or 7 and saying, ‘Oh my God, this guy is awesome.’ “
Carl Padilla, longtime Texas high school football expert and creator of the Padilla Poll, a statewide Texas football team ranking service, had the same impressions the only time he saw Brees – in the third round of the playoffs at the Alamodome against Churchill (San Antonio.)
“That 1996 team was simply a well-oiled machine,” Padilla said. “It didn’t matter how short or long the situation but (Brees) always got that team to convert. You could see how effectively he managed everything. He was in totally control of that offense and always made the right decision.”
His throwing motion was a little long and unorthodox, LaHue said, but always effective.
“I know some college coaches stayed away because they said he had a funny throwing motion,” LaHue said. “Well, he completed 68 percent of his passes in his (high school) career. He was always accurate and always had great velocity. I guess that’s pretty funny.”
When only Purdue’s Joe Tiller and Kentucky’s Hal Mumme offered Brees a scholarship, LaHue, like the rest around Westlake, wondered the same thing:
Why not Brees?
"Bottom line that (1996) team returned just two starters (McKinney and Brees) on offense from the previous year," LaHue said. “But Drew drove that offense to be one of the most prolific in state history. They ran for about 3,800 yards and passed for 3,800. They scored between 700 and 800 points. His positive nature rubbed off on every one. He made everyone around him better, just like he did at Purdue and like he’s doing right now in the NFL.”
Have a story about a current professional athlete who attended your high school? E-mail Mitch Stephens about his or her Starting Point, at firstname.lastname@example.org.