By Brett Martel/The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS — Drew Brees has New Orleans swinging, singing and trumpeting their Saints like never before.
When the Rebirth Brass Band tears it up during one of their late night shows at a funky old neighborhood bar, the tin-walled place bounces to a drum beat and a tuba’s bass line.
Their song goes like this: “We used to say ‘Who dat’ since way back when / Now we’re saying ‘We dat’ every time we win / You can write it down, take a picture, tell a friend / We already done it. We’re gonna do it again.”
Brees is a big reason New Orleanians can smile and boast. Not only did the reigning Super Bowl MVP turn around the Saints’ football fortunes and bring the city its first NFL championship in February, he’s become a civic leader as his adoptive hometown recovers from a time of turmoil and suffering.
That record of accomplishment is why the down-to-earth quarterback was voted the 2010 Male Athlete of the Year, chosen by members of The Associated Press.
There were 176 ballots submitted from U.S. news organizations that make up the AP’s membership. Brees received 48 votes, while the 2009 AP Male Athlete of the Year, NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, finished second with 31. Boxer Manny Pacquiao was third with 21 votes, followed by Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay with 17. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, a comeback story himself, rounded out the top five vote-getters with 10.
The award was announced Friday.
“I’ve always tried to visualize myself in that position of being considered one of the best and winning championships,” said Brees, who won his first title in his ninth NFL season. “Certainly the way you’re perceived, the way people talk about you, the kind of category they put you in — that stuff changes and it’s flattering, certainly humbling.”
Brees is only the fourth quarterback to receive the honor in the past four decades, along with the Patriots’ Tom Brady in 2007, the 49ers’ Joe Montana in 1989 and 1990, and the Raiders’ George Blanda in 1970.
The place Brees finds himself now is even more remarkable when you consider that he came to New Orleans having been unceremoniously discarded by the San Diego Chargers after a career-threatening injury to his throwing shoulder. New Orleans was at its nadir in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Saints needed a lift and their new, undersized quarterback was looking for a second chance.
Brees embraces the chance to talk about those moments, because in his mind, they are linked with the success that followed.
“I believe that 100 percent. New Orleans is the last place I ever thought I’d be,” Brees said. “The Saints organization and team didn’t have that great a reputation prior to (2006) and so it was probably not the most attractive place for anybody to come. Then right after the storm, the city’s destroyed and everybody’s displaced and I look back on those times and it was like we were really starting over.”
Nearly five years later, many are now familiar with how Brees rebuilt his arm, his career, his team and even helped rebuild New Orleans through millions of dollars in charitable contributions.
Since 2006, he has thrown for more yards (22,153) and touchdowns (150) than any NFL quarterback and in the process set club records in both categories. His 70.6 completion percentage in 2009 set a single-season NFL record.
He took the Saints to their first NFC title game in his first season with the club and to a championship in his fourth with a 31-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts in Miami. Brees completed 32 of 39 passes for 288 yards and two TDs in the Super Bowl without an interception. Now the Saints are 10-3, hitting double-digit wins for the third time in five seasons and in another playoff race.
Brees deflects much of the credit for his prolific production to head coach Sean Payton, who believed in Brees like few others did, and who designed his offense to suit Brees’ strengths.
Payton, however, is quick to assert that the signing of Brees was the single most important step toward building a Super Bowl champion.
“It starts with his skill set,” said Payton, who calls the plays. “You’re a good play-caller when you have a good quarterback and I’ve been a bad play-caller before.”
During the offseason, Brees wrote a book that made best-seller lists, he did the talk show circuit and appeared on the cover of the popular Madden video game.
He is in elite company now, more famous and celebrated than ever, and busier than ever since the birth of his second son in October. Yet he’s retained his regular-guy appeal.
“He’s a down-to-earth regular cat,” Rebirth saxophone player Vincent Broussard said. “He doesn’t live too big.”
Recently, Brees found time to drop by Lusher Charter School, a high school where athletic fields and the weight room were restored by his foundation, to give an impromptu pep talk to the team before its first playoff game. He still ventures into Audubon Park near his renovated, historic home, chatting with fans and posing for photos, even if it means pulling nearly 2-year-old son Baylen into the photo to avoid losing track of him.
“I know that whenever I go out in public I’m fair game, and that’s fine,” Brees said. “I’m happy to take pictures with people and sign autographs and that kind of thing.”
Teammates say success and fame haven’t changed Brees at all.
“If anything it’s given him more opportunities to exhibit who he really is,” right tackle Jon Stinchcomb said.
The Brees Dream foundation has raised more than $6 million, with much of that spent on fixing up schools, playgrounds, parks and athletic fields in New Orleans, as well as supporting cancer research, a local residential facility for cancer patients and funding youth programs.
Then there are Brees’ other activities, such as sitting on the board of the National World War II Museum and supporting the Idea Village, which helps young entrepreneurs start up businesses in New Orleans.
Brees’ wife, Brittany, tries to make it easier for her husband to juggle his various pursuits during football season. Sometimes she brings Baylen and little brother, Bowen, to Saints headquarters to see their father so he doesn’t feel pressured to rush home before bedtime when there’s still more film study to be done.
“Drew is that kind of person that I worry when he’s not really busy,” she said. “He doesn’t know how to come home and just sit. When we’d go on vacation before we had kids, he was throwing the ball to me. I had to catch the ball for him because he didn’t want to get rusty and I’m getting my hands cut up from the laces. … Thank God he has two boys.”
As for all the hero worship her husband receives, Brittany said that, while she was never fond of the term “Breesus” used by some fans, she likes seeing his hard work appreciated. She takes pride in letters left inside their gate from parents, thanking Brees for teaching their children how to conduct themselves with class not just after big wins but bad losses as well.
“I really feel like it hasn’t changed who he is,” she said. “I think what has changed is that sense of responsibility, that empowerment level where you realize you kind of have this light shone on you while you’re in the NFL for a short amount of time and you want to do as much as you can for the greater good.”