Drew Brees has done it all in his storied 16-year NFL career. He's defied odds, shattered records, and become a champion. The one thing he hasn't done yet is return to the place he started his NFL journey. A decade after leaving Southern California, the opportunity to play in the city that drafted him finally presents itself this Sunday.
Drew Brees entered the 2001 NFL Draft as the most decorated quarterback in Purdue history. His only perceived weaknesses were his lack of prototypical NFL size and arm strength, but despite this he was touted as one of the top quarterbacks in his draft class. The San Diego Chargers had both a need for a quarterback and the 1st overall pick in the draft, but they weren't going to select Brees in that spot, considering he was a late first round projection at best.
San Diego ultimately opted out of top quarterback prospect Michael Vick from Virginia Tech and traded the top pick to Atlanta for their fifth overall pick, which they used to select TCU running back LaDanian Tomlinson. This allowed San Diego to take Brees around his projected spot, at the top of the second round.
Brees spent his entire career as a Charger mired in quarterback controversies. His first three seasons were spent trying to permanently supplant incumbent QB Doug Flutie, while his final two seasons were spent looking over his shoulder as 2004's 4th overall pick Philip Rivers stood primed to take the reigns.
Despite all of this, Brees had a very good career in San Diego, highlighted by a 12-4 record in 2004 featuring his first playoff win and first Pro Bowl selection, capped with the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award for that season.
The untimely end for Brees in San Diego came in the final game of the 2005 regular season against the rival Denver Broncos. The Chargers were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention before the game was even played, so it would stand to reason that the Chargers would start Rivers at QB to get a better look at their highly touted investment going into the 2006 season. Instead, head coach Marty Schottenheimer stuck with Brees, who was perceived to be "his guy". There is little doubt Brees fought to start this game as well, considering his competitive nature and the fact that he was looking for a big free agent payday in the coming offseason.
It was near the end of the first half at Qualcomm Stadium on New Year's Eve 2005 when Brees took his final play as a San Diego Charger.
This play changed the fate of one man, two franchises, and an entire region. Brees, to his short-term detriment and long-term benefit, never gave up on the play and it nearly cost him his entire career. The unfortunate result of this play was that Brees severely tore his labrum and damaged his rotator cuff, both in his throwing shoulder. According to Brees' 2010 memoir Coming Back Stronger, renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews considered Brees' injury "highly devastating compared to most". No one could have fathomed Brees would truly recover enough to continue to be a Pro Bowl level starting NFL quarterback again, much less a sure-fire Hall of Famer.
What happened in the aftermath is the stuff of legend, in fact it's still hard to believe any of this actually happened at all. San Diego GM A.J. Smith opted to allow Brees to walk, after offering him a modest contract extension with no guarantees of starting the next season. Honestly, this was the only smart play for Smith and the Chargers. Smith had "his guy", the future franchise QB in Philip Rivers waiting in the wings after sitting behind Brees for his first two years. Also, when you look at Brees' injury and recovery prognosis coupled with the Rivers situation, the Chargers pretty much had to part ways with Brees.
Drew is and was far too proud and competitive to take a lesser deal just to be a backup for a franchise that never truly committed to him unwaveringly. As we all know, the storybook tale unfolded from that point on. Brees fully recovered from his devastating injury after the New Orleans Saints took a leap of faith on the potential franchise quarterback they were so desperate to find. Brees led the Saints to a rousing success in his first season in New Orleans, including an NFC Championship Game appearance.
The accomplishments and accolades have come plentifully since Brees' arrival in New Orleans. Brees has been named NFL Man of the Year, SI Sportsman of the Year, twice named NFL Offensive Player of the Year, four-time NFL passing touchdown leader, six-time NFL passing yards leader, has had four 5,000 yard passing seasons, is an eight-time Pro Bowler, Super Bowl MVP, and Super Bowl Champion. Not bad for a short quarterback with a weak arm and a shredded throwing shoulder
Although this Sunday represents the first time Brees has played in San Diego since his departure a decade ago, it is not the first time he's played against the Chargers as a Saint. Brees has faced the Chargers twice since his arrival in New Orleans, first in 2008 in a "home" game played in Wembley Stadium in London. This game threw off the four year rotation of home/road between the Saints and Chargers. Due to the the London game, the Saints' next game with the Chargers in 2012 was played in the Superdome, pushing back Brees' return to San Diego back another four years.
Brees has been phenomenal in the two meetings against the Chargers, winning both matchups. The Saints won the 2008 London game 37-32 with Brees going 30/41 for 339 yards with 3 TD's and 0 INT's. In the 2012 Superdome game, the Saints won 31-24 with Brees going 29/45 for 370 yards with 4 TD's and 1 INT. Brees, armed with the NFL's #1 passing attack, will be ready to pressure San Diego's 26th ranked defense on Sunday.
There is much more behind the smile and the general likability of Drew Brees. If you don't think he's hyper-competitive and willing to stop at nothing to systematically dismantle the Chargers defense in San Diego, you're kidding yourself. Brees, who still has ties to the San Diego community, keeping his offseason home with his family there, will want to dominate in a town he still has emotional ties to.
His accomplishments as a Charger aside, Drew Brees will not go down as one of the Chargers greats at quarterback. That place, alongside Dan Fouts, will go to his successor, Philip Rivers. Rivers was the smart choice to supplant Brees, and he has been fantastic during his career in San Diego, arguably the best the Chargers may have ever had. Although he is loved and cheered by the San Diego faithful, it will be hard for Rivers to be as beloved as Drew Brees is to Saints fans and the community of New Orleans as a whole.
It's New Orleans where Brees is completely at home and it's New Orleans where Brees will be regarded as the greatest to ever wear the fleur-de-lis. Despite the 1,800 miles distance between New Orleans and San Diego, Brees should unsurprisingly be greeted with cheers from the Qualcomm Stadium crowd, many of which will be Saints fans (myself included!), but also from the Chargers fans in attendance who respect Brees from his time with the Bolts and how he gave his all, and nearly his career, every time he stepped on the field for the Chargers.
Both men benefitted from the fateful events of December 31st, 2005, and both teams ultimately got what they wanted most. Because of Brees' move to the NFC, odd NFL scheduling between the two teams, Chargers ownership politicking to leave for Los Angeles, and Brees' seemingly insurmountable injury, it seemed this return to San Diego may never come. It would have been a shame for Brees and San Diego had his final image and memory in that stadium had been of this.
Drew Brees walked out of San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium in pain, agony, and under uncertainty in 2005. Now he returns triumphantly as a future Hall of Famer, a champion, and still a member of a community that will show him the respect and love he has shown them since he walked into San Diego. Drew Brees will want to prove a point to the franchise that lost faith in him, but he will likely want to put on a show for the fans who still have their powder blue #9 jerseys despite all the time that has passed.
Both quarterbacks won, both franchises won, both fan bases won, but ultimately, when Drew Brees runs out the tunnel at Qualcomm this Sunday, we as football fans and fans of a great underdog story will be the ones who truly win.