November 29, 1987 – A 7-3 New Orleans Saints squad were in a battle in the Steel City, taking on the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Saints led 20-14 with 2:21 left in the fourth quarter. A tipped pass near the goal line by Rickey Jackson on third down forced the Steelers to decide: take the chip-shot field goal or go for the touchdown. The Steelers decided to go for it.
That next play is one that former New Orleans Saints safety Brett Maxie, and the Crescent City would never forget.
Life of a Saint: Brett Maxie
Brett Maxie grew up in Dallas, Texas, so it’s no surprise that he would find an interest in football at a young age. Maxie recalled the influence his youngest uncle had on his introduction to the game. “He was the first one that introduced me to football, though football wasn’t my first organized sport. And I grew up right across the street from the Cotton Bowl which is where the Cowboys played in the early 60’s to late 60’s. I think they moved to Texas Stadium in ’71 or something like that. Back then it only cost like three dollars to sit in the end zone to watch the Cowboys. And back then they had a lot of lean years. I would watch them no matter what,”, recalled Maxie.
The eventual 13-year NFL safety’s career didn’t quite start where you’d think. Maxie reflected on his early years playing the game by stating, “I started playing football around the age of ten. I played for the Dallas Police Athletic League. I started out as an offensive guard. I transitioned over to inside linebacker. In junior high, it was all quarterback from that point on.”
Maxie Heads to Texas Southern
Brett Maxie’s decision to attend college at Texas Southern was an easy one for three primary reasons, the most obvious being the location of the school. But more went into it than that. Maxie explained, “Texas Southern was the only school that would allow me to come in and compete at the quarterback position.” Maxie mentioned that one of the reasons he had the opportunity was because of racial integration in Texas colleges. “Once integration started, we lost a lot of the African-American players to the bigger schools. In the Southwest conference, there was Baylor, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, SMU, etc. All those teams were in the Southwest Conference, so once football became integrated, we lost a lot of those players. That’s when the historically black colleges started to lose their players because of it.” The final reason hinged on his studies. Maxie mentioned, “My plan was to go there (Texas Southern), get a degree in biology, go to optometry school and become an optometrist. I didn’t have any aspirations to play in the NFL. I talked about it as a kid, but once I got to college, especially playing quarterback, I didn’t think I was going to have an opportunity to play at the next level.”
A Change in Position
While at Texas Southern, Brett Maxie’s coaching staff decided to make a change with their young quarterback. “So, my second year in college, we had a coaching change. They brought in this young, enthusiastic coach from Central State of Ohio. He changed my position in the spring from quarterback to defensive back and at that moment I thought, ‘You know what? It’s time for me to leave’. My head coach came down from Dallas to Houston and talked me into staying. It was the best decision that was ever made for me,” Maxie stated.
Maxie took to the field at his new position with his typical lunch-pail mentality, but the transition turned out to be the toughest obstacle on his eventual road to the NFL. “Just learning how to tackle was tough. I went the whole spring just learning how to tackle. It wasn’t so much the physical part of it or having a physical mentality. I had that. Just learning how to tackle took me a spring. I was tackling with no arms. I was just putting my body on people,” Maxie said. He then went on to speak about how he would study film of players like Mel Renfro, Cliff Harris and Dennis Thurman to help him understand the nuances of the position. Maxie also mentioned, “It was the movement skills, the depth perception were probably the two hardest things other than tackling that made it so difficult for me. I really didn’t start to improve that until maybe my third year playing the position. By the time my senior year came around, it was unconscious competence at that point.”
Maxie had figured it out, and with the skills, the knowledge and that 6’2” frame, was more desirable to NFL teams than even he realized.
Brett Maxie Heads to New Orleans
Maxie went undrafted in 1985, but it didn’t take long for opportunity to come knocking. And like his choice of which college to attend, the decision of where to tryout was easy. Maxie said, “The way it happened was, I went to class and came back and my roommate told me I had two phone calls. The first one was from the Kansas City Chiefs, inviting me to camp. The second call was from New Orleans. Not only did they want me to come in as a free agent, but they wanted me to come early and participate in their off-season program, and then bring me to camp. So, I chose New Orleans because I didn’t have to wait to go to training camp.”
Maxie made it down to train with the New Orleans Saints. He described his personal situation: “When I first got there, it was seven weeks of strength and conditioning. I was staying in this hotel that was like $19.99 a night on Airline Highway. It was a dump, but it was close enough for me to walk from the practice facility to the hotel. I didn’t have any transportation. I didn’t buy my first vehicle until my third year in the NFL. That’s humbling.” Maxie continued by jesting, “If you had to put today’s players through that, over half of them would go try something else.”
Brett Maxie, with that ‘put your head down and work’ mentality, made the team despite the Saints bringing in five new DB’s that off-season, three of which were draft picks.
The Transition to the NFL
When asked if there were any players that helped Maxie understand what it was to play in the NFL, three names came to mind with no hesitation: Rickey Jackson, Terry Hoage and Dave Waymer.
Why Rickey Jackson? Maxie mentioned, “He was the first guy that really started talking to me every day. He and I were close to each other when we would stretch. We were in close proximity. He would always look over to me every day and say, ‘Are you still here? I can’t believe you’re still here.’ It was almost like he was counting the days. He was doing it because he saw what I was doing in practice and on special teams. He saw the effort in comparison to the other guys. He told me this later on.”
Why Terry Hoage? Maxie said, “We would sit around in our DB meeting room watching film and our DB coach would point to guys and ask them to explain whether it was 3-deep, 2-deep or some form of pressure. The player would have to elaborate on it and give them as much information as they could to see how much guys knew. They’d talk about the defensive front, the linebackers and the DB’s responsibilities, and Terry Hoag was ‘that guy’. I’m going, ‘This is the guy I need to sit next to.’”
Why Dave Waymer? Maxie stated, “The reason Dave was a guy I watched and learned from is because he was an early riser, which I was as well. But I could never beat him into the building. He was always the first guy in the building, preparing for his day. And he would be one of the last guys to leave, especially the practice field. He would stay out and do extra.”
Success in New Orleans?
Maxie knew what he was getting into when he signed with the New Orleans Saints. The franchise was 18-years old and had never had a winning season. In fact, the lack of success for the team helped open the door for players like Brett Maxie. “I made the team because they didn’t have a lot of success. They were looking to bring guys that could compete with the guys that had been there,” Maxie remembered. He then went on to describe a Saints team that was filled with aging talent brought in by Bum Phillips and were more “laid back and relaxed” as they headed into the twilight of their careers.
“That all changed once Jim Mora took over. He had a different mentality and coaching style than Bum Phillips,” Maxie offered. Despite his love for Bum Phillips, he noted a positive change with the new leadership’s mentality. Maxie continued, “Jim Mora came in and changed the entire culture. He wanted young, fast and tough players.” It didn’t take long to turn a perennial losing franchise into one that could regularly compete for the NFC West division crown.
After 20 years of fruitless seasons in New Orleans, the Saints finally had the right combination of coaching and talent to put together a winning campaign. Maxie described, “It was up in Pittsburgh and it was a fourth down goal-line stand. Rickey Jackson was on the left and Pat Swilling was on the right. I was the move guy and had to track the ball, and we had Van Jakes sitting on the right.” In true Brett Maxie fashion, he was quick to give others the credit for the stop, but if you watch the video, you clearly see Maxie come up with the initial contact.
Maxie remembered what things were like immediately after that. “You would have thought we had just won the Super Bowl. Just the celebration on that play to stop them to win the game was incredible.” The Saints would go on and win that game 20-16, securing the franchise’s first ever winning season.
After the game, Maxie went out of his way to see longtime Saints veteran Dave Waymer and share the moment with him. Maxie described, “Going into that locker room afterwards, the first guy I wanted to congratulate was Dave Waymer. I go over and see him sitting at his locker and he is balling, crying his eyes out because he is so excited and so thankful. He was coming from a winning program at Notre Dame. To be in the NFL for as long as he had and not have an opportunity to experience that feeling was so gratifying for me because I was able to help contribute.” The Saints would go on and win all of the remaining games on their regular season schedule and finish the season 12-3.
Leaving the Big Easy
Brett Maxie and the New Orleans Saints would enjoy tremendous success during the late 80’s and early 90’s. In fact, from 1987 on, Brett Maxie did not see a losing season in New Orleans. Two separate knee injuries on the tail end of his tenure in New Orleans ultimately led to the Saints deciding to part ways with the 9-year veteran Maxie. “It was tough. I had dedicated nine years of my professional career, everything I had. I was very committed,” Maxie recalled. He then continued, At that point I was thinking my career was over.”
While disappointed with Jim Mora at that moment for the message he was receiving, he later understood that this was just the business side of football speaking. Coaching opportunities started to find Maxie, but the playing field wasn’t done with him yet. Noting his supportive family, Maxie decided to get back on the field, eventually signing with the Atlanta Falcons in 1994. Maxie said, I wasn’t ready to retire. I felt I could still play. I ended up hiring an agent a few days later. I got three workouts and ended up signing with Atlanta.” The short time in Atlanta was what Maxie needed to get his game back to where he wanted it after those knee injuries.
In ’95 and ’96, Brett Maxie found himself in a much better situation with the expansion Carolina Panthers. He was also reunited with some old friends. Maxie explained, “After the season, when Atlanta decided that they would not bring me back, my wife and I were packing up our place in New Orleans and driving back to Houston and I get a call from Vic Fangio and he goes, ‘Hey, how would you like to be part of this new start-up franchise in Carolina with Dom Capers and I?’ That’s all he had to say.” Aside from Fangio and Capers, Maxie would also be reunited with former teammates Sam Mills and Toi Cook. The Panthers enjoyed immediate success thanks, in part, to the play of those three former Saints. The Panthers came within one game of the Super Bowl in 1996, a Super Bowl that was played in New Orleans in the Superdome.
Maxie finished his playing career in San Francisco with the 49ers in 1997. Like the circumstances with his start in New Orleans, Atlanta and Carolina, Maxie’s days on the west coast started with an unexpected phone call. Maxie recalled, “. My wife told me, ‘Dwight Clark just called and said you gotta get on a plane and head to San Francisco.’ So, I get the playbook on Monday night, go through the walk through that Friday preparing for a game against San Diego at Candlestick. I ended up that game with ten tackles and an interception.” As the season finished up, Maxie recalled and jested, “Then I just got old”.
Brett Maxie, The Coach
It was no surprise that Brett Maxie ended up joining the coaching ranks. His understanding of the game and it’s players was obvious to many coaches and players he interacted with throughout his career. Maxie has coached for a handful of teams, primarily as a defensive backs coach. There was one stop in his coaching career for which he is especially grateful. Maxie explained, “Going back to Dallas, working for the team I grew up watching, it was different. Tom Landry is not there anymore. Calvin Hill was still around, which was cool. But now it’s Jerry Jones and the Jones family. I got a chance to know Jerry up close and personal. He is a very personable individual. I know he gets a lot of flak for his flamboyancy and the way he goes about his business, but he is very family oriented and he’s very loyal to the guys that come into his organization. You don’t realize that until you’re a part of it. It’s one of the most amazing things that you could ever imagine or ever see or be a part of.” Maxie made mention that his son, Brett Maxie Jr. received his first coaching opportunity with Dallas as an area scout. The opportunity for his son demonstrated the type of trust and loyalty that Maxie admired about Jerry Jones. Maxie’s younger son, Adam, has also found his way into the NFL as a scouting intern for the Minnesota Vikings.
These days, Brett Maxie is interested in getting a shot as a defensive coordinator. Maxie shared, “I have ambitions to climb the coaching ranks as far as I can go. My next step, I would love to coordinate. Brett Maxie came close to getting that opportunity under Mike Mularkey in Buffalo but things didn’t pan out. He did get to do some defensive coordinator work in the East/West Shrine game under Head Coach Dan Reeves. “Sam Mills III was on the staff as the defensive line coach. My secondary coach was Steve Atwater. Coordinating the whole defense, it was beautiful,” Maxie joyfully recalled.
If the past is any indication of what lies ahead for Brett Maxie, it would indicate a few things. First, Maxie’s work ethic will land him that defensive coordinator job he seeks. Second, odds are, he will be successful. Third, he will most likely give many others the credit for success before himself. And last, the news will more than likely come from an unexpected call at an unexpected time.