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Greatness is hard to define, but legacy of Drew Brees transcends the game of football

Do you know what it means to miss Drew Brees? For the city of New Orleans, playoff heartbreak pales in comparison to the loss of something much greater.

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NFL: DEC 16 Colts at Saints Photo by Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With one final look back at the Superdome, Drew Brees descended into the tunnel after what may have been his final game for the New Orleans Saints.

While Brees soaked in the potential end of his storied career, the scoreboard in the background told a different story. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30, New Orleans Saints 20. An ugly and heartbreaking playoff exit for the fourth consecutive season. One of the worst games of Brees’ career.

Should this be Brees’ final game, it incurred a detrimental spotlight. Ultimately, it’s not what Brees will be remembered for. There is a duality to Drew Brees: the player, and the person.

Drew Brees is a player that transcends his NFL position as a symbolic leader for the city of New Orleans in a way that’s unprecedented. The departure of Drew Brees will represent the loss of something much greater for the New Orleans Saints.

His football legacy is yet to be defined; it may take years to properly do so. Dan Marino’s legacy wasn’t irrevocably cemented on the eve of arguably the worst final game of all time. Hall of Fame career aside, perhaps no quarterback has meant more to a city than Drew Brees.

Repair Work Continues On New Orleans’ Superdome Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

“Where some people might look at the city and see disaster, we saw opportunity. Where some people might be deterred by the devastation, we were drawn to it. We saw the adversity as a chance to build something special from the ground up.” — Drew Brees, Coming Back Stronger: Unleashing the Hidden Power of Adversity

On the morning of Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall. By the end of the day, the unimaginable had transpired. A levee in New Orleans broke, and within hours, an estimated 80% of the city was underwater. By the end of the storm, more than fifty levees had failed. Deemed the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, Hurricane Katrina claimed the lives of more than 1,800 people. Hundreds of thousands of residents were displaced, and many never returned.

The city was in shambles in the wake of incomprehensible tragedy. The question was simple — whether the lights would ever come back on in the Superdome. It was unfathomable how the city could rebuild itself to even a shell of what it once was. Let alone host an NFL team.

It would be just months later that Drew Brees’ life changed forever. On Dec. 31, 2005, Brees was in the midst of the final game of the season; it was his final game as the starting quarterback of the (then) San Diego Chargers.

“The collision was ferocious, and it happened in a matter of milliseconds. And then there was silence—a stunned silence for me.” – Drew Brees

In a way, it was the meeting of two kindred spirits — a city devastated in the wake of tragedy, a quarterback whose career was seemingly destroyed by a ‘one-in-500 injury’.

The Miami Dolphins were the obvious choice on paper. “There was no rebuilding needed there,” Brees pens in Coming Back Stronger. However, it wasn’t just the city of New Orleans that needed rebuilding; Brees was a work-in-progress himself. An unknown.

In his short-lived career in San Diego, Brees never felt fully appreciated, nor a sense that the future of the franchise saw him at the nucleus. He’d fallen into the second round of the draft, competed for — and won — the starting role over Doug Flutie, got benched, and then found himself battling again for the role over Philip Rivers. Their negotiations post-injury made it clear to him that he didn’t have the franchise’s support.

Those same feelings crept back when Brees had his visit in Miami; an unexpected six hours of poking, prodding, needles, an MRI, swelling, pain, and the familiar feeling of doubt. In contrast, the Saints believed in him. Sean Payton believed in him. Together, he wanted to lead the team to a championship with Brees at the helm.

The finality of Brees’ future with New Orleans began to set in on the drive back to the facility, on a wrong exit off the I-10. Brees finally saw the true damage from Katrina first-hand. New Orleans needed someone to take a chance on them. Drew needed someone to take a chance on him.

“I was trying to rebuild my shoulder and my career, the organization was rebuilding its reputation and reestablishing itself, and the city was restoring not only the homes but also the lives of its people. Why not do this together and lean on each other in the process?” – Drew Brees

Brees’ legacy has seen a lot of revisionist history in the last four playoff runs; much of which declines to mention the five 5,000-yd seasons wasted at the hands of incompetent defenses. Anyone can debate over stats, Super Bowl rings, playoff prowess, and MVP awards when defining greatness.

There’s the saying, “Life imitates art,” but oftentimes, the variation on that is, “Life imitates sports.” Perhaps no one but the city of New Orleans and the Saints knows best the feeling of football transcending past the paint-streaked turf and 60-minute game clock. The legacy of Drew Brees, accordingly, eclipses all pre-existing notions of football greatness.

Through the rebirth of the team in 2006, Brees offered a sense of hope when it was unfathomable; ultimately, it culminated in the cathartic Super Bowl XLIV victory. As much as he means to the city of New Orleans, his story alone is one of great perseverance. That duality awards him a unique ability to inspire every individual in his path – including his own teammates.

Former New Orleans Saints cornerback Delvin Breaux isn’t just a past teammate of Drew Brees. A Louisiana native, one who lived through Katrina, Breaux has persevered through inexplicable tragedy himself.

Just days after celebrating his 17th birthday, Breaux broke his C4, C5 and C6 vertebrae during a high school football game. He was told by doctors he should have died on the field. He had secured a scholarship to LSU, the only school he wanted to play for; he never received medical clearance to play.

Breaux’s injury occurred on Oct. 27, 2006. The same year Drew Brees came to New Orleans, both to rebuild the city, and himself. Through this, he became a hero and inspiration for Breaux.

“As a kid growing up, it’s just a dream come true when you have great players, and athletes, that come not just to the city and play, but actually be involved in the community,” Breaux said. “When I saw Drew Brees getting on and being active in the community after Hurricane Katrina, I thought, ‘this guy’s the real deal’. To see him come back from his injuries like that, watching him fight through his shoulder repair, and me working through mine, that’s hope. That gave me hope. He’s still playing, not dead, can’t quit. When I saw him be successful, I thought, I can do the same thing.”

Breaux recalls watching the Saints magical 2006 season while fighting through his injuries and rehab; the Atlanta Falcons game, Steve Gleason’s blocked punt, he remembers it like it was yesterday. The fire inside Brees, and the ferocity of his quest to rebuild the city and the New Orleans franchise, gave Breaux the passion to fight to keep playing the game he loved.

“It’s just crazy, how a guy can come from what he came from and turn the city around, and I’m very appreciative of that. I got a chance to play with him, man, a lot of kids can’t say that. I lived the ultimate dream, and having him here, it was definitely very humbling and beautiful.”

As Breaux details in his powerful autobiography, Un-Breaux-Ken, available on Amazon here, he – much like Brees – beat the odds, and fought his way into the NFL to play for the Saints. He recalls seeing Brees for the first time in the weight room. “I was like, ‘oh man, that’s Drew right over there,’ like a little kid,” Breaux chuckled. “I’m just like man, that’s Drew Brees.”

Much to Breaux’s surprise, Brees promptly strolled over and said, “what’s up, DB?” He was star struck. “I love Drew. He’s an awesome human being, he’s an amazing athlete. Most importantly, he cares about a lot of people, and that’s something you don’t see a lot. He always finds ways to reach out to you.”

Though Brees is touted for his humbleness, Breaux feels there’s not a proper term that does Brees justice. Just three days later, Brees made further impact on Breaux’s life through a gesture he keeps close to his heart today.

“When I came in [to] practice, Drew gave me a book. He gave me my first book. I never read books in my idle time, I’m not a big reader. I never read books until Drew gave me my first book. It was called Fearless, about Adam Brown [of SEAL Team 6]. It was just telling me, basically about me, fearless, right? To come back from what I came through, to make it to that point, and for Drew to give me that book my third day of training camp, it was freaking crazy. Drew gave me a gift.”

Drew had written him a nice passage at the front of the book; he keeps this private for himself. “It was personal, but it was beautiful. It was just crazy that he knew who I was before I even came in. Just mind blown.”

Breaux ends his anecdote noting he recently sent the book to his brother to read, who needs some inspiration. The first thing Breaux did was send him the book, just as Brees did for him on Day 3 of his NFL career. “It’s definitely going to be passed down in my generation and in my family, so I’m just thankful that he was able to do that. What he did out the kindness of his heart? It still touches me to this day.”

Prior to the 2005 season, the New Orleans franchise had won just two divisional titles, had only five playoff appearances, and just one postseason win. The displaced team nearly left the city permanently. Since the arrival of Drew Brees and Sean Payton in 2006, the Saints have won seven division titles — four consecutive, made nine playoff appearances, won eight postseason games, and reached the ultimate victory in Super Bowl XLIV.

On paper, there’s no room for debate over the success of Brees’ football career — despite recency bias of playoff heartbreak. All of the statistical achievements pale in comparison to what he’s done for the city of New Orleans, and the Saints franchise.

Brees chose New Orleans as his home to heal and rebuild; in turn, he saved an entire city. He ushered in an era of transformative success that reshaped a franchise that previously donned paper bags on game day. His legacy transcends the game of football.

Through this lens, Drew Brees might just be the Most Valuable Player in NFL history.

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