So what if he never beat Penn State? Drew Brees defeated idea that little guys can't win big

Can’t is a word that pisses off winners. And there were a lot of people involved in Big Ten football two decades ago who were saying that word regarding what was going on at Purdue.

I still fondly remember the 1997 Big Ten media days podium performances because there were so many saying so much in a negative tone about the Boilermakers. But what else is new?

Here was Joe Tiller, this guy from Toledo by way of Wyoming and the Canadian Football League who no one had ever heard of, espousing an aerial offense few believed had a chance of beating even Indiana, let alone Ohio State and Michigan. Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, who was about to lead the Wolverines to an unexpected national title, notably rose soon after and emitted a couple of backhand jabs that such an offense can’t work in the cold weather of the Midwest. To which Tiller later answered, “We do have cold weather in Wyoming.”

Big Ten football coaches sit for a group photograph before the 26th Annual Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon in Chicago on July 30, 1997. Seated, from left: Cam Cameron (Indiana); John Cooper (Ohio State); Gary Barnett (Northwestern); Lloyd Carr (Michigan); and Nick Saban (Michigan State). Standing, from left: Joe Paterno (Penn State); Joe Tiller (Purdue); Hayden Fry (Iowa); Glenn Mason (Minnesota); Barry Alvarez (Wisconsin); and Ron Turner (Illinois).  

And there was the viewpoint that Purdue football can’t win with any style. It was a basketball school, a habitual loser in football that hadn’t been to the Rose Bowl since Bob Griese was the quarterback 30 years before.

Finally, there was the widely held sentiment that a little quarterback of the likes Tiller had just recruited out of Texas – who none of the Texas schools actually wanted – was a clear indicator that he was up against it on the recruiting trail, as all Purdue programs always were. Sure, this kid from Austin had piled up yardage in high school ball. But the only other major-college program that wanted him was Kentucky – another basketball school.

And here was the kicker: Drew Brees stood only 6 feet tall. Maybe. I could look him straight in the eye when I interviewed him. Anyone knows, you can’t win big in big-time college ball with a QB that little. OK, Doug Flutie did it, but he was an exception.

Not only was he small, but Brees had ripped up his knee his junior year at Westlake High. He had to come north to get a D-IA offer.

Drew Brees fires on the move in the Class 5-A Texas championship game in 1996.

It turned out, all those can’ts – like multiplied negative factors producing a positive product – became a can. Tiller’s “Basketball on Grass” spread scheme, masterminded by coordinator Jim Chaney (now at Georgia), did work in the Big Ten. Purdue football did win as it hadn’t in years and hasn’t since.

And Drew Brees not only ripped through a great college career, taking the Boilermakers to their first Rose Bowl in 34 years, he did OK in the National Football League, too.

As you may have heard, Brees on Monday night passed Brett Favre and Peyton Manning to become the all-time passing yardage leader in NFL history as his New Orleans Saints routed the Washington Redskins, 43-19. He is off to the best statistical start of his career at 39 years and 9 months old, so far even bettering his sparkling 2017. And the Saints are again Super Bowl contenders.

But way back two decades ago, the first believers made were around the Big Ten. He beat Carr’s ranked Michigan and John Cooper’s ranked Ohio State teams. He beat Nick Saban’s Michigan State Spartans. He upset Bill Snyder’s heavily favored and #3-ranked Kansas State Wildcats in the Alamo Bowl.

Although, he could never beat Penn State. In fact, the Nittany Lions were the only Big Ten team he never beat. Brees finished his college career 0-3 vs. PSU, including a heroic effort in a 31-25 defeat in 1999 and an inexplicable 22-20 loss to a substandard PSU outfit during the Boilers’ Rose Bowl season of 2000.

Brees clenches a rose in his teeth as he celebrates Purdue’s 43-14 win over Indiana on Nov. 18, 2000. The victory earned Purdue an invitation to the Rose Bowl. 

Still, NFL scouts weren’t nuts about him. Maybe they only saw the Penn State games.

Even in a 2001 NFL Draft bereft of franchise quarterbacks, other than #1 overall choice Michael Vick (Jesse Palmer, Chris Weinke, Quincy Carter, Marques Tuiasosopo, A.J. Feeley, Josh Booty), Brees was left until the second round where he was finally taken by the San Diego Chargers. There, he met none other than Flutie, who taught him a lot about how to not only survive but thrive being little in the bigs.

A couple of years ago, Dan Patrick’s producers dug up NFL scouting reports on Brees and had him read them on the air when he was a guest on Patrick’s show, sort of a twist on Jimmy Kimmel’s “Mean Tweets” bit. You can practically see Brees’ vengeful glee as recites them:

* Tends to sidearm his passes going deep.

* Lacks accuracy and touch on his long throws.

* Seems more comfortable in the short/intermediate passing attack.

* Does not possess the ideal height you look for in a pro passer.

* Will improvise and run when passing lanes are clogged, but tends to run through defenders rather than avoid them to prevent unnecessary punishment.

All of this goes to show you that no one can measure the mind and heart of a winner. These were the most perceptive talent evaluators in the game, paid to dissect every measurable and observable detail of a prospect. But they overvalued their stopwatches and tape measures and stat-crunchers enough that they overlooked Brees’ greatest attributes – his intellect, his ability to learn from mistakes and his competitive fire.

Brees learned not to take on tacklers in the NFL. He learned to take what defenses gave him and not risk sacks or injury by overextending plays. He learned to check down quickly when necessary and keep clean. But he also was adept at locating big plays when they arose, as in the 62-yard TD pass on Monday night that broke the career yardage record.

And in so doing, he became not just the most prolific but the most accurate and one of the four most efficient passers in NFL history. His 67.2 career completion percentage is more than a full percentage point better than anyone in professional annals. Nobody else tops 66.0. His 97.3 career NFL passer rating is bettered only by Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Tom Brady.

I know his new record yardage figure is somewhere in the low 70,000s, but this is where I quit looking up numbers. Because Brees’ greatest quality has nothing to do with quantity.

Brees installs a piece of siding at a home under construction at the Habitat for Humanity Musicians Village in New Orleans’ 9th Ward in May 2007. 

It’s about how he worked to bring his adopted city of New Orleans together through his quiet words and deeds when other forces were working to tear it apart during and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. How he planted his home in the city proper when others lived in the NOLA burbs. How his Dream Foundation charity funded programs that put boots on the ground of a wounded town to help the kids most affected by the catastrophe and rebuild their playgrounds and athletic facilities and after-school programs.

That’s why an entire city loves him, why the NFL named him its 2006 Man of the Year and Sports Illustrated its 2010 Sportsman of the Year. That will be his real lasting legacy, not football records.

But yeah, there’ll be a more functional one related to his job. It was embodied in the last NFL Draft in April, when the #1 overall choice was a 6-foot quarterback born and raised in Austin, Texas — the Browns’ Baker Mayfield. Brees not only changed minds and changed lives, he’s changed his profession.

So, in review: Brees was judged, not just out of high school but also out of college, too small, too scatter-armed, too reckless and lacking a good deep ball.

And yet, he won conference title in college, won a Super Bowl in the pros, could yet win another, is certain to be a first-ballot Pro Football Hall-of-Famer, and has won a city’s hearts.

Telling some guys what they can’t do only assures they will do it.


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