For those following this series the #1 ICON shouldn't be a surprise. This list would not be complete without Mr. Drew Brees, who has an unquestioned current reign as the most well-known athletic alumni at the moment. I was a little surprised that he was voted #1 in the poll over John Wooden, but it really wasn't even close.
Drew Brees received an astounding 739 votes, besting Wooden by 50. Brees appeared on every single ballot (even Wooden was missing from one) and was never ranked lower than 10th. That 10th place vote was an outlier, as he was no lower than six on any other ballot. Of the 32 ballots I received Brees was the #1 selection on 10 of them. The only other athletes to receive first place votes were Wooden, Bob Griese, Rick Mount, Ray Ewry, and one person who took Neil Armstong's history in the AAMB as athletic enough to be voted #1.
The best part about Brees is that his story is still being written. He is a legend in West Lafayette and beloved in his current home of New Orleans. He had his iconic photo after Super Bowl XLIV where it was more important for him to lift up his son, Baylen, than the Lombardi Trophy. There is no pressure, but I think we should begin sending recruiting info to the Brees household for his sons Baylen and Bowen right now. We can't make the same mistake we made with Brian Griese.
It is hard to think of Brees as such a legend when he is only nine months older than me. I'm just a blogging folk hero, but Drew Brees is a hero in a number of ways. He was born January 15, 1979 in Austin, Texas where he would spend his formative years. At Austin's Westlake High School he was undefeated as a starting, going 28-0-1 and was the Texas Class 5A MVP in 1996 when he threw for 3,528 yards with 31 touchdowns. Normally, Texas would be all over a kid like that, but an ACL tear during his junior year scared everyone off. Yes, he torched everyone his senior season in helping his school to its first ever state title, but that wasn't enough. Only Purdue, a Midwestern school that had not been to a bowl game in 13 years gave him a serious offer. Brees eagerly accepted and was on campus in the fall of 1997. We gave him a chance when others wouldn't, and I am so glad we did.
To hear some people talk (me included) Brees stepped on campus with a parting of the clouds and immediately started chucking footballs left and right. In reality, he was a backup his freshman season to Billy Dicken under new coach Joe Tiller. He saw his first action late in an embarrassing 36-22 defeat at Toledo during the season opener. He completed 11 of 21 passes for 97 yards, but most Purdue fans felt it was more of the same as we began the season (and Tiller era) with a loss to a MAC team.
Of course, that all changed a week later with the shocking upset of Notre Dame. Brees would see action in a handful of games the rest of the year as Dicken became an all-Big Ten selection. His final statistics were 19 completions on 43 attempts for 232 yards and an interception. His one interception set up the memorable comeback against Nick Saban's Michigan State team later in the year, but mostly he played in the end of blowouts.
It was 1998, when I stepped onto campus as a freshman that Brees took off. Purdue was a very surprising 9-3 in 1997 and earned an invite to the Pigskin Classic against USC in Los Angeles to open the 1998 season. Brees started his first career game against Carson Palmer and gave Purdue a very early 14-7 lead after a pair of first quarter touchdown passes. He would throw for 248 yards, but two interceptions led to a 27-17 defeat.
That season opening loss didn't hold Brees back, as the extra game during the 11-game season era allowed him to go pretty much apeshit on the record books. He set school records for completions (361) attempts (569), yards (3,983), and touchdowns (39) as the boiler went 9-4 with three of the four losses being very close. Against Wisconsin he established an NCAA record with 83 pass attempts and he tied the NCAA completions record with 55. Unfortunately, we lost the game, but the Badger secondary was glad to see Mr. Brees leave town.
The 1998 season started rough with a 3-4 start, including one of those patented "Luck of the Irish" losses at Notre Dame when two late interceptions handed them the win. Brees and Purdue would finish the year on a tear by winning the final five games and earning a spot in the Alamo Bowl.
I love the 1998 Alamo Bowl, mostly because of Kansas State's cockiness. They came in ranked #4 and were one play from playing in the BCS title game. Playing Purdue was beneath them and their Heisman Trophy runner-up Michael Bishop. Our defensive line, specifically Rosevelt Colvin, made Bishop their bitch. Purdue sacked Bishop, a very mobile quarterback, six times, picked him off four times, and forced him to fumble once in a game that surely caused his draft stock to plummet like Enron. All told he was 9 of 24 on the night for 184 yards, 88 of which came on one play.
Beautiful, isn't it?
Best of all, we got to see vintage Brees. Two bad punt snaps handed KSU 13 points, but on the final drive, after giving up a lead we had held all game, Drew ripped them apart in the greatest multi-play drive in Purdue football history. I absolutely love that K-state coach Bill Snyder called their loss, "The culmination of three weeks of disappointment."
Needless to say great things were expected during the 1999 season. Brees was a Heisman favorite throughout the year, but The team struggled on the field, namely when we trotted out Travis Dorsch for important field goals. We only finished 7-5, blowing a 25-point lead in the Outback Bowl mostly because Dorsch was kicking like he was hungover (or even still drunk) from celebrating Y2K the night before. Dorsch had critical blown kicks in four of the five losses that season, including two misses in a 31-25 loss at home to #2 and undefeated Penn State.
Brees was far from a disappointment, however, completing 337 of 554 passes for 3,909 yards and 25 touchdowns. He finished fourth in the Heisman trophy voting and actually gave Purdue fans some consternation by debating an early jump to the NFL. In the end he came back, and I can testify that his entire senior year he was practically a living legend on campus.
The Rose Bowl year:
I am fully aware that our only Big Ten Football championship in the past 44 years came in a down year for the conference with a three-way tie, but in reality we were only a handful of plays from joining the 10-1 logjam of teams that fought for the #2 spot in the polls. The year began with predictable blowouts of Central Michigan and Kent State, but for reasons that escape me we decided to establish a running game and only let the best quarterback in college football throw 22 times against Notre Dame when the Fighting Irish were playing A CONVERTED TIGHT END AT QUARTERBACK!!!!!!! We ran 43 running plays and 22 passing plays, losing 23-21 on a last second field goal when we should have let Brees just go Mad Bomber on them. For the record, this game drives me crazy. Dorsch managed to f*%& things up too when he decided on his own to run a fake punt that failed.
We recovered to open the Big Ten season with a win over Minnesota as Brees topped 1,000 career yards against the Golden Gophers (He loved to play against a Glen Mason "defense"). Dorsch would again screw things up again by missing a game-winner in a 22-20 loss at Penn State. We entered October at 3-2 overall, 1-1 in the Big Ten, and facing a slate that looked incredibly daunting with Michigan, at Northwestern, at Wisconsin, and Ohio State in front of us. October is where Purdue football seasons go to die, and if we came out of it 2-2 it would be considered a win.
Of course, Brees took us through at 4-0, starting with the amazing second half comeback (and redemption of Travis Dorsch) in a 32-31 win over Michigan. Northwestern was a relatively easy 41-28 win, especially considering we shared the Big Ten title with the Wildcats. Wisconsin took us to overtime, but Ashante Woodyard's scoop and score of a blocked field goal on the Badgers' possession gave us a 30-24 win and setup a showdown with Ohio State for first place.
The atmosphere heading into that game with the Buckeyes was incredible. Being in the student section I was surprisingly sober despite being 21 for all of 16 days. I had a fifth row seat to the greatest football game I attended. OSU scored first with a field goal, but we would lead by halftime 7-3. OSU went up 20-10 late in the third when Nate Clements returns a punt for a score, but that merely made Drew mad. He opened the fourth quarter with consecutive touchdown drives, the first of which capped by a pinpoint throw to the back corner of the south end zone to John Standeford while facing an avalanche of defenders.
We led 24-20 with the ball and under four minutes to play when Brees made the absolute worst pass of his career against the rush. Mike Doss picked him off and Brees pushed him out at the two, but the Buckeyes would score three plays later to go back in front. We didn't know it at the time, but it only set up the great moment in Purdue football history.
Massive credit to the offensive line with 3-time Super Bowl champ Matt Light for giving Drew about 4 days to throw here. For the record I am contractually obligated as a Purdue blogger to show this clip every time I mention Brees. I hope no one minds (except OSU fans, but screw them. This is our moment).
Honestly, I don't remember seeing Seth Morales score. I just remember seeing the ball in the air and begging Seth to catch it. He was so wide open I just knew he would drop it. After the moment he caught it all I remember is white noise. I think I passed out from joy as it was total bedlam at Ross-Ade. Naturally, I was in the middle of the field rush a few minutes later once the game was secured.
We would have a week off, but we crapped the bed two weeks later at Michigan State in an ugly 31-10 loss. Fortunately, Northwestern beat Michigan during our bye week and Iowa helped us out by beating the Wildcats at the same time we were losing to MSU to put our destiny back in our own hands. That set up the ultimate no-effing-way game against IU. I say that because with Brees playing his final game at Ross-Ade and the Rose bowl on the line there was No. Fucking. Way. We were losing to the Hoosiers. Brees didn't even need to do much, as we kept handing off to Montrell Lowe for 208 yards and an Al Bundy of four touchdowns in the 41-13 win. For the third straight home game I was on the field in a rush and the team was putting roses in the Bucket.
Even though we lost the game, probably my happiest moment as a sports fan was January 1, 2001 when I was sitting in the north end zone stands of the Rose Bowl and I heard Roy Johnson say, "Or you could sweep them clear across this bright Southern California sky." My dad had always promised us that if Purdue ever went to the Rose bowl we were going. My mom and I never believed him, but mostly it never seemed possible because Purdue was always light years away. It was the perfect intersection of life in that I was a junior at Purdue when Drew took us to a place that most Purdue fans can only dream of. Boilermakers invaded Southern California, mostly because we knew it was rare and it might be the only chance we ever got. I can personally say that I have Drew Brees to thank for fulfilling that dream.
We've been to a Rose bowl. I was there and saw it with my own two eyes
We can talk about the numbers of 11,792 yards, 90 touchdowns, and 1,026 completions, but Brees ended his career not only as the greatest quarterback in Purdue history, but Big Ten history. He was third in the Heisman voting and has already had a longer career than the two guys that were ahead of him combined. He won the Maxwell Award, was Academic All-American of the Year, and earned permanent dead hooker immunity in West Lafayette. The day of the 2001 spring game was NFL Draft day and the San Diego Chargers took our hero 32nd overall with the first pick of the second round.
Brees only played in one game as a rookie, learning the ropes from Doug Flutie. His five year San Diego career was up and down, reaching one point where the Chargers gave up on him way too early and drafted Eli Manning before trading for Phillip Rivers. Brees responded in 2004 with a great Eff You season of 3,159 yards, 17 touchdowns, and a Pro Bowl selection. San Diego made him their Franchise Player in 2005, but a gruesome shoulder injury in the final game of the season ended his Charger career.
It is heavily documented in his book, but the shoulder injury was about as bad as it could be. Thankfully Dr. James Andrews corrected everything and Brees' work ethic did the rest. New Orleans signed him and he has since thrown for at least 4,400 yards every year in the Crescent City. The culmination was on February 7, 2010 when he led the Saints to a 31-17 come from behind win over the Colts in Super bowl XLIV. Even as a Colts season ticket holder I was elated and proudly wore my Brees jersey that day. Brees was named Super Bowl MVP, and every Purdue alum beamed with pride as he became the third Boilermaker QB to win a Super Bowl.
What makes me more proud is his off the field accomplishments. Brees is an athlete who gets it. He understands that he is greatly blessed, and therefore he sees it is his responsibility to give back. He and his wife already gave Purdue $2 million for the Drew and Brittany Brees Student Athlete Academic Center. His Brees Dream Foundation has given back tons to children in New Orleans. He has been very active in the city's recovery from Hurricane Katrina and has even been a leader among the wealthy in New Orleans in organizing charity activities within the city. He is a model citizen that made New Orleans his home in order to connect with the city. As crazy as it sounds, the City of New Orleans may love him more than we do. These activities helped him be named the 2010 Sportsman of the Year by SI.
It's funny. This article is over 2,500 words and I still don't know if it conveys just how wonderful of a human being Drew Brees is. I've been a sportswriter for 13 years. I have been on camera hundreds of times through the TV show I worked on at Purdue and I have been on live radio. I've been to several Big Ten media events and such now thanks to you readers making this site so popular. As a result, I rarely get nervous in public speaking situations and such. Last summer when I was standing in line at Follet's Purdue West to get his book signed I was literally shaking because I was about the meet The Man in person.
Yes, I turned into a puddle at that moment.
Drew Brees is a personal hero, but more importantly, he is a visible face of the City of New Orleans and Purdue University. He has set an example of how to be an excellent human being and how giving back to others is not a blessing, but a responsibility because of a blessing. While he still has some time to go in my mind to reach Wooden status, he has more than enough time to get there. He is well on his way too. You see athletes like Antonio Cromartie and Travis Henry fielding their own football teams (complete with special teams units) worth of kids and following the money, but Drew would be the first to tell you that he valued holding up little Baylen more than the Super Bowl trophy. I can't think of a better example of how to be a man than Drew Brees.