11 completions on 21 attempts for 97 yards and three runs for 11 yards.
That was the line for Drew Brees on September 6, 1997 as a young freshman. He was an 18 year old and came on in relief of Billy Dicken as Purdue struggled to a 36-22 season opening loss at Toledo. At the time it looked like Purdue was on its way to another lost season. When you open the year with a double digit loss to a MAC team, especially when it had been 12 years since you had a winning season, there is little confidence.
I was a senior in high school that year. Even as Purdue made a shocking turnaround from 3-8 to 9-3 and a bowl win, most of it was on Billy Dicken, but that Brees kid was getting some time behind the senior. He would finish by going 19 of 43 for 232 yards, no TDs, and a pick with 21 yards rushing and two TDs. Yes, with more than 600 passing TDs across college and the NFL, Brees’ first TDs came on ground. Honestly, that was one of his underrated skills back then. He had an uncanny ability of knowing when to tuck the ball and run for 10-15 yards.
Now, more than 97,000 yards through the air later since that first Toledo game (college, NFL, and playoffs), it seems like his career is done.
Think about that for a moment. Officially, as of now, he has thrown for 97,516 yards from that first game against Toledo, through a 20 year NFL career plus 18 more playoff games. Only tonight’s other quarterback, Tom Brady, has thrown for more, and Brady rightfully will go down as the greatest ever. Brees is right there among them as one of the best ever.
97,516 yards. That’s 55.4 miles. If you started throwing in from the 50 yard line at Ross-Ade Stadium and went in a perfectly straight line towards downtown Indianapolis you would end up on I-65 just behind Lafayette Square Mall near the big curve at 38th street. If you move the arc a little more to the west you’re a few blocks short of the Coke lot at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Yes, the man damn near threw from Ross-Ade Stadium to IMS.
It is hard to put into words what Drew Brees means to us as Purdue fans. As I was observing Twitter I saw people mocking him for his political views, and even one celebratory “See ya, Boiler Down!” from an IU fan, as if you could take eveyr Indiana player that has ever thrown an NFL pass and get near Brees’ 86,000 NFL yards. We’re fiercely defensive of him, and rightfully so. He made Purdue football, ever so briefly, nationally relevant. He took us to the promised land of Pasadena. That 2000 season I sat in row 5 of section 108, and running onto the field after the Michigan, Ohio State, and Indiana games it felt like anything was possible. We gave him a chance at a time when our program was terrible and no one else would give him a chance. He gave us so much in return. We adored him. We admired him.
Even better, he loved us back.
It is also hard to put into words what it was like be on campus when he was playing as the starter those three years. I remember going around during that first start in LA against USC. There was buzz about him and how he would be a solid replacement for Dicken, but we didn’t know a damn legend would be in our midst for the next three years. By my junior year he was almost mythic. If someone randomly crossed his path on campus it was spoken in hushed tones. I remember going to University Bookstore and having my picture taken with the Heisman Trophy that he was sure to win. Chris Weinke’s Heisman was stolen valor because what is more impressive, going to a national title game with Florida State or taking Purdue to a Rose Bowl?
Joe Tiller and Billy Dicken may have revived a moribund program, but Drew Brees made us believe Purdue football could be so much more. Just look at the 20 years since he last played in West Lafayette. Aside from the 2003 season Purdue hasn’t even come close to the heights of Brees and his time.
More importantly, Brees loved us back. He has ALWAYS remembered where he came from, and he has given millions of his earnings back to the school that made him. For much of my time as a student I was walking the same campus as him. It has always been strange that someone only nine months older than I had such an influence and adoration from our fans. He was already a legend even then, before throwing a single NFL pass. I once wrote that when he made the “Holy Toledo” pass to Seth Morales that, if he had announced in that moment he was going to walk across the Wabash next I would have followed him down to the riverbank. While that is hyperbole, of course, he has done a lot for both the Purdue name and the city of New Orleans. Just like he gave us hope, he went above and beyond to give that city hope and joy after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. We share him with New Orleans.
And they love him like we love him:
Watching the fourth quarter tonight was hard. New Orleans was in firm control, up 20-13 late in the third quarter when Brees hit Jared Cook in stride for one of his best throws of the night. All season long I have seen that Brees just didn’t have it anymore. Even before his rib injuries he was hesitant to throw deep. He wasn’t the same Drew. Of course he wasn’t the same Drew. He was 41 years old with a lifetime of large men chasing and tackling him. I am 41 years old and I hurt if I sleep wrong. There was still a bit of the same magic in that throw. Then, Antoine Winfield Jr. stripped Cook, Devin White (who would later pick Drew off) recovered it, and things went sideways after that.
Do I even need to say that Winfield played at Minnesota, the university that is ALWAYS responsible for devastating Purdue sports moments?
Drew was never the same after that. He would go 3 for his last 10, gaining only 19 yards. He would get picked off twice, once by White, the other by Mike Edwards off of Cook’s hands. Edwards seems likely to go down as the final NFL player to catch a pass from Drew Brees. Unfortunately, he was not Brees’ teammate.
I hate that this is (probably) the end. Drew didn’t deserve to go out like this, throwing three picks and getting only 134 yards on 34 attempts. The perfect Purdue scenario is him announcing he will give it one last go, the Saints draft Rondale Moore, and in Los Angeles on February 6, 2022 he hits Rondale for the game-winning TD in Super Bowl LVI before riding off into the sunset.
This isn’t a movie though. Not everyone gets to go out on top like John Elway and Peyton Manning. Watching him tonight it was obvious he just doesn’t have it anymore. This is someone I have watched since the fall of 1997. I was hoping he could get that second ring with a good defense, an excellent running back in Alvin Kamara, and talented receivers like Peyton did a few years ago. I fear if he did come back it would not go well.
Instead, he leaves with 80,358 regular season passing yards, a record that will unfortunately be broken next year by Tom Brady. He also completed 7,142 passes, which is 364 ahead of Brady. His 571 touchdowns are 10 behind Brady, and his 10,551 pass attempts are already second to Brady. Brees is the first person to reach 80,000 yards passing, the first to complete 7,000 passes, and he has completed 67.7% of his career passes, second only to 67.8% by a young Deshaun Watson in significantly fewer attempts. There have only been 12 seasons in NFL history where a player has thrown for 5,000 yards. Brees has five of them. He is a single yard short of the single season passing yardage record. Peyton threw for 5,477 yards in 2013 and Brees threw for 5,476 in 2011. Given differences in spotting the ball and everything how can you even say definitively, over that many yards, one was ahead of the other?
In terms of passes completed in a single season Brees ranks first, second, and third with 471 in 2016, 468 in 2011, and 456 in 2014. He has completed 440 passes in a single season six times. That was only done by anyone else three times (twice by Peyton, and once by Ben Roethlisberger). Only Brees, Peyton, and Brett Favre have beaten all 32 NFL teams (SUCK IT, BRADY! I HOPE THE PATS BEAT YOU NEXT YEAR!). Oh yeah, he also won a Super Bowl and was Super Bowl MVP.
This completes the section we are in awe of his NFL records.
And yes, he did all of this after injuring his knee in high school and being a quarterback no one wanted. He was considered too short. Doug Flutie started over him. He struggled so early in his career the Chargers drafted Eli Manning and traded for Philip Rivers (nine kids, no Super Bowls). That year it clicked for him and he made the Pro Bowl. The next year he damn near had his arm ripped off in what was nearly a career-ending injury. He then came back stronger and did everything he did in New Orleans.
If this is the end, it has been an absolute honor to watch his entire career. We believed from the beginning. We believed until that final pick tonight. It has been an incredible run from start to finish, and Purdue fans cannot thank him enough.