April 24, 1999
By REX W. HUPPKE
Associated Press Writer
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind.-- It's 6 a.m. and Drew Brees is seated at the end of a long row of stationary bikes, legs pumping, muscles loosening up as another day breaks.
Ignoring the chatter that fills the Purdue fieldhouse, he fixes his eyes on some distant point, past the orange cones that line the Astroturf, past his Boilermaker teammates stretching out for practice.
The 20-year-old quarterback is coming off a sophomore season in which he shattered Big Ten passing records and made an Elwayesque comeback to beat Kansas State in the Alamo Bowl.
While many of the country's top college quarterbacks left for the NFL - five were taken in the first round of the draft - Brees is still around. He's already being mentioned as a possible Heisman Trophy candidate, and teams haven't even finished spring practice yet.
As a horn sounds and echoes through the chilly fieldhouse, Brees pops off the bike with Pavlovian diligence and sprints into formation with the rest of the team.
He tries to keep the dreams - the ones that float through the head of any kid who's ever chucked a football - tucked neatly in a corner of his mind. He doesn't want them clouding things.
Today, after all, is just another day in the life of Drew Brees.
"It's cold!" Brees exclaims, walking from morning practice back to his dorm for breakfast.
The Austin, Texas, native admits he hasn't quite adjusted to the icy winds of central Indiana.
Though the chill may bring him down, the morning practice has him pumped up. Brees knows that much of the confidence that surrounds this year's team focuses on his right arm.
It's not a new scenario at Purdue, a school that became known as the Cradle of Quarterbacks by producing players like Bob Griese, Mike Phipps and Jim Everett. Brees is just the heir-apparent.
Last season he led the Big Ten in passing, throwing for 3,983 yards, 39 touchdowns and 20 interceptions.
Brees admits that was great, but not nearly great enough.
"I don't ever want to stop until I complete 100 percent of my passes in a game," he says.
A lofty goal, but just try to get him to say it can't be done. It's like trying to get his attention once he's taken a snap. Eyes locked in as the play unfolds. Focused.
Forget about it.
Entering his dorm's cafeteria, Drew sheds some of his intensity, grabs a tray of food and sits down with a couple teammates.
At the end of the table, Ian Allen, an offensive lineman, reaches for a glass and knocks a salt shaker over. Conversation continues, but Drew starts to fidget, looking down the table at Allen.
"Do me a favor," Brees says, "and please throw some salt over your shoulder."
"You were scaring me man," Brees says. "I would've worried about you all day if you hadn't done that."
Brees slings his navy blue backpack onto a desk and takes a seat in a class of about 30 people - Managerial Accounting, a core class in his management degree program.
A vocal leader on the field, Brees settles into class as just another student. At 6-1 and 200 pounds, he doesn't stand out as unusually big and he's not brawny enough to be pegged a football star. Just another guy with short-cropped hair and decent grades, currently a 3.2 GPA.
Fifty minutes of note-taking and Brees is out the door, on the way to the Sports Medicine Center for rehabilitation on his right foot. He had a bone chip removed and tendon repaired in the offseason.
Rotating his ankle back and forth on a metal pad, the quarterback thinks about how he wound up at Purdue.
He's the product of a competitive family. Mom was all-state in three high school sports, Dad played basketball at Texas A&M, his uncle was a University of Texas All-American, and the list goes on. He started out young as a tennis player - No. 1 in the state of Texas at age 12 - and also played soccer.
"Ever since he really got started in organized athletics, it's been pretty much nonstop, going from one season to the next," says Brees' father, Chip.
It wasn't until his freshman year in high school that Brees first played full-contact football. He went straight to quarterbacking.
"I always wanted to be the one in control of the ball, just like all kids do," he says with a boyish grin.
Though he led Westlake High School to a Class 5A Division II state championship his senior year, Brees went unnoticed by the big Texas schools he'd hoped to attend. A knee injury during his junior year may have led to the snub.
The only schools interested were Kentucky and Purdue. Brees knew if he went to Kentucky he'd be sitting behind Tim Couch for a couple of years. Purdue seemed the best option, and he loved the thought of playing in the Big Ten.
It appears he made a good choice. In coach Joe Tiller's pass-heavy offense, Brees' numbers piled up.
"Some quarterbacks that we've been around, when it gets down into a really difficult situation you kind of limit what you're going to do," Tiller says. "With Drew there are no limitations. We'll call anything."
Brees' first season as starter ended when the underdog Boilers marched into the Alamo Bowl to meet Kansas State, a team that was expected to contend for the national championship.
Brees stops moving his foot around for a moment and lowers his voice.
"Never once did I think that we couldn't win that game," he says. "We knew we could beat them."
He led the Boilermakers on an 80-yard drive for a touchdown in the final minute to beat the Wildcats 37-34.
"I think that last drive against Kansas State, I think that probably put him right in the thick of the Heisman next year," ESPN college football analyst Lee Corso says. "When you look at the kind of thing Heismans are made of, it's heroics like that."
Following an art history class, Brees has just enough time to stop for lunch.
It's here - over two orders of chicken nuggets, a bacon cheeseburger, a cup of chili and a dessert - that Brees acknowledges he may be on the brink of something great.
"When I first came to school I was just trying to be realistic," he says. "I'm not real big. I don't have a rocket for an arm. I'm not that fast.
"I never, ever thought that my name would be in the same sentence as Heisman."
But now it is, and he knows he must keep striving toward that goal without letting the goal itself be a distraction.
"I still have a lot of work to do," he says. "I have a positive attitude, but I just know that I can get so much better."
And he also knows he has to get going. A group of his biggest fans awaits.
A couple of miles from campus, Brees pulls his Chevy Tahoe into the parking lot of Thomas Miller Elementary School in Lafayette.
As he enters Room 10, shrill little voices erupt: "Drew!"
Once a week, Brees volunteers at the school, helping a madcap group of second graders work on their reading and math skills.
Brees folds himself into one of the classroom's tiny chairs as a group of kids surround him. Although no linebackers are racing at him and a play clock is not ticking down, the quarterback is as focused and confident as he would be in a game.
"How'd I get it all wrong?" asks 8-year-old Mandy Farrell, pointing to a worksheet of math problems.
"I don't know," Brees says. "But we're going to get it all right now. Let's do the first one."
Once the class ends and Brees returns to the parking lot, he can't seem to stop laughing.
"I love 'em all," he says.
As he warms up for his afternoon weightlifting, Brees is back to being a football player.
His redheaded roommate, linebacker Jason Loerzel, gives him a few jabs and says he's the only one who knows the real Drew Brees story.
But as Brees walks away, Loerzel becomes sincere.
"Before he was anything, everybody liked him," Loerzel says. "When he was just the backup. I really haven't seen a change in him, except that his day's a lot busier."
Following his work out, Brees watches film until 5 p.m., then returns to the fieldhouse for throwing practice.
He warms up throwing perfect 25-yard strikes. Boom, boom, boom.
Receiver A.T. Simpson smiles.
"It's good," he says. "He makes us all look good."
The ball is snapped - he looks it over - nothing - nothing - nothing - bang: 15-yard gain.
Snap - Brees looks left - looks down the middle - pow - threads it just over two converging defensive players: touchdown.
"I just feel like I'm in control back there," Brees says. "It just feels so good when I'm in the game."
After practice, he stands at the doorway that links the fieldhouse to the gym, catching his breath.
He looks up at the clock. It's 5:47 p.m.
"Whoa," Brees says. "I've got to go finish my workout now."
As he jogs off toward the gym he jumps, arm stretched skyward, and playfully high-fives the top of the doorway.
Like a kid giddy about what he's doing but inside a man determined to
his dreams come true.