Sometimes it's easy to see your athletic mortality staring you in the face. For Drew Brees, that moment appeared to have arrived in April of 2004, when the Chargers made a draft-day trade to acquire Philip Rivers, the North Carolina State standout with the Southern drawl and quirky release.
Rivers was being brought in to replace Brees, who won only two of his 11 starts the previous season and was benched several times. Management wanted more from the position than Brees had given it. He threw 15 interceptions and only 11 touchdown passes that season, averaging just 192 passing yards a game.
I went to the training facility the morning after the draft to get a comment from Brees, whom I spotted through a parking-lot fence. He told me to meet him inside, where we spoke in a small room behind the receptionist's desk. He looked me in the eye and, in the firmest of tones, said: "This is my team. We're going to the playoffs. And I'm going to the Pro Bowl."
The Chargers had had neither a winning season nor a playoff appearance in the previous eight years and were coming off a 4-12 campaign, which tied for fewest wins in the league. There was little reason to believe that things would be better the following year. Brees didn't care what I thought or what anyone else thought, and that fall he led the Bolts to a 12-4 record and playoff berth.
When rosters for the Pro Bowl were announced and his name was on the AFC squad's, I went to him in the locker and asked if he remembered our post-draft conversation. He nodded.
"You know I thought you were delusional," I said.
"Yeah. I know," he said with a sly smile.
That story always pops into my head when thinking about Brees and his career, which concludes with him ranking No. 1 in league history in passing yards and completions, No. 2 in touchdowns, attempts and yards per game. It stays with me because it speaks to the power of belief in self. At almost every stop of his football journey, Brees was confronted with doubters, largely because he was never the biggest or strongest. Many major colleges passed on him because he was only six feet tall, never mind his stellar prep career in the football hotbed that is Texas. He fell to the second round of the NFL draft for much the same reason, despite a record-setting career at Purdue.
Even after earning the starting job with the Chargers, in his second season, Brees pulled me aside after a practice in training camp and said: "Just give me a chance." Left unsaid was his certainty that he could get the job done, which, of course, he did not do in 2003.
But rather than break -- or even bend -- in his belief, he doubled down on himself. He hired a mind coach to strengthen that part of his game. He worked with a personal trainer to ensure he was getting everything possible out of his body. In the evening, he would study his playbook before setting it on the nightstand and going to bed, that way it would be the last thing he saw at night and the first thing he saw in the morning.
In 2004, he set personal highs for completion percentage, touchdown passes and passing yards per game. His passer rating jumped 37.3 points, to 104.8. He kept Rivers on the bench for two seasons, something even teammates didn't see coming in 2004. And when only the Dolphins and Saints entertained the idea of signing him as a free agent in 2006, after he sustained a full tear of the labrum in his throwing shoulder in his final game with the Chargers, Brees continued to believe in himself.
Just give me a chance.
The rest is the stuff of legend. Over a 20-year career, he went to 13 Pro Bowls, won two Associated Press Offensive Player of the Year awards, was voted the 2006 co-Walter Payton Man of The Year, and won both a Super Bowl and a Super Bowl MVP. In five years, he's sure to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But to define him simply by numbers or awards would be an injustice. I will remember Brees the man as much as Brees the player.
He believed in all the things that are supposed to make sport special: hard work, accountability, believing in something bigger than yourself. That was most apparent to me last offseason, when, during an interview, he said he would never disrespect the flag by kneeling during the playing of the national anthem. Some Black teammates lashed out at him, as did some in the public. Instead of ignoring them or becoming more entrenched in his position, he spoke with current and former teammates who were upset or disappointed. He listened to them, he learned from them, then he publicly apologized and committed to work toward social change.
Just give me a chance, he seemed to be saying.
Shortly after, former President Donald Trump attempted to use the anthem as a wedge to further divide the country along racial lines, citing his support for Brees' initial comments. But the quarterback stood up to the President and expressed his new support for the protests, contending it was time to shift the focus to the "real issues of systemic racial injustice, economic oppression, police brutality, and judicial & prison reform. We are at a critical juncture in our nation's history! If not now, then when?"
Once again, he had turned doubters into believers.