The fuzzy brown birthmark on Purdue quarterback Drew Brees's
right cheek approximates the size, shape and texture of a small
woolly-bear caterpillar. For the first 19 years of Brees's life,
the birthmark invited occasional wide-eyed shock, a lot of
harmless derision and more than a little humor, but nothing
beyond that. It was there on Jan. 15, 1979, when Chip and Mina
Brees named their newborn son after Cowboys wide receiver Drew
Pearson. On first viewing his son, Chip recoiled at the sight of
the brown patch, and Mina wondered if she had caused it when she
fell on her right side while running on an icy footpath not long
before delivering Drew. "That's where an angel kissed you," Mina
would tell him as he and the birthmark grew up together, a
touching image offset by Drew's rugrat buddies who called the
spot leech, roach and turd. Surgery was considered when Drew was
three, but doctors assured the family that the mark was harmless.
When Brees arrived at Purdue in the summer of 1997, fellow
freshman recruit Ben Smith was stunned that a football player
was wearing on his face what appeared to be a goofy Purdue pep
decal, like the ones cheerleaders apply to their cheeks in hopes
of a close-up on television. "It looked like a Purdue Pete,"
recalls Smith, who would become Brees's close friend. "I was
thinking, Man, that guy's a sad dude." One night at a dance club
a woman who was dancing with Brees wet her thumb and wiped at
the birthmark, prompting fall-down laughter from Brees's friends
and the following response from Brees: "It ain't comin' off."
During Brees's freshman year, in which he played backup
quarterback to Billy Dicken, his teammates named the birthmark
Pernick, after Matt Pernick, a walk-on wideout at Purdue in 1997
who had perpetually wild hair, much like the horizontal burrs on
Then last fall everything changed. Brees went big-time, and
Pernick--the birthmark, not the player--went with him. On
Halloween night, after Brees had passed for 362 yards and four
touchdowns that afternoon in a 36-14 win over Iowa, Brees's
roommate, linebacker Jason Loerzel, went to a costume party
dressed as...Brees, complete with a number 15 practice jersey
and one fuzzy eyebrow from a pair of Groucho glasses glued to
his right cheek. "I walked in the door, and everybody knew who I
was supposed to be," says Loerzel. Brees and his friends had
once amused themselves at parties by guessing the number of
people (women, usually) who would approach Brees and ask what
was on his mug. Suddenly people stopped asking. In nine short
weeks last autumn the birthmark had become Cindy Crawford's mole
or Ricky Williams's dreadlocks, at least in West Lafayette, Ind.
During an autumn rich in exceptional college quarterbacks, of
whom Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb and Akili Smith would go
one-two-three in the NFL draft, Brees, a sophomore, was among
the most spectacular. He threw for more yards (3,983) and
touchdowns (39) and for a better completion percentage (63.4)
than McNabb of Syracuse, Smith of Oregon, Cade McNown of UCLA,
Joe Germaine of Ohio State and Michael Bishop of Kansas State.
He bettered Central Florida's Daunte Culpepper and Tulane's
Shaun King in yards and touchdowns and led Purdue to a 9-4
season, capped by an Alamo Bowl victory over Bishop and K-State.
Last Oct. 10 Brees shifted coach Joe Tiller's spread one-back
offense into fifth gear at Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium,
throwing an NCAA-record 83 passes--"This year we're going for
100," Brees said jokingly during the off-season--and completing
an NCAA-record-tying 55 of his attempts for 494 yards in a 31-24
loss. He also threw four interceptions in that game and 20 for
the season, the one blot on his resume and the reason his pass
efficiency rating (137.8) was lower than that of any other
marquee passer in the class of 1998. Brees was voted second-team
All-Big Ten, behind Germaine, by both the media and the
conference's coaches. "Brees is more accurate than Germaine, and
he's got a stronger arm," says Minnesota defensive coordinator
David Gibbs, against whom Brees went 31 for 36, for 522 yards
and six touchdowns, with no interceptions, in a 56-21 Purdue
The cynics' response to Brees's breakout season is that Gwyneth
Paltrow could throw for 300 yards a game in the Boilermakers'
madcap offense. That's an easy out. "Sure, their offense is
great," says Wisconsin defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove,
"but you need an operator, and they've got one. He's as good as
I've seen in the 19 years I've been in this league."
With the top 10 finishers in last year's Heisman Trophy voting
having left for the NFL, it's no stretch to imagine Brees's mug,
birthmark and all, soon filling wall space at the Downtown
Athletic Club. Turd no more. Over the winter Loerzel and Ben
Smith began exploring ways to produce temporary tattoos in the
shape of Brees's birthmark to sell outside Ross-Ade Stadium at
Purdue home games the next fall. Stroking the fuzz with the
index finger of his left hand while sitting in a steak house
near campus in the off-season, Brees laughed and said, "I'll
tell you what. At this point it's staying right where it is."
This is a Texas story being played out in Indiana. Drew's
maternal grandfather is Ray Akins, one of the most successful
coaches in the history of high school football in Texas. Drew's
mother excelled in four high school sports and was a baseball
cheerleader at Texas A&M, where she met Drew's father. After
Mina divorced Chip in 1987, when Drew was eight and his younger
brother, Reid, was nearly six, she was married for 10 years to
Harley Clark, a state district court judge and former Texas
yell-leader who is credited with inventing the famous Hook 'em
Horns salute. Chip married Amy Hightower, whose father, Jack,
was a congressman from north Texas and later a state supreme
court judge. There's more: One of Drew's uncles is Marty Akins,
an All-Southwest Conference quarterback at Texas in '75 who
started for two years in the same backfield as Earl Campbell.
Cut Drew open, and you'd find a Lone Star beating where his
heart should be.
One afternoon last spring, at Mina's house on the west side of
Austin, Ray Akins, a 74-year-old former Marine, bent down to
make an imaginary snap like the center he once was. He has
thick, gnarled hands and a twisted nose that was never protected
by a face mask. After slogging with bazookas and flamethrowers
through the jungles of the South Pacific during World War II,
Akins returned home to Texas in 1946 and played four years of
football at Southwest Texas State. Shortly thereafter he
embarked on a 38-year coaching career during which he won 302
games, the third most in state history, before retiring in '88.
Most of those victories came in 24 years at Gregory-Portland
High, near Corpus Christi on the Gulf Coast. "We won with little
Mexicans and a few spoiled white boys," says Akins.
Brees has often been his grandfather's shadow. Between the ages
of five and 10 he spent the last five summers of Akins's
coaching career attending two-a-day preseason practices at
Gregory-Portland, where assistant coach Ronnie Roemisch often
shaved Brees's head over a trash can and then watched him roam
the practice fields under a scorching sun. "I worshiped the guys
who played for my grandfather," says Brees. "I worshiped him
too." When Akins retired to a ranch 50 miles north of College
Station, Drew and Reid would visit every summer. They helped
with chores--"I had to bust their heinies a few times," says
Akins--and listened to their grandfather's tales. "He would tell
us stories about the war and about football and about the value
of hard work," says Drew. "He's an amazing man."
Bob McQueen, longtime coach at Temple High, near Waco, Texas, has
known Akins for four decades but until recently was unaware that
Akins and Brees were related. "You tell me that Drew Brees is Ray
Akins's grandson, that tells me a lot about why he's such a solid
young man," says McQueen.
Akins wasn't the only one who influenced Brees's athletic
development. Chip played hours of weekend catch with Drew. Mina
introduced Drew to tennis, and he became one of the best junior
players in Texas, attaining a No. 3 ranking in the USTA's age-12
group before drifting away from the game at 13. Mina, 49, a
singles player for Austin city championship teams in 1995 and
'96, still competes ferociously with her son. "He beats me
occasionally," she says.
Once Chip and Mina, both lawyers, were divorced, they became
"joint managing conservators" for Drew and Reid. The boys slept
half their nights at Mina's house and half at Chip's. The
arrangement was--and sometimes still is--delicate, but Drew has
seen worse. "I've had teammates with horrible divorces," he
says. "My parents get along."
Brees wasn't a football prodigy. He didn't wear pads until he
was in ninth grade at Westlake High and then played only on the
B freshman team. One year later he ascended to backup
quarterback on the junior varsity and then jumped to first
string just before the season when the starter got Wally Pipped
by a knee injury. He started two years for the varsity and went
28-0-1; as a senior he led Westlake to the Class 5A big school
championship and won the 5A offensive MVP award. He threw for
5,416 yards and 50 touchdowns during those last two seasons.
It seemed a lock that Brees would be sought by the most storied
college programs in the state, those of Texas and Texas A&M. He
wasn't. Perhaps it was because he tore the ACL in his left knee
in the penultimate game of his junior season and thus wasn't at
full strength for summer camps. Perhaps it was because he was
only 6'1" or because his release was too slow.
"Believe me, we told them he was the most accurate passer we'd
ever seen, that he was a great leader and a tough kid," says Neal
Lahue, Brees's offensive coordinator at Westlake High and now the
coach at Tivy High in Kerrville, Texas. "Nobody listened."
Texas didn't recruit him at all. "One form letter in my junior
year," says Brees. Texas A&M, which he loved, pursued Brees just
enough to leave scars. Chip and Mina had taken him to their alma
mater--together and separately--when he was young. He knew the
distinctive yells and chants that make College Station one of the
most alluring game-day towns in the country. "If A&M had offered
me a scholarship, I would have gone there in a minute," says
What the Aggies did, to Brees's recollection, was unforgivable.
According to Brees, A&M assistant Shawn Slocum, son of coach
R.C. Slocum, contacted Brees in November of his senior season
and took him to lunch with Westlake High teammate Seth McKinney,
who had already been recruited by A&M and is now the Aggies'
starting center. Brees says Shawn arranged for him to make an
official visit on the fourth weekend in January. Shawn, who's
now an assistant at Southern Cal, says no visit was arranged.
Two weeks before he thought he was to visit A&M, Brees called
Shawn to firm up the date. "As soon as I mentioned the visit,
Slocum said, 'Hey, Drew, I've got an important call on the other
line. Can I call you right back?' That's the last I heard from
A&M. They just blew me off."
Shawn says, "I don't remember all the details of that phone
call." The Aggies were chasing quarterback Major Applewhite of
Baton Rouge but lost him to Texas. They did sign Matt Schobel, a
6'4", 230-pound quarterback from Columbus, Texas, with speed and
classic form, but he never played a down for A&M and transferred
to TCU after his freshman season. "I hope there are no hard
feelings," Shawn says. "Looking back on it, of the three kids we
were after, it's safe to say the guy who went to Purdue turned
out to be the best of the bunch. He's a winner."
Purdue opened last season at USC, with Brees making his first
start. The Trojans won 27-17, but Brees completed 30 of 52
passes for 248 yards and two touchdowns. Shawn approached Brees
after the game. "Hey, Drew, remember me?" he said, and Brees
snapped at him. "I don't remember my exact words," says Brees.
"I know what I wanted to say was, 'Remember you? You're the
reason I wanted to win this game.' That's the way I feel about
all the coaches who didn't recruit me."
Two that did were Hal Mumme at Kentucky and Joe Tiller at Purdue,
both first-year coaches who were itching to throw. In the end
Purdue's highly regarded academic program in management and the
chance to play in the Big Ten swayed Brees.
Standing on the Mollenkopf Athletic Center indoor practice field
before an off-season workout, Purdue sophomore tight end Tim
Stratton had a Brees story to tell. "One day last fall we were
practicing indoors," Stratton says, "and a few of the
quarterbacks and some other guys were having a contest to see
who could make the most accurate throws. They're going at it,
when Drew just walks in and grabs a ball. There were two soccer
goals against the wall, about 40 yards away and about three feet
apart. Drew puts it on a line right between them. End of contest."
Others have stories, too. Junior wideout Vinny Sutherland
remembers drifting across the back of the end zone early in the
second quarter of last year's game against Minnesota, hopelessly
lost in red-zone traffic. "I couldn't even see Drew," says
Sutherland. "All of sudden, there's the ball, about 10 feet away
from me. I just put my hands up, almost in self-defense, and
Senior Randall Lane recalls running a deep corner route in the
same game and coming out of his last cut in time to see Brees
make a seemingly desperate heave just as he was hit. "He took a
serious wallop," says Lane, "but when I looked up, here came the
ball, right over my shoulder." Another touchdown, this one from
46 yards. Lane laughs. "Around here," he says, "we call him Cool
When Tiller, who came to Purdue from Wyoming in November 1996,
signed Brees as part of his first recruiting class, he wasn't
sure what he was getting. As they watched Brees practice behind
Dicken in the fall of 1997, Tiller and his staff grew enamored
with Brees's uncanny accuracy--"Every ball was on the receiver's
body," says Tiller--but they had doubts about his readiness to
take over. "Hell, yes, I had doubts," says Tiller. "I was so
sure he was going to be a great player for us that I went out
and recruited a junior college quarterback [David Edgerton], in
case Brees fell on his face."
Not even close. Brees won the starting quarterback job in the
preseason last year and matured with each week. His once suspect
mechanics are now textbook. Late last spring quarterbacks coach
Greg Olson popped a tape into his office VCR for a visitor. The
play on the tape was a third-down pass on the comeback drive
that resulted in a 25-24 Purdue victory at Michigan State. Brees
drops straight back but finds himself under siege from at least
three blitzing defenders. He begins backpedaling to his left,
one step, two, three...eight steps backward, staying balanced
and keeping the pursuers at bay until he fires a pass to Lane,
who's crossing the field from left to right, for a 10-yard gain
and a first down. The footwork is extraordinary, surely a
by-product of all those tennis matches. The pass is freakish.
"About as impressive a throw as you'll ever see," says Olson.
Michigan State coach Nick Saban, who was an NFL assistant for
six years with the Houston Oilers and the Cleveland Browns,
says, "Brees reminds me of Joe Montana. He makes you feel that,
play after play, you're about to do something big against him,
and then he does something big against you. It's incredibly
frustrating for a coach or a team."
Brees's quick feet and sweet accuracy have given rise to his one
major flaw. "He tries to make every throw," says Tiller.
"Sometimes you just can't." Hence those 20 interceptions.
In mastering Tiller's complex offense, Brees has taken a Peyton
Manningesque approach to preparation. Often assistants leaving
the Mollenkopf Center at 11 on weeknights during the season run
into Brees just arriving to study tape. He has to go in late
because most of his evenings are occupied with maintaining a
3.20 grade point average in industrial management, which
requires him to take courses like multivariate calculus,
economics and physics. "Most of the courses he takes, I wouldn't
consider," says Stratton.
Purdue is entering a crossroads autumn. Tiller's 12-4 conference
record in two years has come against a Big Ten schedule that
didn't include Michigan or Ohio State. This year the
Boilermakers play them back-to-back, on the road, followed by
Michigan State and Penn State at home, all in October. "I knew
the honeymoon was ending," says Tiller. "I just didn't expect
spousal abuse to follow."
This torturous stretch will give Brees an uncommon opportunity
to shine or to fail. "If we win all our games, we'll probably
play for the national championship," he says. Given that set of
circumstances, he probably would win the Heisman Trophy.
One afternoon last spring Brees strolled the walkway that
separates Mackey Arena from Ross-Ade Stadium in one corner of
the Purdue campus. "I won't forget the people who thought I
couldn't succeed," he says, meaning the people who made him
settle for Purdue, the people who chased him north, "but this is
the right place for me."
Angel kiss? Just maybe.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON/AURORA Cheeky Brees (center) is used to being ribbed unmercifully about his birthmark, especially by his Boilermakers teammates.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON/AURORA Pedigree It didn't hurt that Drew's granddad Ray Akins was the third-winningest coach in Texas high school football history, or that an uncle was a Longhorns quarterback.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK IDEAL NFL TEAM With a strong arm and a flair for the dramatic, Brees would give coach Mike Holmgren a new weapon in Seattle.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON/AURORA Good sport Brees, who set the NCAA record with 83 passes in a game, could leave Purdue with more than one mark that will be tough to erase.
"Sure, the Boilermakers' offense is great," says a rival coach,
"but you need an operator, and they've got one."
It seemed a lock that Brees would be sought by the storied
programs in his home state, Texas and Texas A&M. He wasn't.