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Original Issue

Marching In

It's the unlikeliest NFL story in ages: Drew Brees and the Saints, recovery projects both, are one win away from the Super Bowl. That's what character and commitment can do

The man hassomething important to say to Drew Brees. It is a warm afternoon early in thenew year and Brees, the 28-year-old quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, iswalking through Audubon Park, a 400-acre preserve not far from the century-oldhome that he and his wife, Brittany, bought last spring in New Orleans'sUptown. The man is walking with his wife and pushing an infant in a stroller.He extends his right hand to Brees as they pass on a walking path. "Thankyou for what you've done for this city," he says. "I want you to knowthat we appreciate it."

Brees squeezes the man's hand and nods. "You're welcome," he says."And thank you."

Now a red SUV passing on St. Charles Avenue honks its horn twice and the driverleans out the window in slow-moving traffic. "Thanks, Drew!" sheshouts, waving.

Brees smiles andwaves back. "That happens 10 times a day, at least," he says. "Andit's never 'Good game,' or 'Can I have your autograph?' It's always somebodysaying thank you." He looks at the ground and shakes his head, as if againhumbled by the remarkable place where he has landed.

"He is a goddown here right now," says chef Emeril Lagasse, owner of three New Orleansrestaurants and a Saints season-ticker holder for two decades. "He is themiracle man."

A year ago thequarterback was wounded and the city reeling. Brees lay in a hospital bed witha shoulder injury so severe that even his surgeon wondered if he'd play again.The San Diego Chargers, who'd drafted him out of Purdue in 2001, had cast himaside with what Brees considered an insulting contract offer, and he and hiswife were reconsidering their plans to start a family. New Orleans, meanwhile,lay in ruins, struggling to find traction after Hurricane Katrina. Now they arejoined. Brees is steering the Saints on an improbable ride toward their firstSuper Bowl--"Without him we just wouldn't be here," says right tackleJon Stinchcomb. "It's that simple"--an emotional journey that has givenNew Orleanians weekly respite from the otherwise unrelenting work ofrecovery.

"I playfootball for a job," says Brees. "But all this, it goes way beyondfootball."

Although thefootball can be pretty good. Last Saturday night the reborn Louisiana Superdomewas filled again, as it has been for every home game this season, quiveringwith a desperate, ear-splitting energy as the Saints won just the secondplayoff game in their 40-year history, a 27--24 victory over the PhiladelphiaEagles. Next Sunday, New Orleans plays for the conference championship againstthe Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.

Brees completed 20of 32 passes for 243 yards and a touchdown. He did not throw an interceptionand has thrown just one in the last seven games. It was yet another solidperformance in an All-Pro season during which he led the NFL with 4,418 passingyards. Yet Brees did nothing of greater value for his team on this night thanput the ball in the hands of Deuce McAllister.

Selected 23rd bythe Saints out of Mississippi in the 2001 draft, nine spots ahead of Brees,McAllister rushed for 143 yards (a Saints playoff record and his highestsingle-game total since '03) and one touchdown and scored another on an 11-yardswing pass from Brees. Twice he put his stamp on the game. On a five-yardtouchdown run that brought New Orleans within 21--20 with 9:36 to play in thethird quarter, the 6'1", 232-pound McAllister was hit at the four and drovea pile of a dozen players into the end zone. And after the Eagles punted with1:56 to play, trailing by three with two timeouts left, McAllister carriedthree times to earn the first down that sealed the victory as 70,001 fansroared Dooooooooce!

McAllister is theSaints' alltime leading rusher, but he had never been in a playoff game untilSaturday. Last season he tore his right ACL and missed the final 11 games; andthis season he had to sublimate his ego by sharing his position with HeismanTrophy--winning rookie Reggie Bush. But the load-sharing has had its benefits."I haven't had to carry this team," McAllister says. "Now my bodyis in the best shape it's ever been in at the end of a season. And you've gotto run the ball in the playoffs."

Bush ran it too, aspart of a wild night that began for him with a crushing, video-game hit fromEagles cornerback Sheldon Brown that left him crawling across the turf in pain.He returned to rush for 52 yards on 12 carries, including a 25-yard scamper inthe first quarter and a four-yard touchdown in the second, both on signaturecutback moves. "I find myself getting ready to block whenever he's got theball," says Brees. "It's never dull with Reggie."

It wasn't dull whenBush misplayed a pitch from Brees as the Saints were trying to kill the clocklate in the fourth quarter, giving Philly one last chance--which was snuffedout by the New Orleans D, with help from a Philly false-start penalty on fourthand 10. The safe move would have been to keep the veteran McAllister in, butthroughout the second half he was wracked by dehydration cramps that wouldrequire intravenous fluids after the game. Still, when the Saints needed thatfinal first down, McAllister was back on the field.

"Deuce isabsolutely a warrior," Brees says, "and he's a true teammate in thestrongest sense of the word. At the end of that game the Eagles earnedthemselves a big dose of Deuce McAllister."

It's no surprisethat Brees has brought a team to the verge of the Super Bowl. The surprise isthat the team is the Saints. Brees was the quarterback on San Diego teams thatwon a combined 21 regular season games in 2004 and '05. With All-Pro runningback LaDainian Tomlinson, whom the Chargers took fifth in that 2001 draft, thefranchise seemed loaded for a string of postseason runs.

But in the finalgame of 2005, with the Chargers out of playoff contention, Brees dived for afumble in his own end zone, and Gerard Warren, the Denver Broncos' 325-poundtackle, landed on him. When Brees stood he held his right arm as if he wereresting the elbow on a fireplace mantle, his shoulder gruesomelydislocated.

More than 1,700miles away in Birmingham, renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews watcheda replay of Brees going down. "I thought, my God, what an injury," saysAndrews. Four days later he examined Brees and diagnosed a rare 360-degree tearof the labrum, the ring of cartilage around the entry to the shoulder joint.During surgery Andrews discovered a deep, partial rotator cuff tear. He saysthe damage in Brees's shoulder joint represented "one of the most uniqueinjuries of any athlete I've ever treated."

Andrews and twoother surgeons mended the labrum with the unheard-of total of 11 surgicalanchors (three or four is common) and also repaired the rotator cuff. The90-minute procedure was performed arthroscopically--a godsend for Brees. If thedoctors had had to cut through shoulder tissue, his recovery would have beenprolonged by months.

Still, Brees facedan arduous rehabilitation, with long odds. "Lord, I was just hoping to givehim a functional shoulder," says Andrews. "An average athlete would notrecover from this injury."

Andrews handedBrees off to Kevin Wilk, a physical therapist and clinical director atBenchmark-Champion Sports Medicine in Birmingham who has been rehabbingAndrews's patients for 18 years. "Dr. Andrews told me, 'You've got yourwork cut out for you,'" Wilk says. "I had never seen an injury thissevere in any elite-level throwing athlete. We were in unchartedwaters."

Brees attacked hisrehab voraciously. He moved in with his in-laws, Pete and Kathie Dudchenko, wholive in Birmingham, and spent four months of seven-hour days at Wilk's clinic.Told he could be out of his sling in four weeks, he lost it in two and a half.Told he would have full range of motion in 12 weeks, he achieved it in eight.Told he would throw a football in four months, he was outside on the lawn ofthe clinic playing catch with New York Giants safety Will Demps, who wasrehabbing an ACL, in a little more than three months.

"His recoveryhas been one of the most remarkable of any patient I've ever treated," saysAndrews. "And the biggest thing was Drew's motivation andtoughness."

Brees's footballfuture was not unfolding as favorably. The Chargers, who'd put a franchise tagon him for 2005 and paid him $8.1 million, offered him an incentive-laden dealfor '06 with only $2 million guaranteed. Brees saw this as general manager A.J.Smith's attempt to run him off and finally play Philip Rivers, whom Smith hadacquired in the shrewd Eli Manning trade on draft day 2004. "They didn'tthink I could come back," says Brees, "and the injury was their excuseto get rid of me."

Smith says,"People say the offer was an insult. I don't care what people think. If[Brees] wanted to come back, he would have accepted the offer."

Brees wanteddesperately to return to San Diego. "I was supposed to be the guy to takethat team to the next step," he says. "But then I started thinking, Howcan I go back when that's what they think of me?"

He declared himselfa free agent, and his first visit was to New Orleans. The Saints were afootball team in transition, coming off a 3--13 season in which they'd played"home" games in New Jersey, San Antonio and Baton Rouge. There was alsoa new coach, 43-year-old former Dallas Cowboys assistant Sean Payton, and aroster that would ultimately include 27 new players. Payton and general managerMickey Loomis knew all about Brees's shoulder. "The injury was the onlyreason we had an opportunity to sign him," says Payton.

They drove Breesthrough the city in March and gave him the pitch: You can be part of therebuilding. Greg Bensel, the Saints' vice president of communications, thentook the Breeses on a real estate tour that included the areas most devastatedby Katrina. They did not flinch; instead, they embraced the possibilities."I'm very faith-driven in my life," says Brees. "At some point inthe process I started to believe that maybe God put me in this position for areason. Maybe we were supposed to come to New Orleans and do more than justplay football."

In fairness, thedifficulties presented by the city and the team were offset by a one-year offerof $10 million guaranteed (with options for $50 million more over fouradditional years). As competition Brees had only the Chargers' bid and ashrinking offer from the Dolphins, who told Brees's agent, Tom Condon, thatthey felt he had only a 25% chance of playing effectively again. (Miami soonturned its attention to Daunte Culpepper.) On March 14, Brees signed with theSaints. "They needed me and they wanted me," says Brees. "And howmany people in life get an opportunity like this, to really make adifference?"

There were somehiccups. Although Payton kept Brees on a tight pitch count early in trainingcamp, on the second day his arm was tired. He threw a wounded quail to wideoutJoe Horn that dipped after a few yards and Payton said, hopefully, "Useyour legs a little more." Brees recalls, "I know what he was thinking:This guy's arm is not going to be ready." On Aug. 28 the Saints tradedwideout Donte' Stallworth to the Eagles, leaving Brees with a receiving corpsthat, after Horn, was woefully short on experience. His targets would includeDevery Henderson (22 career receptions entering '06), Terrance Copper (eightcareer receptions) and Marques Colston, a seventh-round rookie out of Hofstra.But Brees has adjusted: Bush led the team in the regular season with 88catches, and the three newbies combined for 125, led by Colston's 70. Brees hasbeen a solid fit for Payton's West Coast--based system, with its heavy diet ofhalf rollouts and bootlegs.

"We had a wholenew offensive line, a rookie split end, other guys with little experience,"says Payton. "That's a lot of new pieces to the puzzle, and Drew has beenthe guy to bring them all together."

Inside the lockerroom, Brees was an even sweeter fit. "I called [Chargers fullback] LorenzoNeal to get the word on Drew," says Horn, who missed Saturday's playoff winwith a groin injury. "He said great things about him. And he's been a greatleader from Day One."

Brees's work ethicremains his mainstay. One example: He finishes every day by watching practicefilm. Eight days before the playoff win, Brees flipped on the lights in anoffensive meeting room at the team's practice facility in suburban Metairie andspent 30 minutes running through the day's workout. Before each snap he softlyspoke the formation and play he was about to run, a habit he learned under SanDiego offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. At the end, he snatched up hismessenger bag and walked to the parking lot, sated. "If this is the lastthing I do every day," he said, "I feel like I've accomplishedsomething positive, even if it wasn't a great day otherwise."

Brees has been aubiquitous presence in the city, donating time and money to charities. He alsomade his commitment known by living in Uptown, where few Saints have everresided. (Most on the current team own homes in suburbs or near the practicefacility.) "The community's view of Drew is that he knew what he wasgetting into when he came here, and he came here anyway," says MichaelWhelan, 32, a New Orleans commodities trader who has played golf with Brees andis a friend of Loomis's and Payton's. "We really have a long, long way togo in the city, but the Saints are a part of the fabric of New Orleans, andDrew has just been unbelievably visible."

On Saturday, Breeswatched the movie Crank--"I can't even remember who was in it," he saidlater--at the airport hotel where the team stays on the night before games. Hethought back to his first game at the Superdome, when he got caught in trafficand was 30 minutes late despite an escort that had him driving on sidewalksapproaching the stadium. And he remembered his only previous playoff game, athree-point loss to the New York Jets in January 2005.

The Saints' gameplan emphasized power running to help slow the Eagles' pass rush. In the firstmeeting between the teams, a 27--24 New Orleans victory on Oct. 15,Philadelphia didn't sack Brees once. They got to him three times on Saturday,but the Saints' ground game was punishing from the start, finishing with 208yards, a total New Orleans exceeded only once in the regular season. "TheEagles were a tired team," said Stinchcomb. "Tough game last week [awild-card win over the Giants], tough season."

It was past 11 p.m.when Brees left the locker room. In the Superdome labyrinth he stopped toembrace Tom Benson, the Saints' 79-year-old owner, who raised two fingerstoward the quarterback as they separated. "Two more games for the SuperBowl," said Brees as he walked away, again speaking in wonder. "What ayear."

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Photograph by David Bergman


One year removed from a shoulder injury as bad as any his surgeon had seen,Brees guided New Orleans to the first conference title game in the franchise's40 years.




McAllister (26) lost his helmet but gained the necessary yardage when he pusheda pile of bodies into the end zone for a third-quarter touchdown.




Payton was another shrewd pickup by New Orleans.




The Saints' success has their long-suffering fans all shook up.