What happened? We are feeling the final tremors in a seismic sports decade. Let's skip the predictable rant against performance enhancing drugs (asterisk goes here) and bad behavior. Think Chutes and Ladders: Heroes fell, leagues and franchises rose. More fans, more games, more media, more money. (Any estimate of America's sports GDP, say half a trillion—roughly the same as Switzerland's—is boggling, unless you ponder $15.75 for a beer and a hot dog at Yankee Stadium.) And it all got very loud: more broadcasts, more platforms, still more money and still more media. Convergence, lousy with attitude. Soaring platitudes. All was amazing, all was unbelievable. But then, just when you were ready to turn it all off, something would happen, as it always does in sports, and the values would shine through: courage, loyalty, sacrifice, sportsmanship. And you would feel good again, better than good, inspired by our games and the men and women who play them. Ask the people who live in New Orleans, ask the fans who left this note on the wrought iron gate in front of Drew Brees's house in the Garden District the morning after Super Bowl XLIV: My family lost everything in August of 2005. Last night you and our beloved Boys gave us everything back. Thank you....
SI's cover that week pictured Brees holding his son Baylen high against a confetti-filled night in celebration of the Saints' victory, and this issue names him SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S 2010 Sportsman of the Year. No athlete has performed on a higher level or given more heart to his community, where he has acquired the nickname "Breesus" among Saints fans, who refer to him this way without guile. His work and life there since 2006 has been that humbling to the rest of us.
SI senior writer Tim Layden met Brees in the spring of 1999. Layden was SI's lead college football writer then, looking for the next big thing. Brees was preparing for his junior year at Purdue and looking very much like the quarterback who would drag the Big Ten into the modern age of the passing game. Layden has written four substantial pieces about Brees since that first meeting in a West Lafayette steak house, and he spent three days with him in New Orleans for this week's story (page 56). "He's an older, more mature version of the 20-year-old college student I first met," says Layden. "He's intensely dedicated to his family, his work and the city of New Orleans, yet I like the word that his father, Chip, a lawyer back home in Austin, used to describe him: playful. That's Brees: He's serious with a smile. I went on a school visit with him, and, naturally, word got out that he was there. People drove to the school and waited for him in the parking lot, and as Drew was running to get his ride back home, he stopped four times to sign little scraps of paper. He talks all the time about having fun because life is short," Layden adds. "Lots of people say that. But Brees really lives it. I've never seen a guy manage a frantic schedule more cheerfully."
Two weeks before we selected Brees as the recipient of SI's highest honor, a letter arrived from Florida with a request from the man who had the notion to publish this magazine in the first place. His name is Robert Cowin, and he wrote that he is 87 years old and has long prided himself on "being a good soldier for Time Inc.," which indeed he was, rising with ambition and savvy through a number of publishing jobs, including 15 years as SI's first circulation director. Cowin was simply asking for a little recognition on the 60th anniversary of his three-page memo to his boss which began with his observation that "there is one very broad field which is not adequately covered by any publication with a large national following—sports!" Arguing that the sports magazines of the 1950s reflected the hunting and fishing enthusiasms of the late 19th century without taking notice of the increase in leisure time and the subsequent explosion of interest in spectator sports, Cowin pitched an as-yet-unnamed magazine to connect with fans. How did he know? History is loaded with astonishing insights by visionary individuals. Mr. Robert Cowin is one of them.
Of course that same history, especially the sports media archive, is littered with pretentious failures and goofy blunders—from SI's Fresh Faces Swimsuit Model Search "reality show" to ESPN, The Phone. So 60 years after the Cowin memo we're still thinking about the smartest ways to (Cowin again) "cater to this obvious interest [in sports]." In the last five months SI has launched an enriched iPad edition, new smart phone applications, a series of eBooks and joined in a partnership with Turner Sports to expand the reach and video of SI.com. Next comes SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Snapshot, an innovative photography application. SI's writers and editors and producers already provide 102 Twitter feeds and 19 Facebook pages, numbers that will continue to grow.
In October, in a parallel universe, shortly before the birth of his second son, Brees and his wife, Brittany, used Twitter to solicit names for the child. They were looking for "boy names starting with B that are uncommon." The reaction was huge. "WOW," Brees tweeted back. "I had no idea this many people would respond. We loved everyone's suggestions and are getting close. Will keep you posted." The Breeses settled on "Bowen," which they came up with on their own. Everyone felt great, connected.
Just when all was despair, something would happen, and the values would shine through and you'd feel good again. Ask the people who live in New Orleans.