Fourth-and-goal from about the 15-yard line, six seconds left, needing a touchdown to win. Brees lined up with four receivers, but only two mattered as tight end Jeremy Shockey(notes) and wideout Marques Colston(notes) ran in the middle of the field toward the end zone.
Brees looked at Shockey, but also saw the three guys waiting for him near the end zone, making a touchdown almost impossible. He waited a second longer for Colston to get in position, then threw high and hard, just over the shoulders of two defenders near Colston, who leaped for the grab.
For that moment, Brees had a little joy after three days of sorrow. On Friday, Brees' mother, Mina, died in Grand County, Colo. (The cause of death is under investigation.) Worst of all, Brees was on the way to repairing what had been a strained relationship with her. In 2006, he had said there was no relationship between them.
"It was getting better," Brees said. "That [quote] was something that upset me because it was from three years ago."
Sadly, the chance for complete healing was ripped away, leaving thoughts of what should have been said or what could have been done atop all the grief. Now, the sport that tests his physical and mental will on a weekly basis serves as his escape.
"Sometimes football is your release," Brees said. "As much as my mind and heart was with family and everything I was dealing with this weekend, I couldn't wait to get back here and get on the field and play ball. I love football and I love this team. It was a way to not think about it for awhile, to get my mind off all of this and just think about something else. This is my craft, my job, what I want to be great at. Football has been that way for me, just like for some people, they go workout to blow off steam."
The question for the Saints and Brees, who is coming off only the second 5,000 passing-yard season in NFL history, is how he will deal with the death of a parent at a time when he's trying to lead the Saints back to places they have never been as a franchise.
If Monday afternoon is an indication, New Orleans fans can be optimistic. Not just because of one pass, but because of the focused resolve Brees talked about.
"It's tough, but I think you have to be able to compartmentalize," he said. "I've got my football over here. I've got this whole thing with my mom over here. I've got the [executive committee job with the NFL Players Association] going on here. I've got my family time, all these things so that when I'm in the moment, I try to be in that moment. … It was hard not to think about the weekend and all the things taking place, my mom passing on Friday and thinking about my family members, thinking about her.
"My mind does just shut off everything else. It's crazy how that happens, but from the time you get the play and walk up to the line, you're thinking about nothing else. There are a lot of bad things that can happen if you're not able to turn it off, if you're not completely focused."
Brees chuckled lightly after that last sentence, as if any bad thing on a football field could compare to a death in the family.
Brees has dealt with his share of adversity, from the torn labrum and rotator cuff he suffered at the end of the 2005 season with San Diego. That injury hastened his exit from the Chargers and had many doctors doubting if he'd play in 2006. He didn't just play, he excelled. He led the Saints to the NFC title game and finished the season with 4,418 yards, 26 touchdown passes, 11 interceptions and a 96.2 pass rating.
Three years later, Brees is part of a good debate over who is the third-best quarterback in the league behind Tom Brady(notes) and Peyton Manning(notes). Ben Roethlisberger(notes) might get the nod on Super Bowls. Donovan McNabb(notes) could get it based on his body of work. But Brees is in the mix.
The undersized Brees (he's 6-foot and is built more along the lines of a high school point guard), has gotten to this point with determination that borders on anal retentive behavior.
"He does a great job of understanding what he needs to do each day in practice," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "He's a routine person, he takes his supplements in the morning, he has his workout routine, he's got his practice routine. He doesn't get off schedule much and that's how I would describe him. Every aspect of his preparation is very tedious, from the quarterback-center exchange to the film work this afternoon to everything he's doing at practice, it's very efficient."
The Saints saw that from the first time they ate dinner with Brees and his wife.
"We took him to [chef Emeril Lagasse's restaurant]," Payton said. "We're back in the kitchen about to have this real fancy dinner, me, [general manager Mickey Loomis], Drew and his wife. Five minutes there, the little packets of … supplements come out and he and his wife each wash them down with water. I'm saying, 'What are you doing here, we're about to have some redfish.' But he doesn't budge from his routine."
Payton understands that himself. In 2002, Payton lost his mother to cancer in the middle of the season. He was the offensive coordinator of the New York Giants. At the same time, Payton was the person talking to the oncologist. He had to break the news to his mother that the cancer had spread throughout her body and that there was nothing the doctors could do.
"A month and a half later she died. She died in the season on a bye weekend. We buried her during the bye weekend and I came back to the team shortly thereafter and finished the season," Payton said. "It's difficult because there's a certain part of the process you need to spend remembering and grieving and sometimes, because of the demands of this sport, it can steal some of that away from you."
Or provide a soothing distraction, if only for a few moments. Monday was the first time Brees could celebrate, even for just a few moments. Next week, Brees will hold a memorial service and bury his mother in Texas.
"I think, knowing Drew Brees, the best thing I can tell him is, 'I need you to do whatever you feel is necessary' to grieve the death of his mother," Payton said. "We don't play for 4 ½ more weeks. Drew Brees will be ready. Just knowing him, he'll know how to set that schedule and find that time to properly be with his family and then be back here and get back to work.
"There are other players who you'd be more concerned about as to how they're able to handle that. If there's anyone who's strong enough to handle the death of a parent in training camp, it's Drew Brees."
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