New Orleans Saints quarterbacks Todd Bouman (4) and Jason Fife (11) watch as quarterback Drew Brees (9) throws a pass during football training camp Friday, July 28, 2006, at Millsaps College. The journey that began in Jackson 12 years ago marches on through the NFL record books.

Drew Brees became the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yardage Monday night, surpassing both Brett Favre and then Peyton Manning in one glorious night. He was magical – Brees was – completing 26 of 29 passes for 363 yards and three touchdowns.

Brees, as accurate as any passer in the history of the sport, has never been more accurate.

So now seems as good a time as ever to reflect upon the time and place where Saint Drew’s career was resurrected.

Rick Cleveland

And that time would be the summer of 2006 and that place would be Millsaps College.


How could we forget?

It seems so long ago now. More than 12 years, more than 5,000 Drew Brees completions, nearly 60,000 Brees passing yards ago.

Surely you remember the uncertain circumstances. We did not know what to expect. Brees had been signed after what many thought would be a career-ending shoulder injury with the San Diego Chargers the season before.

Everything was so uncertain – for Brees and for the Saints. This was almost precisely one year after Hurricane Katrina had leveled the Gulf South, inundating New Orleans and cutting a huge swath through Mississippi.

The Saints had finished 3-13 in the forgettable season of 2005, playing home games at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge and the Alamodome. Jim Haslett, the coach, and Aaron Brooks, the quarterback, had both been cast aside, making way for Sean Payton and Brees.

And while the Superdome was being resurrected in New Orleans, the Saints began their own resurrection at Millsaps where the temperatures were often in the high 90s, the humidity thick and thunderstorms always a possibility.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees ices his throwing shoulder following practice July 29, 2006, at Saints football training camp at Millsaps College. It was far from certain at the time that Brees would be team’s starting quarterback, but Brees had no doubts.  

Frankly, we didn’t know what to expect. Deuce McAllister was nearing the end of his splendid Saints run. Reggie Bush was a rookie. The Saints offensive line was a patchwork of question marks. The defense was being built on the fly. And then there was Brees, who at 6-feet short and with a wounded shoulder might have been the biggest question mark of all.

Remember? The Miami Dolphins and their coach, Nick Saban, probably could have had him. Brees visited both New Orleans and Miami and seemed headed for south Florida instead of hurricane-torn New Orleans. And then Dolphins team doctors raised a red flag and Saban chose to take Daunte Culpepper instead.

Seems so crazy now, doesn’t it? If the Dolphins and Saban had signed Brees, No. 9 never comes to New Orleans and Saban probably never goes to Alabama.

But Saban didn’t sign Brees and the Saints did. And his first stop was Millsaps where his first few practices were shaky at best. Some of his early passes fluttered. Some missed their mark. Some lacked velocity.

“There is no doubt in my mind I can play right now,” Brees told us. “But I’m going to build gradually, listen to my arm and listen to my body, and build from there.”

Brees insisted his shoulder was 85 to 90 percent ready. The other 10 to 15 percent?

“That’s what training camp is for,” Brees said.

And then he proved it. Those fluttering passes became tight spirals that almost always found their mark.

After struggling through a 1-3 preseason, the Saints left Jackson and began to stun the NFL. They won five of their first six regular season games with Brees throwing darts. They would make it all the way to the NFC Championship game in Chicago, riding on Brees’ shoulders, the left one and the mended one.

And now, a dozen years later, Brees is still throwing the football as accurately as ever, more accurately than anyone in the history of the sport.

Here in Jackson, at Millsaps, we saw the beginning.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.