New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) celebrates his touchdown pass to tight end Josh Hill, which broke the NFL record for career touchdown passes, surpassing Peyton Manning, in the second half of an NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts in New Orleans, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Drew Brees will turn 41 next month. He is at an age when most football stars have long since put away their helmets and pads and gone on to a TV booth or golf course.

Brees, at 6 feet tall,  has always been too short, supposedly, to play quarterback in the NFL. Now, he’s too old, too.

Rick Cleveland

So how on earth did he do what he did Monday night in the Louisiana Superdome, which was complete 29 of 30 passes (a record for accuracy), for 307 yards and four touchdowns in the New Orleans Saints’ 34-7 conquest of Indianapolis? How did he, at age 40 and 11 months, break the great Peyton Manning’s NFL record for career touchdowns?

You have to really know Drew Brees to understand, former teammate Deuce McAllister says. You have to witness his focus, his will and his grit first-hand. And still, McAllister says, you’ll find yourself whistling to yourself and asking, “How in the world did Drew do what he just did?”

Deuce McAllister rushed for more than 6,000 yards.

Brees and McAllister go way back and have a shared history of being undervalued as professionals and facing what might have been career-ending injuries. When Brees was a senior at Purdue and McAllister a senior at Ole Miss in 2000, they met and bonded on the All-American and all-star game circuit.

McAllister, who would go on to run for more than 6,000 yards and score 54 touchdowns in an injury-shortened NFL career, wasn’t picked until the 23rd pick of the first round by the Saints. Brees wasn’t chosen until nine picks later, in the second round, by the San Diego Chargers.

But it wasn’t until five years later, in 2006, that the two became much closer friends and then teammates.

“Lots of people don’t know this, but Drew and I were rehabbing from serious injuries together in Birmingham before he signed with the Saints,” McAllister said. “We were at Dr. (James) Andrews’ facility in Birmingham working with Kevin Wilkes, who was the trainer for both of us. I was coming off knee surgery, Drew was rehabbing his shoulder. We didn’t even know we were going to become teammates.”

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees’ right shoulder was often iced down at hot, humid Millsaps in 2006. l

McAllister remembers this about Brees: “He was obsessive with his workouts. … I mean, literally, he obsessed about his workouts. He pushed himself to the point that I actually thought to myself, ‘Something’s not right with this guy.’ Nobody works this hard.”

The Chargers had let Brees go, and he was being seriously courted by the Miami Dolphins (and Nick Saban) and the Saints. You know what happened. Saban (he says on advice from Dolphins doctors) chose to sign Daunte Culpepper instead of Brees. Brees signed with the Saints, still reeling from Hurricane Katrina and under brand new coach Sean Payton. Brees signed a six-year, $60 million contract, and it might be the best $60 million anybody ever spent.

The 2006 Saints trained at Millsaps and impressed exactly nobody. They were just awful. They scored only 49 points in losing three of four preseason games.

I reported on that preseason. I thought the Saints might go winless in the regular season. When I told McAllister that recently, he responded, “You were not alone. There wasn’t much to like. We weren’t sure ourselves.”

Perhaps least impressive was Brees’ passing arm. Early in camp, his passes lacked velocity and often wobbled or fluttered. If you watched Monday night’s record-breaking performance,you saw some of the tightest, most accurate spirals anyone has ever thrown. None of his training camp passes 13 years ago looked like that.

“He just didn’t have the strength yet in that shoulder,” McAllister said. “Honestly, none of us knew if he would get it back or not.”

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.

Brees insisted he would. I remember one particular post-practice interview when he told us doubters he was “85 to 90 percent” recovered. “There is no doubt in my mind I could play right now,” Brees said. “But I am going to build gradually, listen to my arm and listen to my body and build from there.”

McAllister admits he was among the doubters. “You gotta remember I am fighting to come back from ACL surgery myself, trying to prove to myself I could still play,” he said. “With Drew, it was his throwing shoulder and, early on, it just didn’t look good. I didn’t know if he was going to get it back and whether it would last if he did.”

The doubts, serious ones, lasted throughout the preseason.

“We didn’t see the real Drew until the season opener at Cleveland (a 19-14 Saints victory),” McAllister said. “Then he got better and better and better.”

After the Saints lost their last three preseason games, they won their first three in the regular season. Brees’ shoulder – and McAllister’s knee – both strengthened. Brees threw for 4,400 yards. McAllister ran for more than 1,000 They would finish the regular season 10-6 and reached the NFC Conference championship game.

Now, 13 years later, McAllister is the Saints radio commentator, still marveling at his former teammate’s skills and durability. McAllister, his knees both ruined, retired in 2008. Brees is still flinging it.

“To be honest, I came into this season thinking this would be it for Drew,” McAllister said. “I mean, he’s going to be 41. I just thought this might be it. Now, I am not sure. I know this: If he does decide to retire it won’t be because his body has broken down or he can’t throw it. I really believe he could play another couple years. Wouldn’t surprise me. I’m not sure anything about Drew can surprise me now.”

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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.