A football team is saying its postgame prayer in the bowels of a damp stadium, and kneeling down with them, in street clothes, is a man in a sling. His eyes are glass, his shoulder is on fire and a car has been waiting on him for an hour, but he rises and begins to work the room. Good game. I'm fine. A setback ain't nothing but a setup for a comeback. They don't know how he's doing this, how he's cheering them up when it should be vice versa. They saw what happened two hours before, saw him fumble on his own goal line, saw him dive for the ball helmet-first, saw a 325-pound opponent pile on, saw his throwing shoulder get contorted, twisted and dislodged. It was gruesome, foreboding, and everyone knew it.
The wife in the stands knew, the doctor in Alabama knew and the backup quarterback on the sideline knew. But not the man in the sling. How come? What is it with him? Why had he even stuck around? His wife, fighting back tears, had stood with him outside the X-ray room as the game was droning on, and she'd asked, "You ready to go home, babe?'' He'd told her no, that he needed to be in the locker room at game's end, that he had to let the team know that their leader was in one piece. That it was his team. His team! He kept saying it and saying it. His team, his team, his team.
THE GENERAL manager isn't thinking the San Diego Chargers belong to Drew Brees. He's thinking, "What a #@#% mess.'' It's New Year's Eve, the season's just ended and his Pro Bowl quarterback, a pending free agent, can't even lift his throwing arm. What now? What now? That's what A.J. Smith is pondering as he leaves Qualcomm Stadium. He's got a backup QB who's a bonus baby, over whom he drooled so much that he traded the draft rights to Eli Manning for him. True, Philip Rivers has taken only 64 NFL snaps, but he also stays after practice every day, throwing, sweating, learning. On game days, he huddles with the kickoff coverage team, counts off players and shouts, "We got 11!'' Then he growls, "Who's gonna make this tackle?" He's a leader, too, dammit. And so the GM spends his night pitting one against the other. Brees or Rivers. Rivers or Brees. What now? What now?
Meanwhile, at Brees' house, more than 10 people are waiting for the injured quarterback. They're somber, but Brees, who just won't stand for it, walks in with wife Brittany and announces, "All right, who's ready to drink?'' They all start whooping, clapping. That's the Brees they know. He tells them, "Nobody feel sorry for me tonight. This is just a bump in the road. No sad faces.'' He doesn't tell them about his MRI in the morning.
The next day, he calls the Birmingham, Ala., home of orthopedist James Andrews, who's never met a shoulder he couldn't renovate. Andrews tells Brees he saw the injury occur live on TV, that he was able to diagnose a torn labrum from his couch. Two days later, on Jan. 3, Brees is headed to Birmingham for surgery. He connects through Dallas, and on the layover, he sees a message from Smith on his cell phone. When Brees returns the call, the GM says, "You're our guy. We want you longterm. It's what you wanted. So rest your mind, have the surgery, rehab, get healthy and come back and win us a championship. We'll be in contact with [agent] Tom Condon. But Drew, business is business, and I don't know where this will go. I want you to understand that.''
Brees, ecstatic, answers, "Yes, sir, I understand,'' and just as he's about to hang up, Smith has something else to add. A minor detail.
"Drew,'' the GM says, "Philip Rivers will be here too. You'll both be back.''
PHILIP RIVERS bites his lip. He wants to say it so badly, wants to say, "Pick one! Me or him!'' But he can't now, not 72 hours after this injury, not with Brees in a sling, not with everything in limbo. Before the injury, he thought there'd be a resolution, thought they'd trade him or let Brees walk. But one wrecked shoulder has changed everything.
He feels awful for Brees, but what about him? A third straight year as a backup? Forget it. He'd started 51 consecutive games at NC State, an NCAA record. He'd never sat in his life. He was too hyper to sit. As a kid, he'd wanted to be the quarterback on the field and the drum major at halftime. He was a doer. But now he's just a scout-team quarterback trying to win over someone else's team. At practice, linebacker Donnie Edwards would say, "How many picks you gonna throw me today, Rivers?'' And the bonus baby would growl, "I'm gonna complete every ball.'' And in one 7-on-7 drill, he actually did. Not one ball hit the ground. But the public didn't know that; the public knew nothing. In fact, Rivers went to Sea World one day after his rookie year, and no one recognized him. He was a nobody. And apparently, that's how it's going to stay. It's Brees' team again and Rivers' scout team again. Unbelievable. THE FIRST thing Brees sees postsurgery is the ruddy face of James Andrews. "Drew!'' says the doctor in his Southern accent. "If I did that operation 100 times, I couldn't do it as good as I just did. But it's only as good as your rehab, son. It's up to you.''
Uh-oh, the doc went and did it. Anytime someone challenges Brees, it lights a ridiculous fire. That's how it was in high school, when he tore his ACL as a junior and colleges stopped recruiting him. And that's how it was when the Chargers drafted Rivers in April 2004.
You should have seen Brees prior to that season's training camp. He changed his diet and his sleeping habits and began doing visualization therapy. He'd close his eyes and throw to receivers. At first, the receivers would be stationary, but then they'd run routes, and he'd hit them in stride, eyes shut. He decided quarterbacking was about multitasking-avoiding a rush and reading a defense at the same time-so in private, he'd call out pass progressions while juggling three tennis balls. He'd also attach himself to a sled with a bungee cord and throw rollout passes while high school kids rushed him. He was at the practice facility 24/7. "I never drove by and didn't see his car,'' Edwards says. "Even at 5 on a Friday. I'd say, 'Dude, go home.' "
So Rivers picked a bad time to stage a rookie holdout. Brees was coming off an ugly 67.5 passer rating in 2003, but he waltzed in on the first day of the 2004 training camp and called a players-only meeting. He handed everyone a typed piece of paper stating his team and personal goals and asked each player to write in his. He told them, "Line up behind me, because I'm gonna lead you.''
That's how the Chargers became his team. They went 12–4 and won the AFC West, and his 27:7 TDs-to-interceptions ratio got him voted into the Pro Bowl. He'd connected with every player, especially the other quarterbacks. He nicknamed Doug Flutie Salty Dog because Flutie was always grousing about something. He even brought in a football he'd bought at the famous Salty Dog Cafe in Hilton Head, S.C., so that Flutie-or anyone else-could sign and date it if he was in a "salty'' mood. "Philip signed it eight times, I signed it seven times, Doug all the time,'' Brees says.
He even made Rivers feel welcome, because, frankly, they were alike. Brees was the grandson of a coach, Rivers the son of one, and both had been ball boys. Brees, at his grandpa's football practices near Corpus Christi, Texas, used to steal sips of green electrolyte water. And Rivers, as a 7-year-old in Athens, Ala., used to run on the field during measurements and signal first down. On birthdays, Rivers staged football games instead of parties on his father's lined high school field. That was up Brees' alley.
But no, Rivers couldn't have Brees' Chargers. So when Doc Andrews tells Brees to rehab or else, the switch goes on again. The day after surgery, he's already stretching. Two weeks after surgery, he's out of his sling. Four weeks after surgery, he's in treatment nine hours a day. Six weeks after surgery, he's asking when he can play golf. Eight weeks after surgery, on the eve of free agency, his external rotation is 143°, meaning he can reach behind his head to scratch his back. "Nuts, huh?'' Brees asks.
The scuttlebutt at this point is that he may miss the start of the season, but he plans to throw in May and practice full-bore in July. "By Sept. 1," he says, "I'll be doing back handsprings."
He's asked if, worst-case scenario, the Chargers might have to start Rivers, and he says he isn't worried. Because either way, he's going to be a Charger. That's what the general manager told him.
SOMETHING'S HAPPENED. Something baffling. The Chargers have made their offer, and it's low, worth only $2 million in guaranteed money. "That's what backup quarterbacks get,'' Brees says.
What's this about? The surgery? Did it go worse than expected? It turns out, there was a partially torn rotator cuff to go with Brees' torn labrum, and rotator cuff has the Chargers thinking Chad Pennington. Smith consults myriad doctors, and though he won't say so, their reactions appear to be mixed. The GM decides two things. First, he will not use his franchise or transition tag on Brees. Second, he won't break the bank for him, even though he has about $20 million in cap room. Considering that Pennington's surgery was also done by Andrews, and considering that Pennington has flopped, Smith's lowball offer makes some sense. "We had a price tag," Smith says. "There isn't sweetening it or lessening it. We make decisions on the dollar sign for all our players. And in saying that, a lot of teams didn't even pursue Brees. They didn't want anything to do with it."
Brees can't believe that two straight winning seasons mean nothing. A 51:22 TDs-tointerceptions ratio over two years means nothing. Those players-only meetings mean nothing. The Chargers' almost becoming an elite team means nothing. But Smith isn't budging. If the bonus baby ends up as his QB, so be it.
Word leaks out, and the Chargers offices are inundated with angry calls. Fans threaten to cancel season tickets. Smith goes public and says, yes, Brees claims he wants to come back, but only if the money's right. The GM is still seen as heartless. LaDainian Tomlinson, Brees' friend since their days as Texas high school stars, comes out against the move. Marty Schottenheimer, who's not even speaking to Smith because of apparent control issues, comes out against it too. Speculation is that Smith is setting Schottenheimer up to fail, although the coach says that if that's the case, Smith's setting himself up to fail too. Consensus is that Brees is a Marty guy and Rivers is an A.J. guy, although Smith denies it. "I don't care who holds up the Super Bowl trophy,'' he says. "The Chargers players are my guys.''
But Brees is miffed. There was that phone call during the layover in Dallas, remember? "I'm a guy of integrity,'' Brees says. "If I tell you I'll do something, I'll do whatever it takes to get it done. Or at least I'll say I tried. I don't think A.J. can look back and say, `Hey, we tried.' To have that phone call and then to have everything that's transpired since then? I can't say they've tried.''
Smith's reaction: "Wrong. Wrong. I told him, This is a business. Every team goes through this. Look at the Colts and Edgerrin James.' You can't take care of everyone.''
Fact is, Smith admires three franchises: the Patriots, the Steelers and the Eagles. Three teams unafraid to cut ties with veterans no matter how many jerseys they have in the stands. "Yeah," Brees says, "and three franchises with established QBs.''
So on the first night of free agency, March 11, it isn't the Chargers dialing Drew Brees; it's the Saints and the Dolphins. He checks his cell phone one last time before going to sleep to see if San Diego has called. Nothing.
IT'S LOOKING like Miami. The Saints are offering a stunning $10 million guaranteed-$8 million more than the Chargers-and Brees isn't signing it yet. So he must like Miami better, right?
But Miami's dragging, and the reason is the shoulder. Brees thinks San Diego has spread a rumor that his arm is a mess-Smith denies it-so he gives the Dolphins a DVD of his surgery and workouts. But Miami still chooses Daunte Culpepper over him. That leaves the Saints, the vagabond Saints. Brees sees the irony of it all. He is New Orleans: broken down. Undervalued. In need of reinventing. He signs the deal, and within minutes, his Chargers teammates are text messaging him, upset like hell. Of course, they don't say it publicly. They have Rivers to prop up now. Lorenzo Neal, Keenan McCardell and Roman Oben quickly contact the kid and tell him, "Let's go, this is what you've been waiting for." Tomlinson phones Rivers and tells him not to misconstrue his support of Brees as a lack of support for him. And Rivers, a solid guy who's just happy to be off the scout team, forgives him: "I know you're going to miss Drew. We're all going to miss Drew. But this is not a setback. We'll keep it going. It's not like I'm brand-new.''
Meanwhile, Schottenheimer invites Rivers into his office for a 30-minute meeting, telling him, "If you were the starter last year and you were the free agent, I would've wanted you back. I just like continuity.'' The spin is in, although not completely. Because Schottenheimer goofs. Later he does an interview and says, "We may have to run the ball more next season.''
The GM is irritated by the comment, while Rivers sloughs it off. But it's a sign of trouble, a sign that a good portion of the franchise thinks the team has backtracked. "It's pretty interesting there,'' Brees says, referring to the Smith-Schottenheimer rift. "They should make a reality show. I'd TiVo it, watch it whenever I could.''
Is he mad? Not at Rivers. The two talk after the Saints deal is done, and Brees tells him, "It's your team now.'' He never thought he'd say it, but what's true is true. He also says he'll see him soon because he's planning to visit the Chargers' facility one more time, to "waltz in there like I own the place'' and clear out his locker. He's going to pack up everything, including the Salty Dog Cafe football. But first he's gonna sign that ball. Sign and date it one last time.
Because Drew Brees is salty.