November 23, 2009

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Nov. 30. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.

A lot of people I cover do very good things for charity. It's always dangerous to say that, among 1,800 NFL players, one man stands above all. So I won't do that with Drew Brees when I make his case for Sportsman of the Year. The award, as you know, is a combo platter of on- and off-field achievement. Brees does not have a Super Bowl ring to his name, but he is the most productive passer in the NFL, statistically, since coming to New Orleans in free agency in 2006. But that's not why I'm saying he deserves to be Sportsman of the Year. I'm saying it because no athlete in any sport has meant more to his community in the last five years than Drew Brees has meant to New Orleans.

Let's go back to April 2006. New Orleans lay in near-ruins from Hurricane Katrina. I went to New Orleans to cover the first NFL draft since Katrina in New Orleans (and, I feared, maybe the last), and all over town I met people petrified that the team would leave town for a richer market not ravaged by natural disaster -- San Antonio, maybe, or Los Angeles. New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin told me that he hoped the Saints would stay at least till the city got back on its feet. "At least for one year,'' he said, with more than a hint of pleading in his voice.

You had to see this place eight months after Katrina. Hundreds of abandoned cars on the sides of roads. Thousands of homes in ruins. More businesses shuttered than open; many more. The mayor, the townspeople, worried players and team executives... all with no idea how much longer they could hang on to the Saints. In 2006 a burst of civic pride sold out the Superdome, but everyone knew that wouldn't last unless the moribund team won.

Brees, signed to a six-year contract in free agency, saw to that, leading the Saints to the NFC South title and finishing second in the league in MVP voting. He moved to the uptown section of the city -- very few Saints live in the city proper -- and walked his dog in Audubon Park. "I hope I can do my little part to show people New Orleans will definitely come back,'' he told me late that season as we walked through the park.

His Brees Dream Foundation raised $1.8 million in cash over the past four years, with matching funds totaling another $3.6 million. The Foundation used events like a huge concert honoring local legend Fats Domino last May to raise money to build two FieldTurf ballfields at city schools that had fields destroyed by Katrina. He's in the process of moving full-time to New Orleans from his home in San Diego, because he says he'll be able to do more good if he's in the city year-round. He does all the stuff that quarterbacks have to do and then some. When a local teacher told Saints PR man Greg Bensel that it might be nice if Brees could sign something for a 5-year-old student with cancer, Brees said, "Give me his number. I'll call him and his parents.''

Last April, with the local economy still down in the dumps, the Saints and state politicians agreed to a deal extending the team's lease in the Superdome through 2025. "Drew's a huge reason why,'' said coach Sean Payton. The team was 35-45 in the five years before Brees arrived. They're 36-22 since he signed. No one knows for sure, but if Brees hadn't come and been the cornerstone of their revival, it's not a stretch to think that this team could be the San Antonio Saints right now.

Building playgrounds, being a great quarterback, saving franchises. That's why Brees is my 2009 Sportsman of the Year.Agree with this selection? Give us your Sportsman pick here.

You May Like

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)