Ellis (Pee Wee)Brewer isn't like the other dads of Florida's junior class, the famous facesthat flashed on your television the night the Gators won the national titlelast April. Pee Wee never played championship tennis like Joakim Noah's dad,Yannick, never logged a minute in the NBA like Taurean Green's pops, Sidney, orAl Horford's dad, Tito. All Pee Wee ever did was toil in the fields of ruralPortland, Tenn., day after day, raising 100 acres of tobacco, mostly, but alsostrawberries, corn and soybeans. To help make ends meet, he had atrash-collecting route on the side. ¬∂ Sixty-two-year-old Pee Wee Brewer (nobodyin Portland, the Strawberry Capital of Middle Tennessee, calls him Ellis) hasnever been famous. "But," says his son Corey, Florida's high-flyingswingman, "he's special to me." ¬∂ It was Pee Wee who taught Corey hiswork ethic, rising every day before dawn to head into the sun-parched tobaccofields. It was Pee Wee who installed the wooden backboard in the driveway,setting the scene for all those late-night games involving Corey and his olderhalf brother, Jason Rogan, who'd go on to play at Tennessee-Chattanooga. And itwas Pee Wee who dressed young Corey in a pair of oversized coveralls and lethim come along to watch when he slaughtered hogs. "Whenever they neededsomeone to drive the tractor, they'd come get Corey. He liked to do all thatstuff," says his mother, Glenda, a special-ed assistant at Portland Highand Pee Wee's wife of 20 years, a woman who speaks in a delightful Tennesseeaccent, pronouncing Corey as CO-ray and tobacco as to-BACKER-er.
"Corey wasalways in the fields with the tobacco and our dad," says Jason. "Ithink that's why he and Dad are so close."
Yet Pee Wee nevermade it onto your television last April because he never made it toIndianapolis for the Final Four. Pee Wee's heart troubles began in 1999, andsince then he has been plagued by ill health. Open-heart surgery. Three balloonangioplasties. A brown-recluse-spider bite that caused the removal of his rightlittle finger. He's seen Corey play live only once during college--last seasonat Vanderbilt, when Corey scored a career-high 26 points--and when it came timefor Corey's finest hour, Pee Wee just couldn't summon the energy to join Glendaand Jason in Indy.
Not that Pee Weewas alone, mind you. "My husband has a bunch of friends, and since he'sbeen sick, they come every day to see him," says Glenda. On that fatefulMonday night more than 40 friends and family members joined him at the Brewerhousehold in Portland, where they ate pork chops and mashed potatoes andwatched Corey and the Gators on Pee Wee's favorite TV, in the kitchen. Not longafter Florida had beaten UCLA 73--57 and Corey had run into the stands to hugGlenda and Jason, he placed a call above the din of the RCA Dome. "Daddy,we did it!" he screamed, and his old man might have shed a tear or two.
Despite hisabsence from the Final Four, Pee Wee would play a key role for the Gators--for2006--07. To hear the Florida players tell the story, Pee Wee is one of themain reasons these national champions passed up the NBA draft and decided toreturn en masse for one more season in Gainesville. Corey says he was nearlyout the school door when he had the Big Talk with his parents on the phone aweek and a half after the title game. Corey would almost surely have gone inthe first round, and finances were on his mind. "My dad can't work, and mymom's a teacher," he says. "Basically, my mom tries to take care of allthe bills on her teacher's salary, and she works only nine months of the year.So it's hard, but we get by." In the end, Corey says, "it came down tomy dad."
"You don'thave to [go to the NBA] for us," Pee Wee told his son over the phone."You do what's best for you. School isn't a bad thing; it's a good thing.This isn't about money. It's about living your life the way you want to liveyour life."
Corey, acommunications major, decided to stay in college, and so did the rest of theGators, which was no accident. "Knowing Corey's situation financially, hisdecision to come back to school was a way bigger story than me or Al," saysNoah. "I was, like, If this guy's coming back, there's no question what I'mgoing to do." And so, for the first time in 10 years all five starters froma national champion (including senior guard Lee Humphrey) returned to play incollege the following season, with a big assist to the one father among thejuniors' dads who never played professional sports.
Since then, lifehas gotten even harder for Pee Wee. His diabetes worsened in October, and thatmonth doctors had to amputate his left leg below the knee. When his conditiondeteriorated in November, Corey flew home for a day and surprised his dad."My husband had a fit when he saw him come in," says Glenda. "Thatjust made his day. [Pee Wee's] receding on the top, and Corey came and kissedhim on the top of his head. He loves his dad, and his daddy loves him."Corey spent his entire time with Pee Wee, talking and laughing and watchingfootball on the tube, and darned if Pee Wee didn't start getting better.
He still has along way to go, though. Pee Wee started physical rehabilitation last week, sothat he could begin the long process of learning to walk again. "Hopefully,everything will work out once he gets his prosthetic leg," says Jason,"but he's in good spirits, and I think by summertime he'll be O.K." PeeWee watches all of Corey's games on television, and so far the season has beenmore challenging than expected. The Gators have lost twice; Corey has justreturned from a bout of mononucleosis; and one talking head from ESPN saidCorey had made the wrong decision by returning. Said he'd jeopardized his NBAfirst-round status. Said, in effect, that Pee Wee had given his son the wrongadvice.
Not true, saysCorey. "I still feel like I made the right decision," he maintains."You never get this time back, and I feel like I'm having the most fun I'vehad in my whole life, just going to school and playing basketball and nothaving to worry about anything, really." After all, Glenda says, insurancewill take care of Pee Wee's medical bills. And if everything breaks right, oneof these days he'll be able to see Corey make his NBA debut.
"My daddidn't do anything like the other fathers on our team," says Corey,"but we're fine with that. We care for him a lot." For the man who'srecovering on a hospital bed in Tennessee, it almost goes without saying thatthe feeling is mutual.