Pain Reliever Hurting after the loss of their star runner and starting quarterback, the Saints have found that Aaron Brooks is just what the doctor ordered

December 25, 2000

This was the last place the awestruck children and disbelieving
adults expected to see Aaron Brooks, shivering in the
near-freezing New Orleans night, a cup of lukewarm hot chocolate
in his hand, his breath forming clouds of vapor. The kids stood
off to the side whispering, while the adults seated nearby
stared. Didn't the young quarterback, who saved the season for
the surprising Saints, have anything better to do three days
before the team's most important game in a decade than sit in the
muddy backyard of the Waldo Burton Boys' Home, a school for
disadvantaged kids, and watch a Christmas pageant?

"It's simple," Brooks explained as the Waldo Burton choir
launched into The Twelve Days of Christmas. "I told Jaret I'd be
here, and I would never let him down."

Scanning the choir, Brooks's eyes locked on Jaret, a
panic-stricken 11-year-old who would soon herald the
all-important three French hens. "Look at him," said Brooks,
waving at the freckle-faced boy to whom he serves as a Big
Brother. "He needs me." Spotting Brooks, Jaret broke into a wide
grin. Moments later his lines were flawlessly delivered.

After the show, Brooks signed autographs as the bashful Jaret
clung to one leg. "I needed this," Brooks said. "It's what makes
me happy."

In New Orleans 'tis the season to be happy--and for the Saints and
their fans, that blissful state has seldom been achieved in
December. Much of the credit goes to Brooks, the second-year
quarterback who on Sunday continued his meteoric ascent from
obscurity by passing for 285 yards with no interceptions in
leading the Saints to a 23-7 victory over the Atlanta Falcons
before a sellout crowd at the Superdome. New Orleans is 10-5 and
champion of the NFC West. The Saints finish their regular season
this Sunday in New Orleans against the St. Louis Rams.

When Jeff Blake, the Saints' starting quarterback, injured his
right foot on Nov. 19 against the Oakland Raiders and was lost
for the season--one week after tailback Ricky Williams had been
shelved with a broken right ankle--New Orleans seemed to be
finished. But in the four games since, Brooks, who a year ago was
the third-string quarterback in Green Bay, has done the
unthinkable: He's led the Saints to the playoffs for the first
time since 1992 and become so popular that area stores can't keep
his number 2 jersey in stock.

"I've wanted to watch him play from the moment he arrived, but I
never thought it would be so soon," says New Orleans general
manager Randy Mueller, who pursued Brooks for several months
before, on July 31, trading a third-round draft pick and
linebacker K.D. Williams for Brooks and tight end Lamont Hall. "I
don't want to overstate this, but with his ability to beat you
with his arm or his legs, he reminds me of a young John Elway."

Most evaluations of Brooks's play sound similar--equivocations
followed by superlatives--but he has merited more of the latter.
He has won three of his four starts, all against division rivals,
and set single-game franchise records for yards passing (441 in a
loss to the Denver Broncos) and yards rushing by a quarterback
(109 in a win over the San Francisco 49ers). "I think Brooks is
going to be very, very good," says Broncos defensive coordinator
Greg Robinson, "and I don't say that too often."

Brooks possesses the strength and speed (4.5 in the 40) to evade
rushers, but prefers to stand in the pocket and use his cannon
arm. "What impressed me most was his poise in the pocket," says
Brett Favre, Brooks's mentor in Green Bay. "He has a lot of
confidence back there and doesn't want to run. I would run before
he would."

But the 6'4", 205-pound Brooks, who bears an uncanny resemblance
to the comedian Jimmie Walker, the star of the '70s sitcom Good
Times, is a dangerous runner when need be. Consider his most
breathtaking play to date. Late in the fourth quarter against the
Niners, he twice reversed his field while evading the rush before
firing a 22-yard touchdown between two defenders to wideout
Willie Jackson. "That was an unbelievable play by an awesome
player," says Saints offensive tackle Kyle Turley. "We had no
idea how good he was."

That's nothing new. Despite being a two-sport star at Homer L.
Ferguson High in Newport News, Va., Brooks never got the
headlines that Allen Iverson, the quarterback/point guard at
rival Bethel High, in Hampton, Va., did. At Virginia, Brooks
didn't become the starter until his junior year in 1997, by which
time he had been eclipsed in the ACC by Georgia Tech quarterback
Joe Hamilton. Even today some say Brooks isn't as good as his
second cousin, Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick.

Brooks says the slights don't bother him...much. "Man, you
should've seen how good Allen was back then," he says. "He was
impossible to stop. But in college I was as good as any of those
guys coming out. I just hadn't played as long."

Brooks is referring to the NFL's ballyhooed quarterback class of
'99, a group that includes Tim Couch, Daunte Culpepper, Donovan
McNabb, Cade McNown and Akili Smith. Brooks, who was not invited
to work out privately for a single NFL team before the draft,
found the scouting combine, which is attended by more than 300
players, particularly distasteful. "You're just a piece of meat,"
Brooks says. "You stand there wearing next to nothing and they
measure everything on you, even your kneecaps. Then doctors pull
on you, grab each place you've been injured. It's horrible."

Worse still was the Wonderlic exam, the 50-question intelligence
test on which he scored a below-average 17. "What does that
prove?" says Brooks, who graduated with a degree in anthropology.
"If you want to test my football knowledge, test me on the
history of the league's quarterbacks or on the game's history.
Don't give me a mini-SAT."

One team that did take a closer look at Brooks was Green Bay,
which didn't test him privately but did work him out in
Charlottesville with Virginia wide receivers Germane Crowell and
Terrence Wilkins. The Packers' quarterbacks coach at the time was
Mike McCarthy, whose return flight from Richmond was canceled due
to bad weather. To kill time, he asked Brooks to join him in a
film room to "talk football." For three hours Brooks broke down
Virginia's offense, going through four games' worth of film.
McCarthy, who had thought that Brooks might be too soft-spoken to
run an NFL team, came away impressed with the depth of his
knowledge. "That talk was like taking a test he hadn't studied
for, and he nailed it," says McCarthy.

Brooks was encouraged, too. "Scouts thought I was too shy, too
quiet, but I was quietly aggressive," he says. "After that day I
felt good about myself, like I belonged."

Brooks was stung when he was not among the first eight
quarterbacks taken in the draft and insulted when the Browns
called to tell him that although they had selected Couch, they
also hoped to sign Brooks--as a free agent. "I was like, 'A
what?'" he says. "So when the Packers took me in the fourth
round, I was relieved, but still disappointed."

Brooks put the draft behind him, though, and made the most of his
year with Green Bay. "I couldn't have asked for a better
situation," he says. "I got to work with Coach McCarthy, and I
got to watch Brett Favre up close."

Eager to learn the offense, Brooks asked Favre if he remembered
his best game. Favre said it was the Packers' 35-28 win over the
Chicago Bears in '95, when he completed 25 of 33 passes for 336
yards and five touchdowns. Brooks asked for a tape of that game
and watched it over and over. "I still have that tape," Brooks
says. "I'll pop it in just to watch Brett play, just to consider
the possibilities."

Last April, Mueller and New Orleans head coach Jim Haslett, both
new to the Saints and having recently signed Blake to a
four-year, $17.4 million contract, set out to find a backup.
Haslett had also hired McCarthy as his offensive coordinator.
Because McCarthy intended to install an attack similar to the
Packers', the Saints focused on Green Bay's backups and dealt for

McCarthy cautioned his bosses not to be fooled by first
impressions. "I told Randy and Jim that when Aaron gets here he
won't bowl you over with his communication skills," McCarthy
says. "He can seem quiet at first."

"Sure enough," says Haslett, "the first snap [at training camp]
he sort of mumbles something, and no one can hear him. I thought,
What the hell is this?" Pointing out Brooks's deficiencies is
Haslett's way of keeping his 24-year-old quarterback grounded.
Take the first half of the Niners' game two weeks ago, when
Brooks completed two of seven passes for 21 yards and "checked
out of four running plays that he shouldn't have," says Haslett.
"He ticked me off. Then he finds his composure and runs the
offense wonderfully in the second half. He's mature, he's smart,
he's a hard worker and he's a great kid. But as I told Aaron,
he's one of many guys on this team who has a job to do. He really
hasn't done anything yet."

In the revelry following Sunday's division-clinching win, it was
apparent that Brooks had taken Haslett's words to heart. As
thousands of elated fans stood screaming in the stands, Saints
owner Tom Benson broke into his signature boogie, on the 50-yard
line. He pulled Brooks into his arms and asked his young
quarterback if he wanted to take a spin just as a swarm of
cameras set upon them. With a gracious smile, Brooks demurred.
There may come a time to dance in New Orleans, but this wasn't
it. There's still work to do.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO IN CHARGE Teams doubted the soft-spoken Brooks's ability to lead, but he took command of New Orleans with three wins in four starts.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO BLIND FAITH The surprising Saints made the playoffs because of plays like this by Joe Horn, who set a team record with 89 receptions.

Says Brooks of the NFL combine, "You're just a piece a meat. You
stand there wearing next to nothing. It's horrible."