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Great Americans in Sports: Drew Brees
Read by Alden Ford
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Drew Brees grew up in a family of athletes, and overcame injuries and setbacks to become one of today’s best quarterbacks. This comprehensive biography – complete with photos and fun infographics – shows how Drew Brees went from being a flag football player to Super Bowl MVP and modern legend, and is sure to appeal to legions of football fans.
Table of Contents
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Football is, perhaps, the ultimate team sport. With sixty minutes on the clock, eleven warriors take the field to face eleven warriors. Everyone on the field has a role to play, and everyone has a job to do. Every action is choreographed, and every play carefully planned. If any of the eleven players fails, the team might fail.
Even so, while there are twenty-one other players on the field at any given moment, there is one who stands out. That player's job alone sets him apart from every other player on the field—and that player is the quarterback. The quarterback could be considered the most important player on the football field. In fact, quarterbacks are often called field generals or game managers. In professional sports, few players face as much pressure as the quarterback of an NFL team.
What sets the position apart is not simply the pressure, the media attention, or the fans' expectations, of which there are certainly plenty. It is not the fact that the quarterback is the only one who has to know where every other player on the field is at all times, or the countless hours of study that it takes to prepare for a single game. It is not the intelligence the position requires, nor is it the focus. It isn't the leadership on and off the field. It isn't the ability to make quick decisions, or read defenses, or recover from a misstep. It isn't that a quarterback has to have the strength to throw a ball the length of a football field or be accurate enough to knock the wings off a fly in midair. It isn't just one of these qualities—to play quarterback, an athlete must have them all. Quarterbacks need to have a set of physical tools, as well as a unique education and strong understanding of the game. This is what makes the position so hard to scout, and why so few prospects become successful quarterbacks.
The prototypical NFL quarterback is somewhere between six feet two inches and six feet five inches tall and weighs 220 to 235 pounds. The popular opinion has always been that a quarterback shorter than six feet one inch can't see over his offensive line, which typically stands in front of him and consists of large players whose jobs are to block the other team from tackling the quarterback, the running back, the tight end, and the wide receiver.
Despite the common school of thought that quarterbacks must be tall in order to see the whole field, some quarterbacks have proved they can use passing lanes to see their receivers. They have shown that throwing the ball over the offensive line is more about a quarterback's release point and how high the ball is when it is thrown. Still, a stigma often stands around the height of quarterbacks. Most general managers and coaches will not take a chance on a "short" quarterback—and when someone does take a chance on him, that player must prove himself at every turn.
From the time he got the chance to start in high school, however, one quarterback in particular has challenged the idea of how tall or big a quarterback should be. Standing at only six feet tall, Drew Brees has climbed to the top of the NFL, where he remains one of the most talented, successful, and popular quarterbacks to this day.
Vince Lombardi, the famous former coach, once said, "Football is a great deal like life in that it teaches that work, sacrifice, perseverance, competitive drive, selflessness, and respect for authority is the price that each and every one of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile." Nowhere is this truer than in the great state of Texas. In most Texan towns, Friday nights are reserved for football. Stores close early, the downtown streets empty, and there is a glow in the sky on the distant horizon—the glow of Friday night lights.
The legendary high school football coach Ray Akins knew what it was like to stand in the glow of those Friday night lights. After serving in the marines during World War II and fighting in Okinawa, Japan, Akins returned to Texas and coached for the better part of four decades, including an amazing run at Gregory-Portland Independent School District from 1965 until he retired in 1988. He won around three hundred games during his twenty-three-year career at Gregory-Portland, and even led a team quarterbacked by his son all the way to the 1971 State Finals, where they unfortunately lost the championship game by just one point. Ray Akins was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in 1992. But that's not his only claim to fame: he also happens to be Drew Brees's maternal grandfather.
Following the success of the 1971 Gregory-Portland team, colleges heavily recruited Ray's son, Marty. During a recruiting visit to South Bend, Indiana, Marty fell in love with the University of Notre Dame. He was strongly considering becoming a Fighting Irish before the realities of his father's job became clear to him. Ray would not be able to attend any of Marty's games if he went to school out of state. There was too much to do to prepare for those high school football games in Texas. Ray, however, made it clear that he would support his son in whatever decision he made.
"I'll never forget my dad saying, 'I'm a high school football coach, and you know how Friday nights are and how we spend Saturday mornings planning for the next game,'" Marty Akins said. "He said, 'I'll never get to see you play one college football game if you go to Notre Dame. But if that's where you want to go, that's great.'"
He would, of course, watch every one of Marty's games on television, but he would not be able to make the trip from the southern coast of Texas to northern Indiana and back in one day, and still get all his work done. For Marty, that was a game changer. He wanted his mother and father to have the chance to come to his games and watch him play, so Marty took a visit with the University of Texas at Austin.
While Marty had played for Gregory-Portland, his father was harder on him than on any other player. They studied the game and watched tapes of games all the time. They talked defensive schemes and ways to break them down offensively. He was a true student of football. After Marty's visit, University of Texas head coach Darrell Royal knew he had found his quarterback of the future. Marty was big, tough, and knew the game well enough to adjust to Coach Royal's wishbone offense, which is when the quarterback must either pitch the ball to the running back or run the ball, rather than throwing it.
"I ran the ball in high school, but mostly I threw the ball," Marty remembered. "Coming to Texas and running the wishbone was something new for me." This adjustment required a quarterback who wasn't afraid to take a hit and was humble enough to play within the system.
Coach Royal wanted Marty Akins to be his quarterback at Texas, and once Marty decided he wanted to play close to home, he knew he was going to be a Longhorn at the University of Texas at Austin. It didn't hurt that Coach Royal brought former president Lyndon B. Johnson to the recruiting meeting with the Akins family.
"Here I was, a high school kid, sitting down with President Johnson," Marty recalled. "He was bigger than life. He seemed like a giant of a person to me."
Marty was sold! He committed to play for the Texas Longhorns.
Marty Akins arrived in Austin as a freshman in the fall of 1972 and spent his first season as the backup quarterback. He learned everything he could from Coach Royal and starter Alan Lowry while the Longhorns went 10–1, ending the season as the third ranked team in the Associated Press poll.
It didn't take long for Marty to win the starting spot, and by the spring practices of his first year, he was QB-One. During his second season, he piloted Texas to a sixth consecutive Southwest Conference title with an 8–3 overall record and 7–0 in the Southwest Conference. Unfortunately for Marty, his first season as a starter ended with a bad 19–3 loss to twelfth-ranked Nebraska in the 1974 Cotton Bowl Classic.
He was in his final season, in 1975, when he really proved his tough spirit. In the second-to-last game of the year, the Longhorns hosted Texas Christian University in a fateful game that would change the Longhorns' season. The Texas Christian University Horned Frogs had yet to win a game that season and were considered the heavy underdogs. In other words, TCU was a team that Texas should have easily beaten. However, the landscape of that game changed for the Longhorns when Marty tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his knee. It was a horrible injury that forced him out of the game—and could have permanently ended his career. Texas managed a win against the Horned Frogs, but Marty's injury had left the Longhorns with a big hole.
The last game of the regular season was against the Longhorns' rival Texas A&M on November 28, 1975. A win would clinch the Southwest Conference Championship, but a loss would mean they would have to share the title. After the injury in the TCU game, most fans expected Marty Akins to be out for the rest of the season. A tear to that particular ligament was a season-ending knee injury to any other player—but Marty wasn't like any other player.
"You've got to be a tough person because you are going to get hit on every play and, through the season, you are going to receive injuries to your elbows, wrists, your knees, your shoulders," Marty said. "I played with all kinds of injuries those four years at Texas."
Marty strapped on a knee brace and limped out onto the field to face Texas A&M's Aggies. But after the first play, he knew his leg just wasn't right and that it would be a mistake to go on with an injured knee. The coach took him off the field, but Marty argued to come back once again later in the game. His leg didn't work for more than a few plays, however, and by the second quarter, his night was over.
The University of Texas would lose that game 20–10. The loss meant that they had to share the Southwest Conference championship with Arkansas and Texas A&M. It was a bitter disappointment. Still, their overall year was successful enough that they earned an invitation to the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl against Colorado. Marty spent a lot of time rehabilitating his leg, and after a rocky start to their Bowl game, Marty and the Longhorns would go on to own the second half and win 38–21. It was a great way for Marty to finish his season—and his college career!
Marty Akins would end his time at Texas with four school records, including most rushing yards by a quarterback (2,020), most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (26), and most quarterback starts (34), while winning the Southwest Conference championship in 1973 and 1975 for a career record of 25–9. In 1975, he was an All-American selection.
After the season, Akins was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the eleventh round of the 1976 NFL draft. He would then be traded to the New Orleans Saints in 1977, before hanging up his cleats for good that year and becoming a lawyer. He was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in 1987. Ray and Marty Akins are the only father and son to have been inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. But soon enough there would be a new family member stepping onto the Texas football field—Ray's grandson and Marty's nephew: Drew Brees.
THE SEEDS OF DISCIPLINE
With the connection to Ray and Marty, Drew Brees was born into an athletic family. But Drew's grandfather and uncle weren't the only athletes in the family. Drew's father, Eugene Wilson "Chip" Brees II, played basketball at Texas A&M. His mother, Mina Akins, the daughter of Ray and sister to Marty, was All-State in basketball and volleyball. Most important, Drew was born into a family of intelligent hard workers who valued character and discipline above all else.
Chip and Mina welcomed their first-born son, Andrew Christopher Brees, to the world on January 15, 1979. Drew took to sports early in his life. As boys, Drew and his brother, Reid, who was two years younger, would spend their summers on their grandfather Ray's ranch. While Ray Akins ran the Gregory-Portland football team in the sweltering Texas heat, Drew and Reid acted as ball boys and would fetch water for the players.
"During two-a-days, we'd go out there, and my grandpa would serve this green electrolyte water—it was kind of funky—and we'd be over there, me and my brother, filling them up and giving them to the guys and tossing the ball on the side and just thought that was the greatest thing ever, being a part of that and watching Grandpa coach and going to his games," Drew said.
- On Sale
- Dec 1, 2015
- Hachette Audio