4 years of Brees blow away doubt

Rose Bowl: All but unwanted out of high school, Purdue's leader has ridden a strong arm, lots of heart to glory.

January 01, 2001|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

PASADENA, Calif. - He can laugh now, with a slew of school and Big Ten records to his credit, as well as a third-place finish in Heisman Trophy balloting and the Maxwell Award as the best all-around player in the nation.

And after watching Drew Brees lead the Purdue Boilermakers to a share of the Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl battle against the Washington Huskies today, it's difficult to believe that he had to beg college coaches to watch tapes of him quarterbacking Westlake High of Austin, Texas. Or that his mother had to call coaches around the country and ask them to consider her son for their teams.

His mother's brother, Marty Akins, had been a wishbone quarterback at Texas, but the Longhorns didn't want Brees. Nor did Texas A&M, his childhood favorite and the school where his father, Chip, had played basketball.

When he visited North Carolina the summer before his senior year of high school - the year he led Westlake to the state title - the coaches weren't interested in the tape he left. Essentially, they said don't call us, we'll call you - but don't wait by the phone.

He wasn't big, at 6 feet 1 and 220 pounds, and he wasn't particularly mobile. His arm was accurate, but not overpowering. And the knee injury he had suffered his junior year didn't enhance his prospects.

But Joe Tiller saw qualities in Brees that no yardstick or stopwatch could measure: his heart and competitiveness. Hired to coach the downtrodden Boilermakers after molding high-scoring, pass-happy offenses at Wyoming, Tiller looked beneath the surface and saw Brees' hunger and drive to excel.

Brees' options, in the end, were Purdue and Kentucky. He chose Purdue, even though it seemed far from a perfect fit. Before he arrived in 1997, the Boilermakers had had only one .500 season in 12, and then only because a forfeit had lifted their 1994 record to 5-4-2. They averaged 17.6 points a game in 1996 and were 3-8, 2-6 in the Big Ten.

"The odds of Purdue going to the Rose Bowl anytime soon were slim to none," Brees said.

So much for the odds. Post them along Brees Way, the street named for him along the Wabash River in West Lafayette, Ind., and let everyone laugh. Purdue is in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1967, an improbable trip.

"We wouldn't be here without Drew Brees," Tiller said.

In leading the Boilermakers to an 8-3 record and a share of the Big Ten title, Brees was a finalist for nearly every major college football award.

He has already carted home enough to fill a trophy case, among them the Maxwell, the Chicago Tribune Silver Football as the most valuable player in the Big Ten, the Big Ten offensive-player-of-the-year trophy and two awards for unselfishness and citizenship. After winning the first Socrates Award last year for academics, athletics and community service, he's a finalist again.

But not even Bob Griese, who led the Boilermakers to a 14-13 victory over USC in their only other Rose Bowl appearance and forged a Hall of Fame career with the Miami Dolphins, had a street named after him.

"All the awards, everything, it's been a great ride," Brees said. "There's been a lot of luck involved, a lot of being in the right place at the right time. I've had great coaches and I can look back at a great career."

By his senior season, the kid who'd honed his aim in his back yard by hurling rocks at a telephone pole or a trash can was setting records nearly every time he threw.

Brees is Purdue's all-time leader in passes thrown, 1,639; completions, 1,003; completion percentage, 61.39; yards passing, 11,517; touchdowns passing, 88, and total offense, 12,442 yards. He's the Big Ten career leader in all of those categories except completion percentage, where Chuck Long of Iowa (1981-85) leads at 65 percent.

On the NCAA career list - which excludes bowl games - he ranks fourth in passes thrown, 1,525, and completions, 942; ninth in yards passing, 10,909; 12th in touchdown passes, 81, and fourth in total offense, 11,815 yards. He set an NCAA record with 83 passes in a 31-24 loss Oct. 10, 1998, at Wisconsin, and tied a record in that game by completing 55.

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