New Year's Eve 2005. Denver at San Diego. A typical week 17 matchup between one team with an eye on the playoffs (Denver) and another looking to limp over the finish line after a season which saw expectations fall short of the mark.
As Drew Brees prepared to pass out of his own end zone late in the second quarter, Denver's John Lynch blindsided the Quarterback off a well-executed Safety blitz, knocking the ball loose and igniting a mad scramble for the Football near the goal line. As Brees tried to recover the ball, all 320 pounds of defensive lineman Gerard Warren fell smack-dab on top of his right arm. Not only did San Diego lose the ball and eventually the game, they lost their Quarterback. The Drew Brees era was over, as Philip Rivers took the controls for the rest of the 23-7 loss, and officially opened his own era as the Chargers' new signal-caller.
Drew Brees leaves the field for the final time as a Charger.
The lasting image of that game saw Brees walking to the locker room with his arm in an awkward position. Clearly in a state of discomfort, the blank look on Brees's face said it all. He knew he was done in San Diego. But, was he done as an NFL Quarterback?
Enter Dr. James Andrews, the renowned orthopedic surgeon whose list of patients reads like a "Who's Who" of elite, decorated sports icons. Andrews happened to be watching that day as Brees left the field with his arm at an unusual forty-five degree angle, and knew right away that the Purdue alum had dislocated his shoulder.
As a professional athlete, there is never a good time to suffer a serious injury. The situation is compunded when, like Brees, that athlete is heading into free agency. No team, no throwing arm. Could it get worse? It could have.
As Andrews inserted his arthroscope into Brees' damaged shoulder, he exclaimed "Oh my goodness. How are we going to fix all of this?"
Even Andrews, who had seen it all in his many years of playing the role of savior for so many wounded sports warriors, knew there would be a long road ahead for Brees. The damage was immense. Dislocation, torn labrum, torn rotator cuff. All in all, a bad situation.
What followed was a complex two-hour procedure, in which Andrews and his team inserted 12 anchors (the most he had ever used in a surgery) to re-attach torn tissue to the bone. Other reparations were made.
All that was left to do was to hope. To Pray.
Brees attacked his rehabilitation like a madman shot out of a cannon into a pool of gasoline with a belt of lit matches. In just over two short months' time, he would be a free agent, in search of a new home. As time went on and he progressed slowly but surely, Brees found that there was still a market for his services, despite the career-threatening wound to his arm.
The two teams at the forefront were the Miami Dolphins and the New Orleans Saints.
Miami seemed like the natural fit. Nick Saban was in search of a Quarterback to take his team to the next level. The Dolphins surprised many by going 9-7 in the former LSU coach's inaugural campaign in 2005, with veteran journeyman Gus Frerotte handling the majority of the work under center.
Still far from recovered, Brees was Saban's first choice. He visited the Dolphins. Everything seemed like a go, until the Dolphins' medical staff came away discouraged after taking a closer look at the Quarterback's injured shoulder. The Dolphins passed, eventually bringing in another wounded passer in the form of Daunte Culpepper, who had suffered a similarly gruesome injury to a knee earlier in 2005.
Next stop for Brees, New Orleans. No Saints fan needs to be reminded of the 2005 season, or what had happened earlier that summer. But here was Brees, in town to visit with newly appointed head coach Sean Payton. The Saints needed Brees as badly as Brees needed the Saints. A franchise in a city looking to rebuild putting its belief in a Quarterback looking to rebuild his arm and his career.
Where the Dolphins had seen issues, the Saints saw none. Brees signed a 6-year, $60 million deal with New Orleans. As they say, the rest is history. Drew Brees displays his offseason work ethic.
Drew Brees may have never had a chance without the help of Dr. Andrews, and the fantastic work that Andrews and his team of physicians put in that winter's day on an operating table in Birmingham. But ask Andrews, and he'll say that the magnificent tale of this recovery is down to the patient and his therapist.
"(Drew Brees) had the most remarkable comeback that I've ever treated," Andrews told Vox.com recently. "All expectations were that he had a career-ending shoulder injury. But he had such a good work ethic, and he was so well taken care of by physical therapist Kevin Will, in Birmingham, who worked with him for a solid four months, that some way, some how, he got well. But I have to give him and the therapist all the credit, not me. He was an unbelievable comeback. And he's still playing."
The work ethic that Saints fans have come to adore. That work ethic that took a team that had won just three games in a season that saw them practicing in a parking lot, all the way to the NFC championship game one year later. Over the next seven years, four more playoff appearances, another NFC title game, and most notably, a Super Bowl triumph.
Over 38,700 yards through the air, 283 touchdowns, numerous passing records shattered and a Super Bowl ring to boot, it's fair to say that things worked out for both Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. Eight years later, the future Hall-of-Famer remains a truly elite passer in the NFL, thanks in large part to his surgeon, and a team who saw no harm in putting their faith in someone who needed a chance. Drew Brees holds the Lombardi Trophy.
Having recently expressed a want to play into his 40s, even the staunchest of doubters would be hard-pressed to bet against Drew Brees. One man who surely wouldn't even dare is the man who helped save his career. The man who believed in him all along, Dr. James Andrews.
A Louisiana native helping revive the career of a man that helped revive Louisiana's darling professional Football team. The Austin native is now one of Louisiana's favorite sons.
A fumble, an injury, an incision, 12 anchors, a negative prognosis, a chance, and a sprinkle of mad-man work ethic. Drew Brees, ladies and gentlemen.