— Broken and doubted. That was New Orleans. In a football sense, that was Drew Brees too.
New Orleans was hit by a storm in 2005, which tore the city apart. Brees was hit by a Denver Broncos safety named John Lynch, tearing his shoulder apart.
And so, it was only right that New Orleans and Brees found each other in 2006. The San Diego Chargers, with Philip Rivers in the wings, made Brees an offer he chose to refuse. After the Miami Dolphins passed on him, Brees signed with the Saints.
This Sunday, he will play in Super Bowl XLIV, representing New Orleans, in a way that few athletes represent their cities.
“I just feel like it’s a big responsibility for me,” Brees said. “I feel like I’ve been given a platform to really make a difference in a lot of people’s lives, especially those who are less fortunate and those who might not have the opportunities otherwise. I’ve embraced the community of New Orleans just because it is a special place, and they’ve embraced me and my wife in a way that I can’t even describe. There is nothing more that I want for them than a championship.”
The irony is the quarterback for the other side, Peyton Manning, is a son of the athlete who, along with basketball’s Pete Maravich, used to be most synonymous with New Orleans: Archie Manning. But, because of his overcoming-adversity story as much as his consistently charitable work in the city, there’s no question who first comes to mind.
It’s Brees. Who is it for other cities? Some are easy calls.
In Kansas City, it’s George Brett, a hitting magician from the days when the Royals still mattered.
In Baltimore, it’s Cal Ripken. The iron man figures to have a long reign as the champion of Charm City, even considering the exploits of the late Johnny Unitas and current star linebacker Ray Lewis.
In Miami, and the surrounding South Florida area, it’s Dan Marino. His 17 seasons of passing excellence made him an icon, his community work made him an example, and his long list of local endorsements show that he hasn’t lost any luster.
In Denver? John Elway.
“There are very few guys like that,” said former Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe, now a CBS analyst. “Dan is like that in Miami, John is like that in Colorado. For the longest time, before we had the Avalanche or the Rockies, basically it was the Nuggets and the Broncos. And it is Broncos country. John Elway is king. Tony Romo can win two or three championships, but he is not going to replace Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman. There’s something about these guys, your father, your mother, your uncle, they grew up watching these guys, and that’s just the way it is.”
As it will likely be for Brees.
“Even though he wasn’t drafted by the Saints, he came into a situation where after Katrina, they were down and out, he was a guy that reached out, who says I’m here to play football, but I’m also here to rebuild this city,” Sharpe said.
Some cities have had so many stars that it would seem tough to choose one who rises above all… and yet, for some, it isn’t. Like Los Angeles.
“Still Magic,” said Andrew Siciliano, who hosts a radio show for ESPN 710 Los Angeles. “And this is a big debate now, because Kobe (Bryant) just passed Jerry West as the Lakers’ leading scorer. So could Kobe, forget about statistically, could he ever surpass Magic as the King of all Lakers, and the consensus answer is no. That’s not out of disrespect for Kobe. It’s out of the amazing respect that the city has, and will always have, for Magic. Because he’s not only the great Laker on the court, but he’s also the guy off the court who is such a pillar of the community with all his businesses and his reinvestment. He is everything that is the Lakers.”
And, thus, Los Angeles, since the Lakers reign supreme. Which Dodgers are in the discussion? Siciliano points to former pitcher Sandy Koufax, former manager Tom Lasorda, and even long-time broadcaster Vin Scully.
“The Dodgers are maybe the only team where their broadcaster trumps everything,” Siciliano said.
What about Wayne Gretzky, who spent some time playing for the Kings?
“No,” Siciliano said. “Perfect example, I saw him at a USC football game during the season, and he was in line at the VIP entrance, and no one stopped him. He was just Wayne Gretzky with a hat on. People still know Wayne Gretzky, but he does not in any way stop the room.”
Plenty of athletes and coaches, current and former, have done that in New York. Some, like Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio — and going way back, Babe Ruth — are long gone. Of those still alive?
“Derek Jeter’s first,” said Sid Rosenberg, who hosts a show on WQAM-560 in Miami, but also has a long history working on New York’s WFAN-660. “After that, that’s where it gets difficult now, because baseball is so big up there. “I’ve got L.T., I’ve got (Mark) Messier still huge, I’ve got (Joe) Namath, still big up there. I’ve got (Patrick) Ewing, still huge up there. Mets, (Dwight) Gooden, (Darryl) Strawberry, (Tom) Seaver.”
What amuses Rosenberg with his own selections is that, in his view, Jeter “should be the last guy to represent New York, because the rest of the country views New York as kind of wild. And he has maintained this elegance, this class, while being a great player.”
And, often, a strong or unique personality is something that appeals to a city most, especially if a city views itself with something of the same. Take Houston.
Marc Vandermeer, who hosts a show on KILT-610 Sports Radio, calls former Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon the “all-time greatest Houston athlete” while former Oilers running back Earl Campbell is a widely-revered figure. Of active athletes, according to Vandermeer current Rockets center Yao Ming and current Texans receiver Andre Johnson get the most attention. Plus, there’s an awkward connection between the fans and former Astros pitcher Roger Clemens, since his career has been clouded with steroid accusations.
“But what is really amazing in Houston is the impact that a Bum Phillips still has,” Vandermeer said of the former Oilers coach who spoke with a Texas twang and wore a cowboy hat. “If Bum Phillips walks into a room with the hat, there is something about his charisma, his presence, that draws people to him. And the biggest professional football accomplishments in Houston were losses in back-to-back AFC Championship games in the late 1970s.”
Philadelphia is notoriously tough on its most talented athletes – everyone from Mike Schmidt to Donovan McNabb. And its greatest sports stars have had a wide array of personalities. Bobby Clarke’s grit. Allen Iverson’s defiance. Julius Erving’s elegance.
“Dr. J is 1A,” said Howard Eskin, a host on Philadelphia’s WIP-610.
But who would attract the most attention in a bar? For Eskin, no contest.
“Charles Barkley would get the most attention,” Eskin said. “Easy.”
As much for how he acts, as what he did while with the 76ers. Barkley, unlike Clarke or Erving or even Chase Utley or Jimmy Rollins, never won a championship for the city. And he didn’t even leave the franchise on great terms.
“But if you want to have a conversation with Charles, don’t walk into a public place, because it’s over, everybody climbs on him,” Eskin said. “What’s amazing about Charles in a bar, he might walk in with two, three people. At the end of the night, there’s sometimes as many as 20 people there who are now all around Charles and he is picking up the tab for everything.”
Short of winning a title, that’s the surest way to win any popularity contest.