NFL

Drew Brees retires: Saints great leaves behind unparalleled legacy

By Sports Desk March 14, 2021

For the last 15 years, Drew Brees and the city of New Orleans have been synonymous. 

He helped give an emotional lift to the city following the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, transformed the franchise from a pushover to a perennial contender and delivered the city its only professional championship. 

And now after being a part of New Orleans for a generation of Saints fans, the 42-year-old Brees announced on Instagram on Sunday that he is retiring from football after 20 seasons.

"After 20 years as a player in the NFL and 15 years as a Saint, it is time I retire from the game of football. Each day, I poured my heart and soul into being your quarterback. Until the very end, I exhausted myself to give everything I had to the Saints organisation, my team, and the great city of New Orleans. We shared some amazing moments together, many of which are emblazoned in our hearts and minds and will forever be a part of us. You have moulded me, strengthened me, inspired me, and given me a lifetime of memories. My goal for the last 15 years was striving to give to you everything you had given to me and more," he wrote in his post.

"I am only retiring from playing football, I am not retiring from New Orleans. This is not goodbye, rather a new beginning. Now my real life's work begins!"

The future Hall of Famer leaves the game as the NFL's all-time passing leader with 80,358 yards and ranks second only to Tom Brady in touchdown passes with 571 and second in completion percentage (67.7). 

While Brady followed in the footsteps of Boston legends like Ted Williams, Larry Bird and Bobby Orr, Ben Roethlisberger is held in similar esteem in Pittsburgh with the likes of Terry Bradshaw, Roberto Clemente and Mario Lemieux, and Aaron Rodgers shares the Green Bay spotlight with Brett Favre, Brees is New Orleans' most celebrated professional athlete. 

New Orleans was a one-sport city for the first 35 years of the Saints' existence, and while Archie Manning was the face of the franchise in the 1970s, the team never found success with him at quarterback. 

That changed when Brees came to town. 

Brees joined the Saints in 2006 after not being guaranteed a starting job with the San Diego Chargers – the team that drafted him with the 32nd overall pick of the 2001 NFL Draft – after he suffered a devastating shoulder injury in the 2005 season finale. Despite helping the Chargers capture the 2004 AFC West title while earning his first of 13 Pro Bowl selections, his future with the franchise was uncertain with a shoulder to rehab and a young Philip Rivers waiting in the wings. 

The Saints offered him a starting job, and Brees not only seized that opportunity in rebuilding a struggling franchise, he also took it upon himself to help a proud city rebuild from the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. 

In one of the most intense storms in United States history, Katrina decimated New Orleans when it made landfall in August 2005. A damaged Superdome initially served as a shelter to displaced residents and was in no shape to host NFL games, forcing the Saints to play home games in San Antonio, Baton Rouge and even New York. 

Shortly after arriving in New Orleans, Brees and his wife, Brittany, created the Drew Brees Dream Foundation, raising millions of dollars for rebuilding efforts from Katrina, as well as programmes for children and adults with special needs, and child-care facilities. 

While aiding in the relief efforts of Katrina, his first season in New Orleans coincided with Sean Payton's first as coach, and the two teamed up to create one of the league's most dangerous offenses and galvanize a city that had been battered. 

After the Saints went 3-13 during their nomadic 2005 season, Brees led them to a seven-win improvement and an NFC South Division title, while throwing for a league-leading 4,418 passing yards – his first of seven seasons to lead the NFL in passing yards. Only two other QBs have led the league in passing yards more than once in this span – Brady in 2007 and 2017 and Roethlisberger in 2014 and 2018. 

Brees and the Saints brought joy to a community that had been through so much, but their storybook season ended at the hands of the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship Game. 

Three seasons later, however, Brees would finally bring a championship to the title-starved city. 

Led by the NFL's number one scoring offense, the Saints were nearly unstoppable, winning their first 13 games while exciting an already excitable city. They marched all the way to the Super Bowl, rallying for a 31-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts on February 7, 2010.  

Brees was named the game's MVP after tying Brady's Super Bowl record with 32 completions while throwing two touchdowns without an interception.  

If winning a title was not enough for a fervent fanbase, Brees further endeared himself to the people of New Orleans when he popped up in a bar packed with Saints fans after the team's Super Bowl parade and taught them the words to the cheer he would lead his teammates through before every game of their championship season. Video of the call-and-response chant between the quarterback and the fans went viral as he worked the crowd into a frenzy with Brees exchanging high-fives and handshakes. 

Less than 10 months after winning the Super Bowl, Brees was honoured as Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year, a culmination of sorts for his play on the field as well as his charitable work off it. 

In the magazine's Sportsman of the Year article, Saints tackle Jon Stinchcomb was quoted as saying, "People come up to Drew and don't say, 'Congratulations.' They say, 'Thank you. Thank you for coming here.'" 

While Brees was never able to lead the Saints back to a championship, the franchise has consistently been one of the NFL's best. 

Since 2006, only three teams have more regular-season wins than the Saints' 150 – the Patriots (181), the Packers (153) and the Steelers (153) – and New Orleans' 49 victories since 2017 are the most in the NFL. 

Despite being a quadragenarian for the past few seasons, there had been little statistical drop-off in Brees' production. He led the league in completion percentage in 2017, 2018 and 2019 before finishing second this past season, and finished in the top two in passer rating in 2017, 2018 and 2019 before a sixth-placed finish in 2020. 

This past season, however, was one of the most trying for Brees. Although he got off to a stellar start to his 20th professional season, he suffered multiple rib fractures and a collapsed right lung in Week 10, putting his future in the NFL into question. Although he missed only four games and played well at times during the final three weeks of the regular season, he had one of the worst performances of his postseason career in New Orleans' 30-20 loss to Brady the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a Divisional Round game on January 17. 

Hours after throwing three interceptions and a playoff career-low 134 yards, Brees was back on the Superdome turf in street clothes with his wife and four children soaking in what would be the end of a long and emotional ride with the Saints.   

Brees achieved sainthood in New Orleans through his inspirational work in the community in helping a city rebuild, along with transforming the city's beloved football team into a winner. 

An iconic image from the Saints' celebration on the field following their Super Bowl win was Brees lifting his one-year-old son Baylen – who was wearing giant noise-cancelling headphones and a Saints jersey with his dad's name and number on the back – high over his head as confetti fell on them.  

Nearly 11 years later, Brees and Baylen shared another poignant father-son moment. 

Following the playoff loss to the Buccaneers, the quarterback dad played catch with his kids on the Superdome turf - a lasting images of Brees before he exited the Superdome leaving behind an unparalleled legacy.

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