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Brees Reborn as a Saint

NEW ORLEANS - Sean Payton pops up from behind his office desk at the New Orleans Saints headquarters to retrieve a book from his coffee table. It's a gift from his quarterback, Drew Brees, titled 212: The Extra Degree. The inscription underscores the bond between the coach and his quarterback.

Brees gave Payton the book when training camp began last summer to thank the coach for convincing him to come in March 2006 to this Hurricane Katrina-ravaged city and become on-field leader of a lost franchise. The Saints went 63-97 from 1996 to 2005.

His thank-you reads in part: You are the reason that I am here and I appreciate that every day. . . . I want to win a championship for you.

"That (inscription) re-energizes what you do as a coach and teacher," Payton says. "At 211 degrees, water is just scalding hot. But at 212, it boils. It's the significance of one extra degree. Everything about Drew's preparation is about that extra degree."

Payton, who played quarterback in the Canadian and Arena leagues as well as for the 1987 Chicago Bears, and Brees are kindred spirits who have built the league's most explosive offense, averaging 40 points a game.

"Drew and Sean have such a special relationship," says Brees' wife, Brittany. "They're so similar, such hard workers. They weren't the biggest or strongest. But they're smart guys who are going to figure out a way to win."

Brees is eager to honor that championship pledge. The 3-0 Saints look to bolster that chance if they can pass their toughest test yet Sunday against the 3-0 New York Jets and coach Rex Ryan's "Organized Chaos" blitzes.

"Am I going to throw for 5,000 yards this year? Probably not," says Brees, whose 5,069 yards last season were second most to Dan Marino's 5,084 in 1984. "But I'll know I did certain things to advance as a quarterback and a leader, the guy who touches the ball every play and does everything I can to help this team.

"I want to hoist that (Lombardi) trophy."

Brees has tallied 14,751 passing yards and 97 touchdowns after a grueling rehabilitation from throwing shoulder surgery following the final game of his five seasons with the San Diego Chargers. No quarterback - not the New England Patriots' Tom Brady nor New Orleans natives Peyton nor Eli Manning - has thrown for more yards or touchdowns or tallied the 25 300-yard games Brees has since signing his six-year, $60 million deal.

Payton tells the quintessential Brees story.

"A year ago during the bye week, players are getting out of here. I was leaving the building on Sunday, and out on the field I see this guy in shorts with a ball," Payton says.

"It's Brees out there by himself, Sunday, 1:30. And I say, 'What are you doing?'

"He says, 'I'm just trying to stay in my routine, simulate a game, so my body is still in condition.' "

That mock game is one explanation why Brees has crashed the Brady-Peyton Manning talk on who is the top quarterback.

"Drew just outworks everybody," linebacker Scott Fujita says. "He's a guy's guy, not one of those pretty boy, prima donna quarterbacks."

Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey says Brees, the 2008 offensive player of the year, has a knack for frustrating defenses.

"He's a special player," Shockey says. "You can actually cover and guard everything, but he can put it in places where people can't do anything and it looks like you're covered."

With nine touchdowns, Brees - the NFC offensive player of the month - is on pace for 48, two shy of Brady's 2007 season record. He has thrown two interceptions and leads the league with a 118.1 passer rating, completing 67 of 97 for 841 yards.

"Drew is like Tiger Woods right now; he's on fire," says former running back Deuce McAllister, who shared the Saints backfield with Brees from 2006 to 2008.

Family and community man

Brees has special inspiration - 8 1/2-month-old son Baylen Robert, born on Brees' 30th birthday, Jan. 15. Baylen attended his first game Sept. 13, the Saints' 45-27 season-opening win against the Detroit Lions.

The first-time father threw a career-best six touchdowns. "He got to see daddy do something he'd never done," Brees says.

Brees says Baylen's hand-eye coordination is unbelievable. "He's going to be tall and lanky," he says.

Maybe taller than dad. Scouts consider the 6-0, 209-pound Austin native short for a quarterback. Brees once beat tennis star Andy Roddick as a teenager and flashes smooth footwork in the pocket.

It seems Brees has a sixth sense for the right move.

"Coming to New Orleans is the best thing we ever did," Brees says. "It was truly a calling. Look at everything that's happened: I took my career to the next level, starting a family happened here.

"We've taken our Brees Dream Foundation to a nationally respected level, raised $4 1/2 million here, in San Diego and in West Lafayette, Ind." He starred at Purdue.

Things are moving a little slower in his adopted hometown.

"There's still a lot to be done," Brees says of New Orleans. "A lot of people look at it as an opportunity to rebuild things better. It's getting better a little at a time."

Committed to New Orleans

Brees is more average Joe than "Broadway" Joe Namath, the Jets icon. He has a 120-year-old house in the city's oldest neighborhood. His idea of a night out is taking a walk with Brittany, Baylen and their dog, Alexis.

He usually turns down endorsement offers unless they promote his foundation, which is dedicated to helping children with cancer and upgrading schools and playing fields for post-Katrina challenged youth.

The Lusher Charter School the Breeses helped transform three years ago will dedicate its football-baseball field Oct. 20 as "Brees Family Field."

One of Brees' young fans is Micah Roshell, 12, who is battling Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Micah's mother, Val, says she recalls the January day Brees and "a very pregnant Brittany" walked into Micah's hospital room and granted his wish to see his hero.

"Micah was very depressed because he knew his time was coming to an end," his mother says. "But when Drew came in with Brittany, I started screaming, 'Drew Brees is here!'

"Micah woke up and started talking to Drew. They began to play the Wii games. The two of them were inseparable."

Brees wore a mask because Micah's immune system was so weak. Micah won every game.

"After his visit, my son began to do what Drew Brees does every Sunday: He continues to fight and win," Roshell says. "Three weeks ago, we went to the clinic, and nobody recognized Micah. He looked that different."

Says Micah, "Drew told me to keep fighting."

Micah is healthy enough to have a November bone marrow transplant.

"That is awesome," Brees says. "Sometimes, the best treatment for some of these kids is not the medicine. It's the ability to put a smile on their face, to give them hope in a different way."

Says Fox analyst and Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman: "Saints safety Darren Sharper said he's played with Brett Favre in his prime in Green Bay, and Darren would take Drew Brees over Brett Favre in his prime.

"Drew's embraced the city since he arrived, and New Orleans has embraced him. Brees and Payton got there at the same time. It's the perfect marriage."

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers bought a San Diego home in April and trained with a group that included Brees, who trains each offseason with San Diego fitness guru Todd Durkin.

Brees, a three-time Pro Bowler, led the twice-weekly throwing sessions that included Rodgers, Jeff Garcia (released by the Philadelphia Eagles this week), the St. Louis Rams' Kyle Boller, Carolina Panthers veteran A.J. Feeley and Jets backup Kevin O'Connell.

"Drew's such an engaging personality, it's no surprise what a great leader he is," says Rodgers, who learned why Brees was sacked 13 times in 635 attempts last season.

"Already knowing the pocket presence he has and seeing him work on his internal clock when there's no rush, I picked up a lot," Rodgers says. "Big-time player. Big-time person."

It's a sentiment echoed on the streets of New Orleans.

"That grit Drew plays with, it's very much the personification of this city," says life-long Saints fan Mickey Triche, 45. "We have the mayoral elections (in February). Brees could win as a write-in candidate. Brees is one of us."

Brees knows politics is not the way he'll cement his place in New Orleans history.

"He knows that your legacy is your wins and winning a Super Bowl," Payton says. "That's ultimately how quarterbacks and coaches are remembered."

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