A Saint in the City: No Off-Season as Brees Helps New Orleans Rebuild
By the Associated Press
Drew Brees decided his adopted hometown would be an ideal place for fraternity brothers to experience two key aspects of Greek life: community service and partying.
Brees arranged downtown hotel rooms for more than 75 Sigma Chi fraternity brothers from universities around the country and Canada so that they could work on a handful of Habitat for Humanity houses in the city’s “musician’s village” in the Upper Ninth Ward. Brees was a Sigma Chi at Purdue.
In a still-reeling neighborhood that flooded during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the fraternity brothers spent last week hammering nails and painting from the early morning until late afternoon, then were encouraged by Brees to enjoy their evenings in the French Quarter.
“I wanted them to walk away from this with the rewarding experience of working here,” Brees said Thursday, “but also going to their friends, their fraternity brothers and their family and saying: ‘Man, New Orleans is such a fun town. Go down there and experience what we experienced, because that city is a special one.’
“I tell them all the great restaurants to go to, all the great things to experience, and obviously, they’re college kids, so they’re doing a little bit of partying. They’re really soaking up all that New Orleans has to offer.”
By choosing to play in storm-weary New Orleans as a free agent in 2006, and by often speaking publicly about how he has enjoyed living in the city’s historic Uptown section, Brees became popular among local fans even before he helped the Saints reach their first National Football Conference championship game last season.
While Brees led the N.F.L. in passing and made the Pro Bowl, he won accolades for his work off the field. He was the co-recipient of the Walter Payton Man of the Year award for contributions to the community.
Early last season, Brees and his teammate Deuce McAllister were hosts for a cocktail party that raised money to restore Pan American Stadium, a flood-damaged high school football field. He donated time to help landscape a school and helped renovate an N.F.L.-sponsored youth center. He restored a van belonging to Children’s Hospital, read to children, gave away 300 bicycles at Christmas, appeared in televised public service announcements and served as the pitchman for a line of fleur de lis jewelry, the sales of which generated money for charitable causes.
Next weekend, he and several teammates will take more than 30 patients from Children’s Hospital, some of them fighting cancer, on a fishing trip to the small town of Venice, near the mouth of the Mississippi River.
“It’s a sportsman’s paradise — some of the best fishing in the country,” Brees said. “And when you see the look on these kids’ faces when they catch a fish — some of them have never caught a fish in their life, and sometimes that’s the best therapy, as good as any medicine you could give them.”
Brees, who also traveled to the Middle East during this off-season to meet with American soldiers, wore camouflage shorts and a similar hat as he pounded away at nails on a hot, sunny day. He said he decided to forgo helping with roof work, citing the Saints’ first minicamp coming up in less than a month.
McAllister and tight end Mark Campbell also stopped by to thank the volunteers, pose for pictures and sign autographs.
Meanwhile, Brees also has his Brees Dream Foundation joining with a group called Operation Kids to raise $2 million for various other projects around the city.
“We’ve got about six projects here in town we’ve identified — schools or parks or fields that we’re trying to renovate — just to help kids,” he said.
The homes they worked on last week are modest but cheerful-looking one-story units, similar to the long, narrow “shotgun double” homes that historically stood in the neighborhood. They have small front porches and are brightly painted. The new homes remain surrounded by unoccupied gutted homes with overgrown yards, water-stained siding and torn-up roofs.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” said Chris Springstun, who will be a senior at Purdue. “I’m sure people come down here all the time and do things like Drew’s doing. But if more people who have credibility like he does do that kind of stuff, you’ll get more people down here. You’ll get more projects started.”
He said he was grateful to Brees for providing an opportunity for him to help rebuild the area. The students in his group had to pay their own way to New Orleans, but Brees, through an array of bartering agreements, took care of most meals, transportation and lodging.
On Thursday, Brees talked the owner of one of his favorite restaurants into sending charbroiled oysters to the work site at lunchtime.
“It would be hard for me to say no to Drew,” said Tommy Cvitanovich, whose family runs the popular Drago’s restaurant.
Cvitanovich said he wanted to thank the volunteers and to help Brees promote New Orleans.
“The best way they can help our city,” Cvitanovich said of the volunteers, “is going back and telling their friends to come back and spend a weekend. Nothing helps this city more than letting us earn our keep now.”