Krannert Magazine caught up with New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees on a phone interview last spring, and again during his annual visit to campus over the summer. Among other topics, the management alumnus reflected on how life has changed since winning the Super Bowl, his time at Purdue, his place among the University’s famed “Cradle of Quarterbacks,” his new book and fatherhood.
Krannert Magazine: You’ve earned great respect from your peers both on and off the field. What is your philosophy on leadership?
Drew Brees: One of my favorite quotes is, “Your actions speak so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.” As quarterback of my team, I know people are looking to me for direction, guidance and leadership, so I set the best example I can. Everybody wants to be great, but that takes work, and I would never ask my teammates to do something I’m not willing to do myself. They know I’ll be the first one at practice and the last to leave. It’s about consistency. When you get to game day and need to find a way to pull through, you lean on the trust and confidence you have in your teammates and the knowledge that they’ve put in the time, want to be the best, and are ready to work together. You build that by representing the right things and by acting on what you say.
KM: The world of sports is often used as a metaphor for business. From that perspective, how is being an NFL quarterback like being a CEO?
DB: You have to manage people. You have to understand the strengths of the people you are working with. Everybody on your team has a role, and each role is just as important as the other. Your role as a business manager or a quarterback is to put your team or your company in the best position to succeed. And what that means is utilizing the strengths of each person. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses, and what you try to do is put everybody in the best position to succeed by utilizing their strengths.
KM: Your time at Purdue was filled with many accomplishments. What do you remember most about being on the gridiron in West Lafayette?
DB: Aside from playing in the Rose Bowl, the first thing that comes to mind is that the student body rushed the field on three occasions during my senior year in 2000. How cool is that? And not just from a player’s perspective, but for the students and the University. It was a thrill for everybody. I even have a picture hanging up in my office of everybody rushing the field after the IU game. That’s still one of my most vivid memories.
KM: What do you remember most about your time as a Krannert student?
DB: Going to one of the top business schools in the country was a great opportunity and honor. Krannert has a strong reputation, as does Purdue University in general. I built a lot of good relationships with many of the professors, classmates and teammates I worked with in courses or on projects at Krannert, and felt like I was always getting a great business education.
KM: The photo of you holding your son, Baylen, after winning the Super Bowl has become almost iconic. What was that experience like?
DB: Without a doubt, that will forever be one of the greatest moments of my life. I always dreamed about winning a Super Bowl and holding up the Vince Lombardi Trophy, but little did I know that I’d have a 1-year-old son to share it with. At the time, it felt like we were the only two people on earth — until the next day when just about every major news outlet in the country had the picture. We’ve joked that he’s going to have “show and tell” dominated at least through eighth grade. He can walk in and say, “Does anybody else have a cover of Sports Illustrated?” We also did a Pampers commercial in January and threw out the first pitch at a Yankees game in New York on Father’s Day. We’ve gotten a chance to do some unbelievable things and he’s been a part of all of it.
KM: You and your wife, Brittany, are expecting another son in October. How has becoming a father changed you?
DB: Being a father absolutely puts more emphasis on being a great role model. When I think about my son and the little boy we have on the way, I think about the example I want to set for my children. Becoming a parent gives you unbelievable perspective on how you’re going to live your life, how you want to carry yourself, and the legacy you want to leave.
KM: You and Brittany devote a lot of time and resources to the Brees Dream Foundation. How does that reflect your approach to philanthropy and service?
DB: I feel like I’ve been blessed with a lot in my life, with some wonderful opportunities and great people to help me along the way, some great mentors and teachers. So I’m just trying to give back what’s been given to me, to provide those same opportunities to others. That’s why we do so much for our foundation. Since 2003, we’ve been able to raise or commit more than $5.5 million, serving mainly the communities of New Orleans, Lafayette-West Lafayette and San Diego. I feel that we’ve been able to make a very strong impact, and that we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of what we can accomplish through the foundation, and the number of lives we can touch. Giving back is very important to me. I take as much pride in that as anything I do on the field. I believe that to whom much is given much is required, and I’m just trying to pass it forward.
KM: Professional athletes sometimes forget their roots, but year after year, you return to your alma mater. Why is that so important to you?
DB: Purdue helped mold me into the person that I am. The University gave me a great education, the chance to play football in the Big Ten, win a conference championship and go to the Rose Bowl, and the opportunity to play in the NFL. So I really appreciate coming back to continue the partnerships I’ve built in the community with PEFCU (Purdue Employees Federal Credit Union), the PALS (Purdue Athletes Life Success) program and Purdue.
KM: You’ve had a lot of great mentors in your career, including Coach Tiller. What’s special about that relationship?
DB: Coach Tiller was the one who gave me the chance to come to Purdue. When he came here from Wyoming in December of 1996, no one was recruiting me. He assumed other schools were interested in me, but it was a Big Ten program and a great school, so he thought, “Hey, we might have a chance at getting this guy.” It’s like the feeling I have with the Saints; not very many teams wanted me coming off my injury, but New Orleans did, so I feel a tremendous sense of loyalty to Coach Tiller and Purdue for giving me the opportunity. Being away from home was a good thing because you’re forced to grow up very quickly. But the important thing is that you’re around the right type of people that can really help. You’re at a very impressionable age at that time, going from being a boy to a man, and you need mentorship. Coach Tiller, as well as other coaches and teammates, provided that for me. They were the type of guys who cared about school and the team and were good examples for each other. They all taught me some valuable lessons along the way.
KM: What bond do you share with other NFL greats from Purdue, as well as current players?
DB: I didn’t know about the “Cradle of Quarterbacks” until I began my playing career at Purdue. It’s amazing how many great quarterbacks have played at Purdue. Any time you can follow in the footsteps of guys like Lenny Dawson, Bob Griese, Mike Phipps, Gary Danielson, Mark Herrmann, and Jim Everett, it’s special. The fact that we all played at a high level on the field, but also challenged ourselves academically, made significant contributions in the classroom, and graduated from such a prestigious university adds to that tradition. It also tells you a lot about the type of student-athletes now at Purdue, who take as much pride in their academics as they do in their on-the-field performance.
KM: Purdue is now one of only two universities in NFL history to have produced three Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks. What’s it like being part of that fraternity?
DB: It’s funny because about two years ago, someone brought up a trivia question about the three universities to have three quarterbacks who had started or played in the Super Bowl, let alone win it. At the time, I think it was Alabama, Notre Dame and Cal. Then I started thinking — Purdue has Len Dawson, Bob Griese, and, well, we needed a third. So I took that trivia question as a challenge and as motivation to join the club. I felt like I had to uphold my end of the bargain and carry on Purdue’s great tradition.
KM: After winning Super Bowl XLIV and earning MVP honors for the game, your off-season has been a whirlwind. How do you make room for everything?
DB: Time management is key. The biggest challenge is balancing what I have to do for my job as the quarterback of a football team, what we do in the community through our foundation, and my family. To me, family time is the most important and most valuable; you can’t get that back.
KM: Expectations are high for the Saints this season. How do you handle those pressures?
DB: As hard as it is to go from worst to first, from the bottom to the top, it’s even harder to maintain that position. Human nature can make you feel a sense of entitlement, that you can step on the field and win by default. But if anything, it’s the exact opposite, especially in the NFL. Of the last 10 teams to win the Super Bowl, five have not even made the playoffs the next year. I think it all starts with the right people and the right type of leadership, which we have. Then it becomes about getting better and making sure on a daily basis that you continue to improve, even on the little things. It’s the little things that win championships in our league.
KM: Your book, “Coming Back Stronger: Unleashing the Hidden Power of Adversity,” is already a bestseller. What is it about and what inspired you to write it?
DB: It mainly focuses on the last four years in New Orleans. After winning the Super Bowl, I started to reflect on my journey and how the city, its team, and its fans helped me get to where I am. It also goes back to my time at Purdue, where I learned many of those valuable lessons, as well as my childhood and high school years. It’s meant to be a motivational story about the people and events that have inspired me.
KM: What’s your best advice for current students and those beginning their professional careers, whether in business or sports?
DB: It’s not going to be easy. You’re going to face adversity along the way. It’s inevitable — it happens to everyone. But instead of looking at that adversity as a negative, look at it as a positive, because adversity is what creates opportunity. A lot of the time, it’s the adversity you face in your life that shapes you and molds you, and turns you into the person you’re meant to be. It allows you to accomplish things greater than you ever thought possible. As you work through life’s challenges, keep your head up, stay positive, stick it out, and have trust in the plan and the process. No matter how difficult a situation seems, if you work hard and do it the right way, good things will happen.