What Brees could have meant to San Diego
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What Brees could have meant to San Diego

Fate sent Brees to save an NFL franchise and an owner's legacy in New Orleans

Photo: Drew Brees in the Chargers' popular powder blue jerseys.

As the ageless Drew Brees continued his milestone tour, his NFL records overlapped with the historic Navy-Notre Dame series visiting San Diego.  It reminds me fate prevented Brees from saving his city’s NFL franchise.

I mean San Diego, not New Orleans – the one he actually saved when he joined the Saints in 2006 and led them to the 2009 season’s Super Bowl title.

The Navy-Notre Dame game on Oct. 27 in a Navy town needed an ambassador to complement events that celebrated football, but with the Chargers having abandoned ship for Los Angeles in 2017, the NFL left a void for such a professional figure.

Imagine Brees a the captain of the Chargers the week of the Navy-Notre Dame game. He’s flown across the world to visit troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’d make time to travel across town to welcome the Midshipmen and the Irish.

But the Chargers abandonment of their home since 1961 left ill will among fans that I felt was personified by words Navy starting offensive lineman Chris Gesell, a San Diegan enjoying a homecoming out of St. Augustine High, told me.

Everything felt so close to perfect for him to square off against Notre Dame on the same field he had watched as a kid the Chargers grace – except, of course, for the fact the stadium is no longer home to the Chargers.

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“I idolized the Chargers growing up,” Gesell said before playing Notre Dame. “It will be cool to step on the same field they played. But I was very disappointed when they moved. I couldn’t follow them up to Los Angeles, especially the way the ownership was. I’m not a fan anymore.”

Gesell reminded me the roots of my “what ifs” for Brees and San Diego began with scene I was privy to when the San Diego Chargers opened their 2005 training camp. Players and coaches assembled in their covered outdoor multi-purpose room at Chargers Park as Brees, and Brees alone, took the podium.

I can’t remember his exact words, but he was clearly the team leader. He authoritatively declared to a rapt audience who the Chargers were and what they stood for as a team and an organization. He seemed presidential, with the weight of the returning starting quarterback that led the Chargers to the 2004 AFC West title. It was their first playoff trip since 1995.

The Chargers, who always struggled with relating to the community under the tone death Alex Spanos and his family since he purchased it in 1984, were riding a crest of popularity at the time. Brees had the personality and the comfort level with the media to build on the optimism.

All that remained was for the Chargers to keep winning, allowing Brees to be the face of the program. In turn, the Spanos family could quietly remain in the background to prevent their knack for alienating fans.

At that time, the Chargers pitched a new Super Bowl-caliber stadium in Mission Valley that was only projected at $400,000 million. But when the Chargers were unable to capitalize on putting together a Super Bowl run in 2005 or 2006, prices soon soared.

There was the economic crash of 2008 and rising steel prices. Now, the Chargers are scheduled to be tenants of a Los Angeles stadium built by the Los Angeles Rams owner that is ticketed at $2.6 billion.

Back to when fate intervened in 2005. A slow start, despite a 41-17 win at defending Super Bowl champion New England for a 2-2 record, injuries and a flu virus in the locker room before a late-season loss to the lowly Miami Dolphins led to a 9-7 season.

The main injury was to Brees’ shoulder in a loss at home in the regular-season finale to the Denver Broncos. That changed the calculations on whether the Chargers would keep Brees or Philip Rivers going forward. Rivers wasn’t interested in a third season as a backup after he was a first-round pick in 2004.

Rivers had been drafted in 2004 because Brees hadn’t yet shown in 2001, 2002 and 2003 what he ended up accomplishing in 2004 with the Chargers and later for the Saints from 2006 through what is now his 18th NFL season on the way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But if Brees had developed one year earlier, maybe the Chargers don’t draft a quarterback in 2004. But even with Brees and Rivers on their roster, maybe the Chargers cast their future in 2006 with Brees had he remained healthy.

That’s not a knock on Rivers. Rivers is the prototype for a face to a program. The only thing he likes is post-season success.

But maybe Brees, a veteran quarterback in 2006, doesn’t allow the Chargers to be upset in the playoffs by New England. Rivers was a first-year starter when the 14-2 Chargers, with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, mysteriously came up flat and unceremoniously exited the tournament.

Despite the gaudy record, the Chargers had survived several close calls that season, including 27-20 win at home in the regular-season finale over the hapless Arizona Cardinals that resulted in the dismissal of Dennis Green.

With a Super Bowl title in 2006, Brees’ engaging personality that pushes public good would served him as the face of the franchise. And with the Spanos family’s warts painted over, maybe the new stadium is approved by the voters. It would have been similar to how the Padres had Petco Park approved with success following the 1998 World Series.

Yeah, that’s a lot of “what ifs,” but that’s a part of what makes sports fascinating. And in this case it would have prevented the Chargers from seeking excuses to find a new home in Los Angeles.

Dreaming about what Brees could have possibly managed in San Diego is backed up by an established track record – and more – in New Orleans. The Saints signed him in 2006, the year the city rebuilt from Hurricane Katrina and the team returned to the Superdome from playing 2005 games in San Antonio.

Brees, Saints coach Sean Payton and the city of New Orleans turned out to be a perfect match. Brees, then 27 years old, and his wife Brittany bought a historic home in Uptown, an area rebuilding from Katrina.

Brees was now a symbol of rebuilding the franchise and the city. His on-and-off-field legacy was cemented as the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV, beating Indianapolis, 31-17.

In 2010, Sports Illustrated called Brees “an athlete adored and appreciated as any in an American city today.”

The late Saints owner Tom Benson, who flirted with moving the franchise in 2001, is remembered a lot more fondly than he would have been without Brees in New Orleans.

Brees might have done the same for the Chargers, San Diego and the Spanos family, but only if fate had not intervened and taken Brees away to save another franchise, another city and another owner’s legacy.

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I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055

Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu

-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.


David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer; "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."

Click here for the link to order from August Publications

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan is an award-winning sportswriter and the author of "Raye of Light". Tom spent the bulk of his career in San DIego writing for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has covered NCAA Tournaments, Super Bowls, Rose Bowls, the NBA Finals and the World Series in a career that included writing for Voice of San Diego, the San Diego Hall of Champions and Chargers.com. He contributes to the Detroit Free Press, Raleigh News & Observer, MLB.com, Rivals.com and the National Football Foundation's Football Matters. He won multiple first-place awards from the San Diego Press Club and first place from the Copley News Service Ring of Truth Awards. The National Football Foundation/San Diego Chapter presented him its Distinguished American Award in 2003. USA Track and Field’s San Diego Chapter presented its President’s Award in 2000.

Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the integration of college football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans. It explains Duffy Daugherty's pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.

By Tom Shanahan; Foreword by Tony Dungy; August Publications

David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer: "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."