- Aug 18, 2005
January 29, 2006
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – There is no sling.
And as he raced up a flight of stairs after greeting a visitor at St. Vincent's Hospital three days ago, Drew Brees wanted to make clear that his rehabilitation is three weeks ahead of schedule.
Since that day marked three weeks since the surgery to repair the torn labrum in Brees' throwing shoulder, quick math indicates he is doubling time, essentially cutting his projected recovery in half. Heck, he should be throwing a football by Valentine's Day.
Alas, you cannot hasten healing. No amount of work will get Brees throwing before the end of April.
If such a miracle were possible, there can be little doubt it would be accomplished by the man who is running around this hospital, talking just as rapidly.
He expected to be in a sling, unable to move his arm for a month. For more than a week now he has worn the sling only to bed. He still does everything with his left hand – including holding chopsticks, which is impressive. But while that right arm is not yet useful, it is free. He holds it gingerly at times, only to protect it when people are close.
“There are guys that get hurt and wait for (the recovery) to happen,” said physical therapist Kevin Wilk. “He's making it happen.”
Brees spends almost eight hours a day on the campus of St. Vincent's, more than four of those hours in the company of Wilk, stretching and strengthening the shoulder that could once again carry the Chargers' fate. During the other four, he works on his legs and core, eats and makes phone calls.
“He's really ahead of schedule,” Wilk said. “He's just really doing a great job.”
Between his morning and afternoon therapy sessions on Thursday, Brees took time for lunch. It wasn't long before Brees wondered aloud (right along with the rest of San Diego) about the latest on his pending contract negotiations.
Brees and his agent are awaiting a call from the Chargers.
The team is expected to contact agent Tom Condon this week with an initial proposal for a long-term deal.
General Manager A.J. Smith reiterated this past week that he plans to decide whether to designate Brees as the Chargers' franchise or (more likely) transition player at least a week before the Feb. 23 deadline to do so.
That means that the two sides – a notoriously hard-line franchise and one of the NFL's top agents – have about two weeks to come to an agreement. Smith did not deny that leaves little time to reach common ground, nor did he dispute that negotiations could be complicated by uncertainty.
The day before Brees sat in the St. Vincent's cafeteria, Smith reclined in the bleachers of Ladd-Peebles Stadium 250 miles south in Mobile, Ala., watching a Senior Bowl practice. He said he is “concerned” about the “medical issues” involving Brees and pointed out there is no guarantee Brees will be at full strength for training camp.
Even without being told of that appraisal, Brees volunteered that he knows what people are thinking.
“I'm just kind of laughing to myself,” he said. “They want to see it again, I'll show them again.”
And so the theme continues.
Kid barely makes the freshman team in high school, ends up never losing a high school game; tears his ACL in the playoffs his junior year but comes back to lead team to the Texas state championship his senior season.
Too short, he really only gets recruited by one major college. He takes Purdue to the Rose Bowl.
Drafted in the second round by the Chargers in 2001. Struggles. Is essentially replaced before the 2004 season and ends up leading team to a 12-4 record and its first playoff berth in almost a decade. Backs up one-year contract with another solid season in 2005.
Team says it wants him around long term, but the love isn't overwhelming. So even if Brees hadn't had his shoulder ripped from its socket in the season's final game, there would be uncertainty about his future.
Of course, Brees would like it to be a little easier.
But he smiles and says, “If it was easy, it wouldn't be fun.”
With Brees, at this point, it doesn't even sound like a cliché.
“You have to create challenges every year,” he said. “I didn't create this challenge. This is a little extreme. But I was going to create a challenge anyway so that I could once again rise to the occasion.”
The way Brees sees it – and nothing less would be expected of a man who sweats optimism – all that has changed is that he started early on his preparation for next season.
He and his wife, Brittany, have been staying with her parents in Birmingham. (They will return to San Diego today.)
Every morning, Brees' father-in-law has dropped him off at St. Vincent's and then picked him up in the afternoon.
“It's like I'm going to school every day,” Brees said. “He makes sure I have my lunch money.”
It hasn't been all smiles for Brees.
ESPN is on constantly in the room where Brees does his rehabilitation, so he has watched the NFL playoff coverage again and again and thought, “We should be there.”
He watched the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic last week and knew “I would be playing in that.”
He also knows that because of Carson Palmer's knee injury he would be making his second consecutive trip to the Pro Bowl.
And his mind has drifted forward to March and April, when he would be throwing at the Chargers' practice facility with his receivers, lifting weights with the rest of the players.
“We're all human,” he said. “But why beat yourself over the head about that stuff?”
The quarterback whose passer rating over the past two seasons is second in franchise history only to the best two-year stretch put together by Hall of Famer Dan Fouts, believes with everything in him that he will be better than ever come July.
Who tells him this?
He jabs his chest and says, “Me.”
Later, Wilk, one of the country's top specialists in the rehabilitation of shoulders, supported Brees' contention that his advanced early progress bodes well for the ultimate recovery.
Brees concentrates exclusively on the positive and what lies ahead.
“Every day I see the future,” he said. “I know where I'm going to be. I picture myself down the road leading this team, holding up the Lombardi Trophy – in a Chargers uniform.”
He understands that being designated a franchise or transition player would allow him to negotiate with other teams. He knows the transition tag is what gives both sides the most flexibility.
But he truly wants to grow old with Brittany in San Diego. He wants to raise their children there. (That family was to get started about now, but the couple wants to wait and see where they will be.)
And too much has happened in blue and gold for him to see the future in any other colors.
“I've been through the ups and downs, the real lows and the real highs,” he said. “I'm a part of building that foundation. The people in San Diego, the fans. I remember when I was drafted there and John Butler called me and said, 'Do you still want to be a Charger?'
“I remember when LT and I saw each other in the lobby (the day after being drafted), two Texas guys who had followed each other's careers. We said we're going to turn this thing around. That sticks with me. We made a pact. It hasn't been an easy road. I have so much invested. I want to continue.”
He is idealistic, not unrealistic.
“If that happens, it happens, and this has just been a steppingstone to something bigger and better,” he said of his leaving for another team. “In my heart I don't believe that's the case. I believe all my hopes and dreams are going to happen in San Diego.”
That is where his mind drifts at times during those hours of rehab.
But mostly, there is this thought: “I've got to do more than I did yesterday.”
The first thing Brees does when he returns from lunch is apply heat to his shoulder for about 10 minutes. For the next two hours he alternates stretching and exercising. Brees grimaces, and his muscles twitch as he pushes against pressure applied by Wilk.
Wilk says softly, again and again, “Good. Good”
As he moved through his workout Thursday, Brees explained his progress, holding his arm at certain angles and explaining what he could not do just a short while ago.
It is almost funny to see a professional athlete working out in such slow motion.
As he worked a rope-and-pulley contraption, Brees acknowledged, “I feel like a grandma.”
The excitement is in the progress.
“A week-and-a-half ago I had a problem even getting it up to here,” he said, holding his arm at eye level before continuing on over his head. “Every day I think, like on this exercise, 'Go a little higher' ”
Brees and Wilk will meet with Chargers trainer James Collins this week to go over the plan for Brees' rehab in San Diego. Brees will return to Birmingham periodically to check in with Wilk and Dr. James Andrews, the renowned orthopedist who performed the surgery. Brees knows by the time he comes back to Alabama at the end of April, he will be antsy to start throwing.
Already, especially with the blue skies above Birmingham on this day, he is frustrated by his inability to engage in another sport, one he has time to play only in the offseason.
Brees asked Andrews shortly after the procedure, “I know it's four months until I can throw, but when can I play golf?”
On Thursday afternoon, a short while into his rehab session, he took a wedge from Wilk and swung it back and forth as if chipping from just off a green.
“This is three weeks,” he said.
He stopped and stepped toward his guest with his arms out in such a way as to challenge him to be impressed.
“Three weeks,” he said. “C'mon.”