SALT LAKE CITY — New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees already has a Super Bowl championship to his name and established himself as one of the greatest signal callers to ever play the game of football.
That won’t stop him from taking things easy, though. The 40-year-old signal caller is still laser-focused on improving, and part of the reason is to set a great example for his family.
“Regardless of what I do after football — there’s so many things I want to do — it’s kind of with a constant theme. I want to challenge myself. I want to maintain a growth mindset,” Brees said Wednesday during a keynote address at Domo’s annual event in Salt Lake City. “I value personal experiences, so I want to do things that are maybe outside of my comfort zone. I want to challenge myself, not just for my own personal growth but for what I can teach my kids and the way that can carry over into other things in my life.”
Brees won a Super Bowl with the Saints in 2010, when he and his wife had just one child. He loves that his children — there are now four — are old enough to enjoy the football journey with him.
“I love that my kids are old enough that they can be a part of it now. I’ve got three boys that are 10, 8 and 6 and a little girl who’s 4. She’s a pistol now — I’m in so much trouble. Having them be a part of that makes me want to play as long as I can as well,” he said.
Brees’ current crop of teammates also have kept the quarterback young. One of those teammates is former BYU quarterback Taysom Hill, who’s turned into a Swiss Army knife-type player for the Saints, contributing on offense and special teams in a variety of roles. Hill even caught a touchdown pass from Brees in the playoffs last January.
“I’ve enjoyed football more over the last two years than I have maybe my whole career just because I love the group of guys that I play with,” he said.
Over his 19-year NFL career, there’s likely plenty of moments Brees would like to have back. He doesn’t let himself dwell on what might have been, instead focusing on how to improve himself and his teammates.
The end of New Orleans’ past season is a current challenge to that philosophy, when an infamous no-call on a clear pass interference occurred late in the Saints’ eventual 26-23 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Rams in this past year’s NFC Championship game. Had pass interference been called, New Orleans could have run down the clock further in the final two minutes. Instead, Los Angeles had time in regulation to force overtime.
“Here’s how I look at it: There’s things in your life that are within your control and things not in your control. I’m not quite over it all the way. I’m still getting over it,” Brees said.
“There were things in our control prior to that call and after that call that would have allowed us to win that game. I’m more focused on how we can improve in those areas to get where we want to go.”
Moments like that, and how he responds to them, are critical for Brees, a captain and leader in the locker room. From his experience, Brees shared two common threads to effective leadership during his 30-minute onstage interview.
The first is showing people that you care.
“Something that I’ve felt strongly about, especially as I become more seasoned in my football career — I’m a 40-year-old guy in the locker room with a bunch of 22- and 23-year-olds — I enjoy getting to know those guys. I enjoy finding that common ground with them, even though the generational gap is significant,” he said.
Brees shared a story from several years ago when a young offensive lineman was struggling with conditioning during a practice, gassed from the reps. At one point, the lineman hunched over in the huddle, upsetting the team’s offensive line coach, who wanted his players to show strength in every moment, even in the huddle.
Brees has a rule in the huddle — “That’s my huddle. I’m the one talking in my huddle. … Nobody else, I don’t care who you are, steps into my huddle.”
So when the O-line coach entered the huddle to hound the lineman, Brees stepped in, threw the coach out and said, “I got this.”
The lineman — emboldened by his quarterback standing up for him — looked up, stuck out his chest and said, “Nobody’s ever going to touch you,” Brees recalled. The two won a world championship together a year later.
Another key to being an effective leader, Brees said, is to be the same every day.
“The guys that I appreciate the most when it’s all said and done are the guys that, each and every day when I come to work, I know exactly what I’m going to get out of them. I know the look on their face, I know their process. I know the way they’re going to approach practice and every aspect of what they do. They take pride in their work,” he said.
“Therefore, it makes me want to be accountable to them and be the same guy for them. I want my car to be the first thing that they see when they pull in every day so that they know that their quarterback is there working. I want them to see me as they walk by from watching film every day so they know, 'You know what. My QB’s putting us in the best position to succeed.'”
Brees emphasized that leadership requires responsibility. He recalled meeting newly minted Saints head coach Sean Payton when the quarterback was a free agent looking for a new team in 2006 and ultimately chose the Saints over the Miami Dolphins. Brees was impressed by Payton’s upfront approach of wanting their work to be a collaborative effort. When he walked into Payton’s office, Brees noticed some of his old plays included in the coach’s offensive strategy.
The trust built between Brees and Payton has led to plenty of wonderful memories for Brees, including another play that went New Orleans’ way in the playoffs. During Super Bowl XLIV, Payton called for an onside kick to start the second half with the Saints trailing the Indianapolis Colts 10-6. New Orleans recovered the ball and grabbed momentum.
Brees made the coach’s gamble pay off, leading the Saints on a 58-yard scoring drive that ended with Brees throwing a 16-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Thomas. New Orleans went on to win its first Super Bowl title with a 31-17 victory.
“When Sean calls an onside kick to start the second half in Super Bowl XLIV, it’s our responsibility to make him right,” Brees said. “It goes from being one of the most bonehead moves in football history to being one of the most aggressive, greatest moves in football history.
“I recognize on a daily basis and every Sunday, Sean is going to make calls and he’s expecting me to make them right.”
For the NFL veteran, the topic of what life after football will look like often comes up with Brees nowadays. It’s a topic he willingly discusses, while acknowledging his career is far from over.
“I still love the game of football. I love the process and I love the grind. I’m going to do that for a bit longer, just take it one year at a time,” he said. “I love the challenge. … Each year is a new year and presents a new set of challenges. You’ve got to rebuild the foundation and the culture by which you can have a winning season. I enjoy that. I love that.
“I’m excited about the next chapter when that does come, but we have some business to take care of before then."