Coming Back Stronger: Unleashing the Hidden Power of Adversity
by Drew Brees
Coming Back Stronger: Unleashing the Hidden Power of Adversity Find a mentor. No matter who you are or what your profession is, we all need someone who can keep us grounded and speak truth into our lives. Find people who have built
By Drew Brees
MARK OF A CHAMPION
When I held up my son, Baylen, after the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIV, with confetti streaming down all around us, it was the fulfillment of a dream. But what I’ve discovered along the way is that the road to success is usually a pretty bumpy one. And there are no shortcuts.
They say you need three skills to be a great quarterback: toughness, intelligence, and heart. Although I didn’t officially start training to become a quarterback until I was in high school, in a way, I guess God has been preparing me for that role all my life.
I had a great childhood, but it wasn’t always easy. Then again, neither is life. And neither is football. As a kid, I got teased a lot because of a distinguishing birthmark on my right cheek. My mom and dad used to tell me that was where an angel had kissed me, but the kids at school didn’t quite see it that way. They used to tease me and take jabs at me in the classroom and on the playground, saying things like “What happened to your face?” or “Wipe that stuff off your face.” I couldn’t help but get in a few scraps over it.
When I was little, the pediatrician gave my parents the option of having it removed because there was a chance it could become cancerous, but in spite of all the harassment I took at school, I decided to keep it. Instead of seeing it as a bad thing, I chose to see it as something that made me unique and special. It set me apart from everyone else. In a way, it became my trademark.
Looking back, I guess it might have been smarter to remove it, because why take a chance on it becoming cancerous? I even had it biopsied a few years ago, and I still see the dermatologist every once in a while to make sure it’s okay, but now it’s just a part of who I am. I wouldn’t consider cutting off my arm. Neither would I cut off my birthmark. If I had ever been forced to remove it, I would have been devastated. My good friends who have known me a long time say they don’t even see it anymore. If I had it removed, they would notice, but now they don’t see it at all. They just see me.
In some ways, I guess you could say it was a character builder that helped me develop an inner toughness and an ability to shake off jabs and criticism. Not a bad trait to have as a quarterback in the NFL—or in any job, for that matter.
A LINEAGE OF COMPETITION
If you look at pictures of me as a child, you’ll see the birthmark, but you’ll also almost always see me holding a football or a baseball. As far back as I can remember, football has been a part of my life.
When I was growing up, my father would throw to me in the yard, but my constant playmate was my brother, Reid. He’s two and a half years younger than I am, and we played all the time in our little yard in Austin, Texas. Our “field” was a patch of grass that was about as big as a good-size living room. Trees bordered the yard, and those were our sidelines. The invisible goal lines were clearly defined in our minds, so we knew when we scored.
There’s a big gap when a fifth grader plays against a second grader or when a sixth grader plays against a third grader, so to make it fair, I would get down on my knees and Reid would try to run around me. And it wasn’t touch football—we were really tackling each other, and I would try anything I could to take him down. Even though I was scrambling on my knees, Reid still got beat up on quite a bit. Sometimes my dad would come out, and he’d play all-time quarterback, but most of the time it was just Reid and me.
I grew up in a very sports-minded family. My mother, Mina, was very athletic. In the late 1960s she was all-state in high school track, volleyball, and basketball. If she were playing today, she’d have gotten an athletic scholarship to just about any school in the country for any of those sports. But at that time women weren’t given many of those opportunities. She decided to attend Texas A&M, which had been an all-male military school. My mother was in one of the first classes of women to attend Texas A&M. It was there that she met my dad, an athlete himself who played freshman basketball.
My mom’s brother, Marty Akins, was an All-American quarterback at the University of Texas. Marty was part of the Longhorns team that beat Alabama and Bear Bryant in the 1973 Cotton Bowl.
My mom’s father, Ray Akins, was a Marine and served in World War II. After the war he coached high school football for thirty-eight years, winning 302 games in his career. He was a legend in the state of Texas, and best of all, he was my grandfather. He coached at Gregory-Portland High School in Portland, Texas, just outside Corpus Christi. He used to let Reid and me attend his summer two-a-day practices. From the time I was about seven years old, right around my parents’ divorce, until my grandfather stopped coaching in 1988, Reid and I would stand on the sidelines and hand out this green water to the players during breaks. It was something like Gatorade—green because of the electrolytes mixed in. I always felt like my grandpa was ahead of his time with that kind of stuff. It didn’t matter what Reid and I were doing—it was a thrill just to be that close to the game and the players. I never would have guessed back then that I’d be on the other side someday.
That’s my lineage. We have always been a very athletic and competitive family. Our get-togethers when I was growing up were all about sports. That’s what we all loved. On Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, the Fourth of July, or any other time we got together, we’d eat a big meal and then end up in the yard playing something. We played basketball, football, Wiffle ball, washers, you name it. At the end of the day there was always a winner and a loser. The winner went away happy and the loser was mad, and you wouldn’t talk to each other for a while. That’s just the way it was, and we looked forward to those get-togethers like you wouldn’t believe.
When I say we were competitive, that didn’t just encompass sports. For example, there were times we’d be sitting on the porch at my grandparents’ house eating plums from my grandmother’s plum trees. After we ate them, we would see who could spit their pit farthest into the yard. Somebody would mark the longest spit, and we’d eat more plums just so we could have another chance to beat whoever was in first place. It was crazy, but it was so much fun. I usually won, by the way!
Anything we could find for competition, we were all over it. One of my favorites was pitching washers. Also called Texas horseshoes, this game involves two- to three-inch metal washers and PVC cups that are sunk into the ground. You pitch the washer toward the cup and get points for being closest to the cup and more points for having it actually go in. Some people play on sandpits, but my grandfather made a court out of turf. That was a big game for us as kids, and it taught me control and accuracy.
I have no doubt all those backyard games played a huge part in stoking my competitive fire. And they’re also some of my best memories.
One of the most difficult things I experienced as a child was the divorce of my mom and dad. But it was that adversity that brought Reid and me so close. I was seven and Reid was about five when Mom and Dad divorced. At that age you don’t quite understand how the world works. We were so young and had so many unanswered questions: Why are Mommy and Daddy not together anymore? Was it something we did? Could we have stopped it somehow? That is why when I met my wife, I knew divorce was not an option and I never wanted to put my children through that.
I remember seeing my parents sit down many times to talk, and I figured it was only a matter of time before we would be a family again. That is, until the day my dad sat Reid and me down on the couch to explain the situation. I remember it like it was yesterday. There are certain moments in your life you just don’t forget. When he sat us down, I had no idea what was coming at first, although whenever he took off his glasses to talk to us, I knew it was not going to be good. The only time I have ever seen my dad take off his glasses, besides to clean them, is when he is about to get emotional. He made it clear that day that things would never be the same again. To this day, I still get teary-eyed when I think about how painful that moment was for all of us.
Reid and I spent many nights awake long after lights-out, hoping and praying that our parents would get back together. We cried ourselves to sleep a lot during that time. The split wasn’t an amicable one, and there was bitterness between the two sides. In fact, Reid and I were caught in the middle from the time we were kids until my mom passed away in August 2009. When you’re a kid, normal is whatever is happening at the time. Reid and I basically had two homes. I’d spend two days at my mom’s house, then two days at my dad’s house, and we’d switch off every other weekend.
My brother and I really leaned on each other during that time. Our escape from everything was to take a bucket and a net down to the creek that ran through our neighborhood in central Austin to catch minnows and crawdaddies. That same creek ran through a local nine-hole golf course about six blocks away from our duplex. Reid and I even started a business as kids by fishing out the orange and yellow golf balls from the creek, shining them up, and selling them to the golfers. We weren’t going to get rich off that deal, but it was enough to buy us baseball cards and Big League Chew at the local convenience store. As good as those times with my brother were, when we got back home every evening after one of our adventures, we would have to face the reality of a broken family.
We were inseparable, best friends. We did have conflict, though. I know it was tough on Reid to have me as an older brother. As much as we both assumed our futures were aligned, we were destined to travel different roads. He excelled in sports, but he didn’t want to do the exact same things I did.
He wanted to find his own way. Since he didn’t play quarterback, people would ask, “Why don’t you play quarterback like Drew? Why don’t you follow your brother?” He heard that a lot, and it made him mentally tough—that and all the whuppings he took from me. The truth is, I always felt like Reid was tougher than me. Of course, that was my plan all along: I was preparing him.
When Reid went to college, he partied a little too hard, got a couple of tattoos, probably because he knew our parents would not approve. He was rebellious like that. It was his way of separating, becoming his own person.
We’re both super competitive; we work really hard at things, and when we set our minds to something, we will accomplish it. I’m so proud of him for walking on to play baseball at Baylor. His goal was to earn a scholarship and help lead his team to the College World Series, and that’s what he did. The funny thing is, if you’d asked either one of us our dream when we were growing up, neither of us would have mentioned anything about football. We wanted to play in the College World Series. So watching my brother play in Omaha at Rosenblatt Stadium in 2005 ranks up there as one of the proudest moments in my life. My brother was living out a childhood dream for both of us.
In a way, my brother used the pressure people put on him to excel in different areas, like baseball and business. He now lives in Denver and works in sales.
Some things in my life have made me step back and say, “Man, how did my family end up with so many problems?” But I’ve found that when you start talking to people, everybody’s family has something they’ve dealt with. Every family has issues and is a little dysfunctional. It’s not whether you will have problems within your family; it’s how you handle those difficulties when they come your way.
WESTLAKE HIGH SCHOOL
In spite of the divorce, I really didn’t have a bad childhood. In fact, in my mind, my life was the greatest I could have asked for. Some things weren’t easy to go through, but I wouldn’t trade any of it. All the negative and positive mixed together to make me who I am.
For example, when I was a freshman in high school, I changed school districts. Mom felt that of all the public schools in the area, Westlake High School in Austin had the best combination of academics and athletics. She valued high academic standards as well as a good sports program, and Westlake had both. I remember some conflict between my mom and dad about the school decision. My dad’s a real easygoing guy, kind of a go-with-the-f low type, whereas my mom was super competitive, probably overly competitive, if there is such a thing. When she and Dad would argue, she’d refuse to back down. Whenever she’d get in that bulldog mode, my dad would have no other choice than to agree with her decision. My mom was the reason I went to St. Andrew’s Episcopal School for sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. She wanted me to get a solid education as well as have a great athletic experience. Dad would say, “Why do we have to pay for private school? The public school’s just fine.”
But Mom wouldn’t budge.
When I moved into the Westlake district, I didn’t know many people. I remember the first set of two-a-days as a freshman. This was Texas 5A football. It was Friday Night Lights. There was a sea of guys, probably 150 to 200 kids, all ready to play. The coach said, “Okay, who thinks they can be quarterback?”
I raised my hand and looked around to see forty other hands in the air. I thought, I am never going to see the field. I was the new guy. All these guys had been part of the same program at the two middle schools in the district. They’d had real game preparation and full-contact experience. I’d been playing flag football the past three years because our small Christian school didn’t have enough players to field a tackle football team. The season hadn’t even started yet, and already I was at a disadvantage.
There was a positive side, though: playing f lag football had kept me from getting hurt early on. Plus, I’d learned a lot of the fundamentals without wearing pads. Flag football is all about throwing, catching, and running as opposed to blocking and contact. The movement is very athletic and fluid, and it forces you to have a solid grasp of the basics.
I ended up as the fourth quarterback of six my freshman year. The first three went to the freshman A team, and the next three went to the freshman B team. In effect, I was the starter on the freshman B team. Not bad, but I felt lost in a swarm of players.
During my sophomore year, when I was in the middle of two-a-days, my mom picked me up from practice. She could tell something was up because I was unusually quiet. After she pulled into the garage, she turned off the car and we sat there for a minute.
I looked at her and used a word that normally didn’t come out of my mouth. “Mom, I think I might want to quit football.”
She didn’t freak out. She just squinted her eyes with concern and said, “Why?”
“Because I don’t feel like I’m ever going to get an opportunity to play.”
Jay Rodgers was the quarterback for the varsity team, and his younger brother Johnny was the quarterback on junior varsity. This was a football family. Their middle brother was the starting center on varsity, and their dad, Randy Rodgers, was the recruiting coordinator at the University of Texas.
Johnny Rodgers was destined to be the next starting quarterback for Westlake High School, and I was sure I’d get lost in the shuffle.
“You know, my real sport is baseball,” I told my mom. “I want to get a baseball scholarship. I play football because I like it, but I don’t want to sit on the bench. I don’t feel like I’m going to get an opportunity, and maybe I’d be better off playing fall baseball and trying to get a baseball scholarship.”
My mom took a deep breath. “That’s a valid point. I wouldn’t want to sit the bench any more than you do. So if you don’t want to play, you don’t have to play. But remember this: when you least expect it, that opportunity will present itself. You never know when it’s going to come, but all it takes is one play.”
I sat there and thought about what she’d said. My mother was an athlete and a competitor, and I valued her opinion. Besides, with a grandfather who was a coach and an uncle who’d played for the University of Texas, I didn’t want to feel like I was missing out on some experiences. This might be something I’ll regret for the rest of my life if I don’t at least follow through with this year.
“You know what?” I said. “I think I’ll stick it out for a little bit longer, and we’ll see how it goes. I’m not going to quit midway through two-a-days.”
Mom nodded and smiled. In retrospect, I think the fact that she didn’t push me one way or the other freed me up to think clearly for myself. As it turned out, her words rang true the very next week.
One JV quarterback had decided to play baseball and the other moved to defense, so I was second in line to Johnny Rodgers. It was the last scrimmage of the year against Killeen, a tough team comprised mostly of kids whose parents were in the military, stationed at nearby Fort Hood. With the season just one week away, this was the final dress rehearsal. Near the end of the game, when there was only one series left, Johnny dropped back to pass, hoping to end the scrimmage on a high note. In a split second, everything changed for me. Johnny got sacked in the backfield, and in the process he tore his ACL, putting him out for the entire year. One minute I was the guy who would ride the bench all season, and the next I was thrust into the role of starting JV quarterback.
Our JV team went 10–0 my sophomore year. In my junior year, I was the varsity starter. We were undefeated going into the third round of the playoffs.
That’s when I tore my ACL.
An injury like that can change your life. I had no doubt about that—after all, that was the reason I was the starting quarterback. Johnny Rodgers had returned, but he was now our starting free safety. I had seen other players who tore their ACLs either recover really slowly or not come back at all. I was sure this was the worst thing that could have happened to me. It was the third round of the playoffs. We were going to state, and we were going to win the championship. Suddenly my season was over.
Our team lost in the next round.
I had been getting recruiting letters from some good schools, but when I blew out my knee, all the letters stopped. No school wanted to touch me. The worst part about it was that I would also miss the entire basketball and baseball seasons. And in my mind, my number one priority was still to get a baseball scholarship. I was only a junior in high school, and it felt like my life was over.
I had a six-month rehabilitation process, and I had to make a decision: Was I going to quit or come back stronger? I chose to come back.
It was grueling. For three or four hours every day after school, I’d go in the training room and just grind, grind, grind. The pain of the injury was intense, and every day I had to fight to regain flexibility and mobility. But in the process, I was building up my strength and resolve.
The doctor told me that my ability to recover from this injury was totally dependent on my commitment to the rehab. I was bound and determined to come back—not just to where I was before, but better. My goal has always been to take a negative and turn it into a positive. I want to be a problem solver, not a problem creator. The glass is always half full for me. Make the best of every situation.
The ACL injury was a defining moment in my life. I made a decision not to let something negative control my emotions. And the interesting thing is that decision led to another that would also follow me the rest of my life.
NOW THAT THE SAINTS have scaled the ultimate football mountain and won a Super Bowl, it would be easy to sit back and enjoy our World Championship. But success presents as many challenges as setbacks do. I know every team we play is going to want to knock us off the pedestal. We’ll have targets on us all year. It’s up to us to find the motivation to push forward and build on the work that’s been done. Will we be better in the new season? Only our commitment to growing stronger and getting better will answer that question. There aren’t any shortcuts on the path to success. The way to do it is the same as it’s always been: take things one game at a time, one drive at a time, one play at a time.
Winning the Super Bowl is not the end of the adventure. There’s more to our journey—we have not arrived. Now it’s time to prepare for the next challenge.
The story isn’t over for New Orleans, either. We’ve made a lot of progress, but it’s too soon to relax. It’s not like every part of the city has suddenly been rebuilt overnight. If you drove through the Lower Ninth Ward with me, I’d show you some areas that look amazing, where people have rolled up their sleeves and banded together to rebuild. But I’d also show you houses where it looks like Katrina happened yesterday, places where there’s nothing left but a slab. We’ve done some great work. But the story of our recovery is still being written. The people of New Orleans are up to that task. And so are you.
I might as well tell you that whatever your struggle is, there is no final exclamation point that says, “You’re done!” Yes, there was immense satisfaction for our team when we held up that trophy, especially after everything we had been through. The tougher the journey, the sweeter the celebration at the end. But that was only one major milestone on our long list of goals. When I set out to write this book, my ultimate goal was not to get you excited about my career or the Saints, or even to make you want to move to New Orleans (although we’d love to have you at least visit us!). My desire was to have you turn the last page and become excited about waking up tomorrow. You will undoubtedly have challenges ahead that you will have to face and overcome. But don’t forget that adversity is not your enemy. It can unleash a power in your life that will make you stronger and help you achieve amazing things—things you may have never thought were possible . . . until now.
Now that you’ve heard some of my story and the events and influences that have contributed to the person I am today, I’d like to make this personal for you. If I could sit down with you and have a face-to-face talk, these are some things I would say.
their lives on a solid foundation, and humble yourself to learn from them. I’ve never known a successful athlete, businessperson, or anyone else who has made an impact on the world who didn’t stand on the shoulders of other great men and women.
Don’t give up. The worst thing that could happen in life is not getting knocked down; it’s getting knocked down and then staying down. If you lose a job, if your relationships crumble, if you face a health setback—get up. You may fall again and it may hurt, but get back on the horse. And once you’re up, hold your ground. Commitment is when you refuse to give yourself an excuse.
Turn your defeats into triumph. Any difficulty you face— whether it’s a tear to your shoulder, a person who betrays you, a dysfunctional family, or the bad luck you have with the economy—can unleash power within you for good. Use that negative to help you not only climb out of the hole you’re in, but rise to greater heights. The greatest opportunities in life are the ones that test us the most.
Dream. If your mind can conceive it, you can achieve it. Not on your own, and not without struggle and hardship and effort. But when that vision mixes with hard work and commitment, you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish.
Hope. In order to come back after a disappointment and accomplish something great, you have to believe in something bigger than yourself. But it’s not enough to just put your hope in hope. You have to have an object of hope. For me, God is the center of that hope, and I lean on him to order my steps and show me the right path. Having hope in the Lord means I trust in his plan and believe he’s never going to put anything in front of me that’s too hard to handle with his help.
Be flexible. My dream was to win a championship with San Diego and play my whole career with that one team. That didn’t happen—it wasn’t the plan. And it took a devastating injury to tear me away from that city. Be flexible enough to know when you’re being led in another direction, and then follow that new vision with all your heart. You are being led there for a reason—coincidence is usually God working anonymously.
See adversity as an opportunity. Remember, experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want. No matter what comes your way, remember that God can use everything in your life for good, even though it may seem unfair or insurmountable at the time. Seize that adversity and let it make you stronger. Welcome it, and unleash its power.
Don’t be afraid of taking a few steps back. A step back is not necessarily a setback. Sometimes you have to take a few steps backward before you can get the momentum to jump over a chasm in your life. The goal may be farther than you thought, and what you see as backtracking may really just be helping you get up the speed to make the final jump.
Don’t spectate—be ready. Instead of standing on the sidelines watching, spend that time getting ready for the next play. Too many of us are caught sleeping at life’s traffic lights. When the next opportunity comes your way, make sure you have prepared yourself well enough to seize the chance you’ve been given. You never know if you will get that opportunity again.