Saints quarterback Drew Brees says he’ll remain standing for “The Star Spangled Banner,” but professed respect and support for those who protest racism and social injustice by kneeling during the national anthem.
“I’ll always stand for the flag because of what it means to me and to honor all those who have sacrificed, who have served and died for our country, and all those who have struggled to move this country forward,” Brees said Saturday in a conference call with reporters to discuss the onset of training camp.
“I acknowledge and respect anyone who chooses to kneel or any other form of peaceful protest to bring attention to social injustice and systemic racism that so many have endured and continue to endure in our country,” Brees continued, adding that he “always will support and advocate for Black and brown communities in the fight for social justice.”
The 41-year-old Brees, who is the NFL’s all-time leader in yards passing, completions and touchdowns, is entering his 20th NFL season and 15th with the New Orleans Saints. He discussed not only reconciliation with teammates, but also how he has adapted to restrictions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, new offseason training techniques aimed at improving long passes and even breaking his renowned finger-licking habit.
“Believe it or not, I’m telling you I have not licked my fingers in four months,” Brees said as he started to laugh.
“If I can break myself of the licking-the-fingers habit, then I think that means anybody can break themselves of any habit, because that was out of control,” he added, noting that he wouldn’t just do it while throwing a football but also while turning pages in a book, or any activity that might be more efficient with tacky finger tips.
But before he even took a question, Brees opened the conference call with a statement about his introspection since early June, when he became seen by many as a symbol of white privilege for saying he would never approve of anyone disrespecting the flag by kneeling during the anthem. Those comments came while protests were proliferating across the country in response to a white Minneapolis police officer’s video-recorded killing of George Floyd.
Brees faced a scathing backlash from several current and former Black teammates and other high-profile athletes such as LeBron James.
But the quarterback apologized soon afterward and said he realizes now that protesting by kneeling during the anthem, initiated by former San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick in 2016, was never about the flag.
“To think for a second that New Orleans or the state of Louisiana, or the Black community would think I was not standing with them for social justice, that completely broke my heart. It was crushing. Never, ever would I feel that way,” Brees said Saturday in his opening statement.
“I recognize that I missed an opportunity that day. I had an opportunity to talk about and emphasize the social injustices that exist for our Black community and our need as country to support them and advocate for systemic change. And my lack of awareness in that moment hurt a lot of people.”
Brees added that he has had many conversations with teammates since then and particularly in recent days and that they have “reconciled and put closure on anything from the past, and we are moving forward to focusing on the issues of social justice.”
Brees singled out safety Malcolm Jenkins, who had been among his harshest critics, saying, “I am a friend of Malcolm. I am his teammate and I am his ally. There are many things that we’re having a conversation about working on together. All of our goals are aligned.”
At the same time, Brees emphasized that he is “the same person now that I have always been. … I’m someone who feels a great sense of responsibility to serve and to lead and to bring true equality to everyone.”
Turning to football, Brees said the pandemic is forcing him to consider new ways of practicing leadership and promoting team chemistry.
He cited wearing monitors at team headquarters that flash red and beep when one is standing within six feet of another person as an example of how face-to-face contact has been affected.
Gone are the days, Brees noted, when “you’re all in that locker room and it’s super-tight, and you’re at the hotel and it’s super tight, and you’re having those moments to really develop the camaraderie.”
Brees said he was able to travel to Denver for a few days to train with new receiver Emmanuel Sanders, but otherwise did much of his training in the backyard of his offseason home in the San Diego area. That’s where he worked with throwing mechanics guru Tom House on improving passes of about 60 yards.
“We’ve applied a lot of different techniques and a lot of training methods,” Brees said. “There’s been some moments of discovery.”
Brees declined to say whether he views this season as his last, but he said he put a lot of thought into his decision to play this season, coming to the conclusion that he wanted to remain a part of a team he loves, which also happens to see itself as a Super Bowl favorite.
“Fair or not, I think we all agree that quarterbacks and head coaches in large part are evaluated on wins, losses, championships,” Brees said. “I came back for my team and I came back to chase that” championship.
“I’m going to enjoy every second of this journey and just value every moment.
New Orleans Saints Quarterback Drew Brees
Training Camp Conference Call with New Orleans Media
Saturday, August 1, 2020
“Good morning. Hey, before we start, I want to open it up with a statement and then after that, I’ll be happy to answer any questions you guys have about football, training camp just to kind of get things kicked off. But, first I’d like to say this: I’ve always been someone who has felt compelled to serve. It’s the main reason why Brittany and I came to New Orleans. That was a time when I really wasn’t sure if I would ever play football again, but I knew I had a chance to be a part of something much greater than myself. The last 15 years in New Orleans have been some of the proudest, most rewarding moments of our lives. We’ve tried to dedicate ourselves to creating a lasting legacy of hope, of love and progress, especially in this city. Going back to my comment on June 3rd, to think for a second that New Orleans or the state of Louisiana or the black community would think that I was not standing with them for social justice, that completely broke my heart. It was crushing. Never, ever would I feel that way. Now, I recognize that I missed an opportunity that day. I had an opportunity to talk about and emphasize the social injustices that exists for our black community and our need as a country to support them and to advocate for systemic change and my lack of awareness in that moment hurt a lot of people. Now, there are there are three key things I want to make very clear. Number one, I’ll always stand for the flag because of what it means to me and to honor all those who have sacrificed, who have served and died for our country and all those who have struggled to move this country forward. Second, I acknowledge and respect anyone who chooses to kneel or any other form of peaceful protest to bring attention to the social injustices and systemic racism that so many have endured and continue to endure in our country. I will always support an advocate for the Black and Brown communities in the fight for social justice always. Third, I’m the same person now that I’ve always been. I’m someone who cares deeply for people in my community, New Orleans, the state of Louisiana, people everywhere. I’m someone who will always address the inequities and disparities that exist. I’m someone who has great empathy for those who are hurting, struggling, or victims of injustice. And I’m someone who feels a great sense of responsibility to serve and to lead and to bring true equality to everyone. Thank you, I want to make that very clear. I’ll take questions on the season on football, on training camp, fire away.”
Along those lines, how important do you feel it is to continue to mend fences with teammates once you’re in the locker room together, and how important do you think it’s been so far that all the conversations you’ve already had with them?
“We’ve had many conversations, both over the phone and in person, including over the last few days. This ramp up period has actually given us an opportunity to do quite a bit of that. We have reconciled and we have put closure on anything from the past, and we are moving forward to focusing on the issues of social justice that face really our entire country, especially some of the things that are happening locally. I’m sure I’m going to get a question about Malcolm (Jenkins) here specifically. Malcolm, listen, I am a friend of Malcolm. I am his teammate and I’m his ally. There are many things that we are all having conversations about working on together. All of our goals are aligned.”
As far as perception outside the locker room, it feels like you could say the sky is blue and then people kind of come at you on both sides. Is that kind of something you feel like you’re going to have to deal with going forward? Does that trouble you? What are your thoughts on that?
“Listen, I’m really just focused on being the person I’ve been.”
Could you discuss maybe just the big picture, not only what you’ve been doing individually, but I mean, this it’s just, you’re 41, 20th season and a really highly unusual year in a lot of ways I think personally for you and the league as a whole and how you’re kind of adapting to all this stuff?
“Yeah, this whole onboarding protocol, let’s just start with that. We all got here on Monday, right? Tuesday was testing, go home, Wednesday test, go home, Thursday nothing, Friday test, go home, Saturday physicals, Sunday physicals. Then finally, if you make it all the way through that with a clean bill of health, then you can step foot in the facility on Monday. Then there is a ten-day ramp up period, right? That’s no practice, it is just walkthroughs and it’s lifting weights and conditioning, etcetera. Then you get into a period of practices with no pads and we’re not putting pads on for about two and a half weeks. Then you have this three week period where it’s this incredible sense of urgency and you have not had a chance to see the rookies. Have not had a chance to see the free agents. Really haven’t had a chance to be together as a team. And still, the situation is not like a normal training camp would where, man, you’re all in that locker room and it’s super tight and you’re at the hotel and it’s super tight and you’re having those moments to really develop the camaraderie and all this stuff that goes along with what training camp is partly about. You’ve got a social distance, you’ve got these monitors on you that tell you if you’re within six feet of somebody, it starts beeping red. And if you’re too close for too long, then it’s basically telling you to move away. We’re all going to have to just find our way and navigate through that. But, if I can say this about our team, obviously we’ve got a lot of guys here that have been together for a long time and we’re in the same system, offensively and defensively. So I think that benefits us. Obviously we have some guys that we brought in free agent, rookie that we foresee playing integral roles for us this year. Getting those guys up to speed as quickly as possible is imperative, but we’ll just take it one day at a time.”
I wanted to ask you about just your decision to come back this year. I know every year you make that evaluation, you kind of said over and over, you go year to year. What went into your decision to come back and how difficult was it this year maybe compared to past years?
“Listen, it was definitely a decision that I took very seriously and I gave myself some time from the end of the season and a lot of thought, a lot of prayer, a lot of conversations with my wife, with others, with mentors. At the end of the day, I chose to come back from my team.”
Have you made any decisions on this season? Is it for you or are you just going to see how it plays out?
“I’m not looking past one day at a time. With everything, with the new normal, we’re navigating that and I’m just taking it one, literally one day at a time. Listen, I’m excited for this season. There’s obviously a lot of unknowns and there’s a lot of variables and there’s a lot of things that we’re going to have to navigate, but I think that that’s something that we’ve always been very good at. How many times have we had to evacuate for hurricanes or you have to make adjustments on the fly for various reasons or circumstances? I think it certainly makes you value the type of organization that we’re in and the type of guys that we have in the locker room and the coaching staff and I think just the consistency of what we have been able to put together here for so long. At the end of the day, going back to the reason I came back, my wife and I had this conversation back when I made the decision, yes, I am coming back. I want (to) play for my team, but I also feel this year’s going to be about something much greater than football. And at this point, I think that was an understatement.”
How is your health thumbwise and just where you feel physically, you are right now?
“I feel good. My body feels good. My arm feels live. Look forward to getting back on the field with the guys and get rolling.”
Tom House had an interesting conversation with the Saints podcast this week about some of the methods you guys use, but more importantly, that your goal was to throw a 60-yard pass. I’m kind of curious a little, if you could talk about why that was your goal and what you did to get it, but also how much you’ve been stressing throwing a deeper ball since your attempts in that area have gone down the last couple of years?
“Yeah, we’ve been working on that since March and we’ve applied a lot of different techniques and a lot of different training methods. There have been some moments of discovery with us this offseason. Really COVID presented a great challenge, obviously because we couldn’t go to our normal places and do our normal things and so we had to adapt with what we were doing from a training perspective. Most of it happened in my backyard, but we discovered a few things in the process. It was interesting that the circumstances of COVID caused that, created that, but at the end of the day there were some, there were some beneficial things that came from that I’m hoping will pay dividends.”
How do you feel about the deep ball in general? Obviously your passer rating, your efficiency has gone up and so it’s not essential to your game, but is that something that you feel like has been missing the last couple years?
“Listen, if the opportunities are there, I let it fly and if it’s not, then you check it down and live to play another day. I feel like perhaps in years past we had more opportunities down the field then maybe have presented themselves over the last two years. I don’t think it’s our lack of being able to do it or lack of calling the plays for it. It’s just hit or miss at times and then there’s a risk reward to it as well. So at the end of the day, what’s ultimate goal? Well, it’s to drive down the field and score touchdowns. So if we can do that in three plays with a couple of big plays, long pass plays down the field, then great. But if we’ve got to put together 14-play drives, then we’ll do that too. I do like those plays down the field though.”
The way the schedule is set up, you are in the building for almost three weeks before you have a padded practice. Does that seem to be a little overkill to you? What are your thoughts on that?
“Well, I think based on the fact that no team has any idea what type of shape their players are in, right? We have not had the chance to be together at all. So I think the ramp up period is very necessary. Now, if you ask 10 different guys, what the best ramp up period would be, I’m sure you’d get 10 different answers, but at the end of the day, you have to agree on something. I know that there was a lot of time and effort that was put into putting together the schedule. So everybody did their best and we’ll follow it.”
As the season kind of got close, what was your biggest concern about the playing again and do you ever worry about an interruption of the season or not getting through an entire season?
“I think everybody’s worried about that. Nobody has the answers. Nobody knows exactly how this is going to play out. I think if you just think realistically, we’ve got, each team has about what 180 people that are involved in football as players, coaches, staff, ops. If you just took the percentages, listen, there’s a good chance that every team is going to have some cases or some small outbreaks. You try to minimize the spread of something like that based on the fact that you’re testing every day, based on the fact that you have these monitors on you that tell you if you’re within six feet of somebody. They’ve tried to put the protocols in place that are going to help protect guys as much as possible. But listen, I think Coach Payton said it best, COVID and tackle football don’t really mix. At the end of the day, you’re going out on the field for two hours, two and a half hours, and you’re playing tackle football. I think they said it the virus does not exist in temperatures above 105 degrees. So knowing what training camp is like down here, maybe there’s a less of a chance that it’s going to be floating in the air, but listen we’ll worry about the things we can control. We’ll take it one day at a time and if we have cases or if we have an outbreak, then I know we’ll have a great plan for it.”
How important is it for you to go to the super bowl?
“That’s why I came back.”
Do you think it’s fair quarterbacks are only judged on super bowls?
“Here’s the thing, whether it’s fair or not, I think we all agree that quarterbacks and head coaches in large part are evaluated on wins, losses, championships. And so we acknowledge that and we take on that responsibility and I came back from my team and I came back to chase that and we’ll take it one day at a time, one week at a time, but man, I am going to enjoy every second of this journey and just value every moment, stay in the moment. Here’s the thing too, that mindset of chasing the championship is the exact same mindset that we’ve had certainly for the last three years. You know what I mean? That’s just the level of expectation that we have with this organization. And that starts from the top down, you know, that’s what we’ve built, and that’s why there’s such a great sense of urgency every day in our work ethic and our approach. So nothing’s changed there and it’s not added pressure because that’s just who we are.”
How have you and Sean Payton kept your working relationship together for 15 years and how has that evolved?
“Well, there’s a great deal of mutual respect. I also feel like we’re both highly motivated people and I think every year, every day, our approach is that we both feel this compelling reason to improve and to get better and to constantly evolve to stay ahead of the curve. And so when those goals are aligned and we’re both fighting for the same thing, we always know that decisions are made in the best interest of the team. Decisions are made to push us forward and to put us in the best position to win.”
How is it to have Jameis Winston in the quarterback room this year?
“Yeah, listen, it’s great. We have had a chance to spend some time together over the last few days and he is a joy to be around. You can tell he loves the game, loves ball. We traded a lot of text messages and calls actually this offseason, as he was attempting to learn the offense remotely, just asking questions about concepts. We would talk through it, even providing some input on his end as to what you know he did in Tampa. Hey, have you ever thought about doing this? Hey, this is the reason we do this. So it was good dialogue back and forth just on some concepts and our offense. I look forward to working with him.”
Can you just maybe talk about potentially losing the home field advantage in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and how it may be playing without fans in that building if that’s what it comes to?
“Man, it’s weird. I don’t think any of us can anticipate what that’s going to be like until we’re actually in that setting. I guess when you look at it across the league, though, every away game is really not an away game from that standpoint, if nobody’s having to deal with crowd noise. It’ll be interesting. I mean when you’re on the field everything around you, all the chaos around you very much zero in on and just see and feel what’s on the field. I think everything else just is white noise, but still that reaction of the fans and obviously the atmosphere that the Superdome creates is something that’s electric and it’s irreplaceable and it gets you fired up. So that’s something that everybody is going to have to deal with, not just us.”
Have you had a chance to do much work with Emmanuel Sanders and any other newcomers?
“Yeah. I flew out to Denver and spent some time with Emmanuel. So we had a good couple of days together. This was back in June, so that was really valuable. So I feel great about him and obviously he’s a savvy veteran player. I think he brings a great element with his skillset, as being a great guy with Michael Thomas and I think he’s a great veteran presence for that room. That receiver room is still relatively young. Tre’Quan Smith, I think has a great opportunity this year. I think we have got some young receivers that I’m really excited to see how they have progressed from last year to this year. Obviously, you guys know how we like to move guys around and utilize all these weapons. So I think that’d be great. I was able to get a couple of guys to San Diego as well and be able to work with them. So we did our best to navigate the COVID situation, but I was able to get some good work in with guys.”
Did you fly to Denver to work specifically with Emmanuel Sanders?
“Yeah, I flew there just to spend time with him.”
How long does it take you to build the relationship with the center considering the team drafted Cesar Ruiz?
“That’s a good point. That’s something that we’re going to have to see as we get into this ramp up period and then into pads. But from what I’ve heard, he’s extremely intelligent, obviously very skilled. The good thing is I think we’ve got a lot of flexibility with the guys that we have at the guard/center position. So the ability to mix and match, just depending on how things shake out. That puts us in a favorable position.”
You made the comment the other day about licking your fingers and trying to get away with that? Is there another way to like, replicate that tackiness? Have you tried different methods to kind of get that grip or what’s that going to be like breaking that habit?
“All right. So believe it or not, I am telling you, I haven’t licked my fingers in four months. I used to do it all the time. I mean, it was such a habit, right? Just turning the page of a book or just to get a little tackiness on the fingers. It was just unconscious, but I’ve consciously broke myself of the habit because of COVID. Probably partly because my wife was there to get on me about it. But even throwing the football on the field, I’ve not licked my fingers in four months. So I don’t know. I might have broken myself of the habit. We’ll see. Listen, I’ll tell you this, if I can break myself of the licking the fingers habit, then I think that means anybody can break themselves of any habit. Because that was out of control how much I was licking my fingers.”
Like this was really a thing like in everyday life, you were just licking your hands?
“Well, there was a purpose for it. Like if ever I was needing to pick up a stack of papers and start flipping through them I’d immediately lick my fingers. That was just like whenever I would get a football in my hands, I would immediately lick my fingers.”
Can you use some water to get grip on the ball?
“Considering that when we’re practicing outside in New Orleans this time of year, I have about two gallons of sweat that is flowing from my body. There’s plenty of moisture to get, but when you get in the dome or you get in some other maybe drier environments. That’s when you’ve got to have an alternative, but we’ll manage.”
When did you realize that you were doing that all the time?
“Yeah. So you’ll see a highlight of you throwing the ball. Listen, it’s one thing to lick your fingers before you get the ball and throw it that’s perfectly normal, but to lick my fingers after I throw the ball, it makes no sense. And so I I’d see that and I knew it was completely just unconscious. I didn’t know I did it until I saw it in a highlight and I would just shake my head and say, I guess that’s just one of my quirks.”
Is there anything else like that you have to maybe unlearn as we’re trying to not spread germs?
“I think this COVID time, I’m sure everybody, there’s just a level of consciousness. There is a level of awareness, of self-awareness, of self-responsibility that we all need to have. And it’s just trying to keep yourself and everyone around you safe. I’ve hand sanitized more than I’ve ever had. Here’s the thing in the past, it was like, if a piece of food dropped on the counter, I’d eat it. You know, if the kids dropped something, I’d be like ten second rule, pick it up. You’re fine. You know, in the past I was a build immunities, you know it was almost like that was a good thing. You know, lick your fingers when they’re dirty. That’s a good thing. You’re going to build immunities, eat food off the counter. It’s good for you. It’ll build immunities. Don’t sanitize your hands. I mean, listen, I wash my hands after I go to the bathroom that that’ (common sense), but other than that it was more, Hey, I’m all about building immunities. And I think now people are just much more conscious of trying to avoid this as much as possible.”
What was life like for you and your family during the, you know, the lockdown?
“It went through phases, you know, I’m sure you saw some of the Instagram posts. There were a lot of dunk contests. So I’d say for the first month and a half or the first six weeks, every day was basketball. I love it. This is when you kind of watch your kids grow and learn and develop and display this deep practice mindset or philosophy where like, they would wake up in the morning and we had our routine. I’d be like, all right. Brittany and I, all right kids, you read for 30 minutes. And then, uh, well, actually that was during the homeschooling time. And once we got into summer, it was little different, but homeschooling time, it was all right, you get your homeschool done. And then you go outside and just play ball. And then they go outside, they play ball, they’d come in, have lunch and then we’d give them some time to (prepare). We watched every single NBA slam dunk contest in history. And then the kids would take their favorite dunks from all the slam dunk contest and they would go out for hours and just practice it and practice and they would fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, and then eventually they would get it. When you talk about your proud parent moments, your proud father moments are watching your kids struggle, struggle, struggle, and then continue to keep at it, never give up and then accomplish it. And just to kind of sit back and there were times where I just wanted to hide and just watch them, like not let them know I was watching them and just watch them go through that deep practice. I think that’s so valuable for kids, but it was just that watching something in a highlight or what have you, and then going out and actually doing it, and then they would come back in and they were so into basketball. So they play NBA 2K on Xbox and they would form their own teams and they would battle each other. And then based on what happened in the video game, they’d go out and replicate it on the basketball court. So it was just a lot of sports. It was a lot of that, so we made the most of it.”