The athletic complex on the northeast corner of Purdue's campus usually is pretty quiet by 11 p.m., but a few nights ago a soft whirring sound echoed through the darkened hallways. After that came a few squeaks, then some silence, and then the whole thing began repeating.
The noise was coming from a room where junior quarterback Drew Brees was watching tape of the Boilermakers' 32-12 loss to Michigan last Saturday. Purdue had entered the game ranked 11th in the country, and Brees had been a leading hopeful for the Heisman Trophy. But when the Boilermakers took the rain-soaked field in Ann Arbor, everything went wrong. The score was never close, and Brees delivered the worst statistical performance of his career. The same player who shattered Big Ten Conference passing records last season completed 20 of 49 throws for 293 yards, with one touchdown and one interception.
Whir. Squeak. Click. Over and over again, he shook his head, eyeing each incomplete pass as if it were an unsightly pimple.
"I've watched that game on film so many times, it makes me sick to look at it," he said Tuesday. "I can't watch it any more. I'm just looking forward to getting back on the field. This is going to be one of those tests, especially for myself. Can we come back after a loss with a big win?"
A question of almost equal importance is how Brees and the now-17th-ranked Boilermakers (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten) will bear up under having to play at No. 21 Ohio State today and then successively hosting No. 11 Michigan State and No. 2 Penn State. It's a schedule that has caused Coach Joe Tiller to joke that he is "breaking into that old country song, 'Lord Help Me, Jesus.' "
"I don't know what I did to deserve this," he said.
Still, there is no one Tiller would rather have as his quarterback for these games than the 20-year-old Brees, who has been a hero in this small Midwestern town ever since he led the Boilermakers to a comeback, upset victory over then-No. 4 Kansas State in last season's Alamo Bowl. The performance capped off a season of highlights: against Minnesota, Brees completed 31 of 36 passes for 522 yards and six touchdowns. Against Wisconsin, he completed 55 of an NCAA-record 83 passes. In the Alamo Bowl, he threw for 230 yards and three touchdowns, including a 24-yard scoring pass with 30 seconds to play that concluded an 80-yard, 54-second drive.
Skeptics about Brees have said the same thing about him that Florida Coach Steve Spurrier's quarterbacks often hear--it's the offensive system, not his arm, that is responsible for the gaudy statistics. Unlike the rest of his Big Ten colleagues, Tiller has sculpted an intricate, pass-happy attack that often utilizes five receivers on a play.
But while Tiller's offense is a showcase for Brees, it's not a cradle--at least not according to coaches who have had to face him. Penn State's Joe Paterno called him "amazing," saying, "I've never seen a quarterback so accurate running around like that. He is smart and has a great arm and great feet." Minnesota's Glen Mason was more succinct: "I could not be more impressed."
Brees appreciates the accolades, although he chuckles a little every time he hears them. He's part of a family steeped in football, beginning with his grandfather, Ray Adkins, who is the second-winningest high school football coach in Texas. But just three years ago, the Austin native could barely scrounge up a recruiting letter. Having been snubbed by Texas A&M, where both his parents went, and Texas, where his uncle, Marty Adkins, was a three-starter in the 1970s, Brees decided to give up on the game and concentrate on winning a baseball scholarship.
"It was a mystery to everyone back home, but I guess I'm short, I had a knee injury [a torn left anterior cruciate ligament] when I was a junior and I had a weird throwing motion--I kind of threw a football like a baseball," said the 6-foot-1 Brees, who played third base. "I was thinking there was no way I was going to play in college because nobody wanted me. Then we won the state championship game, and both Purdue and Kentucky called the next day. After that, it was just a matter of who I was going to pick."
By now, all of Brees's relatives and friends in Austin have become Purdue fans, his family having practically bought out the Boilermakers T-shirts that are offered on the school's Web site. Purdue has become so popular there, in fact, that ABC recently was forced to change its plans for a regional broadcast of a game between Nebraska and California to that area when so many people called to complain that the Purdue-Notre Dame game wasn't on.
But when Brees got to Purdue, he found that winning over Tiller and the Boilermakers' coaches was not so easy. Tiller now likes to tell people that he was "so confident Drew was going to be good, we went out and recruited a junior college quarterback just in case." Tiller wanted to see how Brees was going to perform under pressure before making him the starter, but from the time Brees stepped onto the field as a sophomore last season, Tiller has not been disappointed.
He didn't even play that badly against Michigan last Saturday; at least 11 of his incompletions resulted from receivers dropping passes.
"If I had that many dropped passes, I'd sue for lack of support," said Tiller, who also noted that center Jim Niedrach had problems snapping the ball to Brees. "You know the old saying: 'Leave it on the field'? I think our guys brought it back in the locker room."
Still, Tiller knows how hard the loss was on Brees, who can become disappointed even after a win if he doesn't think he played well enough.
"Drew can be a little too hard on himself, he's a very competitive person," Tiller said. "He wants to be right every time and believes he can. He actually does believe he can play a perfect game and complete every pass, and I appreciate that, but it hardly ever goes that way."
There are a lot of things Brees expects to be perfect, from his grades--he has a 3.2 cumulative grade-point average in the tough major of industrial management--to his volunteer work at a local elementary school, where he goes at least once a week to help kids with their reading. He is ultracompetitive in just about everything, sometimes leaving roommate Ben Smith, the Boilermakers' strong safety, with bruises and scratches on his ankles when the two play basketball.
Brees even maintains tight control over his sweet tooth. Every once in a while his girlfriend, Brittany Dudchenko, makes him chocolate chip cookies to take on road trips, but Brees just gives them to his teammates because, Dudchenko said with a laugh, "They don't fit into his health regimen."
"He's so focused and he studies all the time," she said. "He's really dedicated, and he just has no cockiness and attitude.
"That's what's so amazing. When I first met him, I just assumed he had a big head--you know, big-time football player. I kind of ignored him for a while, but one night we ended up sitting and talking until 6 o'clock in the morning, and he was so intelligent and sincere, I was totally taken aback. I know it sounds so cheesy, but it's so true--everyone who meets him, loves him."
Of course, Brees is not completely faultless. He tends to leave his laundry on the floor, Smith reports, sometimes letting it stack up for a month before finally trooping to a washing machine. Brees also is, by his own account, an awful singer, although that doesn't stop him from belting out an accompaniment to the radio as he drives his black Chevy Tahoe around campus.
Brees usually prefers Garth Brooks, although this week he also had to listen to one of Tiller's selections as the Boilermakers prepared for the noise at Ohio State. To simulate stadium conditions, Tiller made them practice with what Brees calls "obnoxious music" playing in the background.
"It's a slow-speed dub," Tiller explained. "So it really doesn't matter what the music is, you can't even tell--it's just that awful wreh-wreh sound of a record being played real slow. He's right, it's pretty obnoxious stuff, but it can really affect you mentally."
Brees said he is ready--the sound, after all, is better than the awful whirring of the tape machine that kept him up nights earlier this week. And besides, when he finally hears the real crowd noise Saturday, he will know it is time to grab a little redemption.
"I'm just looking forward to getting back on the field," he said. "If we can do this, it will be a lot more than just another win. It's a very big game."