Whether we — or Thomas and the rest of the team — would have been in such a forgiving mood if Brees wasn’t performing at an incredibly high level, despite his age, is a counterfactual we will never fully be able to test. Still, there is a more ineffable connection to the city that Brees sincerely earned, one that garnered a well of good will deep enough to squelch any serious threat to how he will be remembered: the connection between his comeback and New Orleans’s hard-fought rebirth.
As every televised segment recapping his career will show, when Brees came to our downtrodden franchise (habitually called the ’Aints), he was widely seen as damaged goods after tearing the labrum in his throwing shoulder. The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina only months before his arrival had left New Orleans a deeply injured old river town, whose recovery many thought was unlikely, and that some actively bet against. In essence, each party — Brees, the fans rebuilding their homes and the failing franchise that nevertheless decided against relocation — was an underdog taking a chance on the others.
After all the parties were repaid with winning seasons, a championship and nationally televised games — more excuses to tailgate and party in a city that loves nothing more — a natural, defensive bond was formed. “You told me that if I loved New Orleans, you would love me back,” Brees’s open letter saying goodbye reads. “No truer words have ever been spoken.” Maybe our shared memories, those created at holiday dinner tables or in the Superdome on Sundays (with people just as complicated), are why we give Brees and others more slack than some think is merited.
At the height of my frustration with Brees, in 2016, I remember asking my mother — who desegregated her elementary school in New Orleans and was picketed for it (“Two, four, six, eight. We don’t want to integrate!”) — if it was right for me, for her, for our family, to keep cheering for Brees during games, to keep our season tickets, when he was being insensitive to our community’s grievances off the field?
“Tal,” she told me with a rueful smile and a dash of resignation, “I’m sure if I talked with Drew I’d tell him, ‘I appreciate you being a good quarterback and a leader in this city, but I really, really think you’re wrong about such and such,’ and I’m sure he’d tell me, ‘Well, Sheryl, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your support and maybe we don’t see eye to eye on every issue, but I love this city and the Saints and hope we can make y’all fans proud.’”
It was a lesson in how empathy and compartmentalization can trickily coexist: How fandom, for many, isn’t strictly contingent on sharing your favorite athlete’s politics. With the growing sense that the stakes are too high for such a truce, that may be changing.