Commentary

Going long with Brees' deep threat

Saints' success runs through quiet Colston, their bargain-basement star

Updated: December 3, 2009, 1:55 AM ET
By Anna Katherine Clemmons | ESPN The Magazine

Marques Colston, Sean Payton and Drew BreesDavid Drapkin/Getty ImagesMarques Colston (left) works with Saints coach Sean Payton (center) and quarterback Drew Brees to make their offense the most feared in football.

METAIRIE, La. -- Marques Colston was riding shotgun with his business manager Mike Harris behind the wheel last winter when Harris turned to Colston.

"I have a surprise for you," Harris told him. "We're heading to a gospel [music] awards show and you're going to present an award."

Colston's face went blank as he shook his head, immediately turned off by the idea.

"You know I wouldn't want to do that," he reminded Harris, in case the manager had forgotten that his quietest client's least favorite place was in the limelight. Harris said that all Colston had to do was read a few lines on stage -- it was good PR, he'd be paid well and he'd be done in five minutes.

Colston still shook his head.

"If you don't call and tell them I'm not doing it, I will jump out of this car right now," Colston said, putting his hand on the door handle as the car sped down the highway. "I am not kidding. I will jump out of this car."

Harris knew calling the New Orleans Saints and explaining how one of their star receivers was injured might not be a call he'd want to make. Instead, he dialed the awards show and said there had been a change of plans.

"I'm never going to enjoy being in the limelight," 6-foot, 5-inch Colston said. "If it's for a good cause, like the community work we do, I don't mind because you never know what kind of positive effect you'll have on someone. But as far as stuff for my own personal recognition, I don't do that."

This past offseason, Colston turned down an opportunity to appear in the popular Campbell's soup commercials with NFL stars such as Donovan McNabb.

"They asked Marques to be in them, but he felt offseason workouts were a better investment," said good friend and former Hofstra University teammate DeVale Ellis. "It shows that money doesn't matter. He just wants to be great."

[+] EnlargeStephen Colston, James R. Colston, Marques Colston
Colston Family for ESPN.comThe loss of his father James Colston, seen here with sons Marques (right) and Stephen (left), to a heart attack humbled Marques.

Now in his fourth New Orleans season, the seventh-round draft pick has returned from injuries as one of the league's best receivers. Colston is a continued favorite target for QB Drew Brees: In the Saints' 38-17 trouncing of the New England Patriots on Nov. 30, Colston caught four passes for 121 yards and a touchdown. It was Colston's 13th career 100-yard receiving game, third most in team history.

Brees has plenty of steady hands in his receiving corps, and the Saints' run game has improved demonstrably this season. Still, Colston's presence has been one of the decisive factors in New Orleans' 11-0 start.

"Marques may be a pretty quiet guy off the field, but he lets his play speak for him," Brees said. "He just has that inner fire that burns."

To best understand the quiet receiver, then, is to read him. Each of his eight tattoos tells a chapter of his life and, he said, "is a way to express myself without having to move my mouth."

There's his first tattoo, on his right arm: Two hands are clasped in prayer with a large "J" in memory of his father, James, who passed away when Colston was 14. A tattoo of the NFL shield sits on his back left shoulder, added after a second collegiate surgery when Colston wanted his future plans etched onto his body.

His mother's name, Josa Marie (she goes by "Josie"), is scrawled across his heart. And his moniker, "The Quiet Storm," is spread across both biceps. The nickname was given to him by a college teammate, and it's quite a coincidence, given that the receiver's future home would be a city scarred by storms.

New Orleans has rebuilt itself slowly after Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav, sometimes in an unpredictable, messy fashion. The same could be said of Colston's road to the pros.

"It wasn't the clearest or easiest path to the NFL, but I always really believed that this is what I was meant to do," Colston said.

'That's your quiet student'


The third of four brothers in the Colstons' Harrisburg, Pa. home, Marques (pronounced Marcus) was a nonstop talker, often mouthing off to whichever sibling was nearby (he also has a younger sister) or one of the foster children who lived with their family.

But during school hours, an honors student, Marques was silent and focused.

"His teachers thought he was so quiet," Josie said. "One afternoon, his teacher called to talk to me and he heard all this noise in the background. He asked what the noise was, and I said, 'That's your quiet student.'"

James, who was 6-5 and 350 pounds and had played a brief stint in the Canadian Football League, insisted that each of his sons learn football at the earliest possible age, which for Marques meant enrolling in Pee Wee football at age 6. He loved the game and spent his Sundays watching the Houston Oilers on TV, mimicking Eddie George tearing through the backfield (Colston was a running back in his early days).

[+] EnlargeMarques Colston
Colston Family for ESPN.comColston was a star for the Packers -- the Harrisburg (Pa.) Packers, that is -- in Midget Football years ago.

His father, known as "Big Jim," was his coach, mentor and friend.

"He was really a stand-up person, a stand-up dad," Colston said. "If there was anybody that could tell you the right way and also show you the right way, it was him."

James suffered a heart attack and died when Marques was 14. With his two older brothers gone, Josie said Marques tried to step up to be the man of the house.

"He was very quiet afterward," Josie said. "I didn't see him cry that much. He just held it all in."

"I can honestly say I don't think I've ever fully recovered from it," Colston said of losing his father. "He was such a big part of my life, and you just don't get that back. I settled down and had to grow up a lot."

Colston focused his energy into football, playing both sides of the ball for Susquehanna (Pa.) Township High School, where he also ran track and threw the javelin.

"[Besides receiver,] we liked him at DE because he was a big, strong kid with great hands," said his high school coach, Larry Nawa.

The veteran coach recalls Colston's senior year against Susquehanna's rival, Hershey, when Colston blocked two punts for the win.

The team ran an option offense, though; consequently, Colston didn't rack up receiving yards and received scholarship offers only from NCAA Division II and Football Championship Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-AA) schools.

The pride of Hofstra


Hofstra's coaches enticed Colston with their emphasis on a passing attack. He realized he could be a starting receiver at a smaller school (albeit one he had never heard of) instead of sitting on the bench at a big-name program.

Even after Missouri made a late scholarship offer, Colston headed to Long Island, N.Y.

There, he played behind All-American receiver Charlie Adams until Week 8 of the 2001 season, when Adams injured his ACL and Colston was thrust into his first collegiate start.

"All throughout high school, I'd never even had a 100-yard game," Colston said. "Then I come into my first college game and I have four catches for 164 yards and two TDs."

He finished his freshman year with 14 receptions for 335 yards.

Colston said the Achilles' heel of his entire career has been staying healthy. He suffered a shoulder injury in 2004 and ended up redshirting the season.

"The year he was hurt, I think he really learned how much he loved football," former Hofstra receivers coach Jaime Elizondo said. "Up to that point, he may not have truly understood what it meant until it was taken away. He came back from that a different person."

[+] EnlargeMarques Colston
Colston Family for ESPN.comDespite injuries, Colston was on NFL radar screens as a star for Hofstra University.

Colston totalled 182 catches for a school-record 2,834 yards and 18 touchdowns in his last two Hofstra seasons. His family invited close to 45 friends and family members to their house for the 2006 NFL draft even though Colston figured his name wouldn't be called.

On the morning of the second day, Colston received a call from a friend who worked at Yahoo Sports. He told Colston the receiver was listed on the site's board as one of the top 10 players left, meaning he likely would go early.

But the rounds kept passing without his name being called. With the crowd of well-wishers back again, Colston retreated to his bedroom. He had realized he likely would have to try out for teams via free agency before finally -- in the seventh round, at the 252nd pick -- New Orleans coach Sean Payton called.

"At the time, I was like, 'I'm at the end of the seventh round coming to a 3-13 team?'" Colston said. "I'm thinking, 'Dang, I could've maybe been in a better situation,' but that only lasted a few minutes. Then I got excited about coming down here."

Rocky transition to the NFL


Colston had never been to New Orleans before and had spent little time in the South.

The excitement was short-lived -- his rookie minicamp was such a disaster that Colston thought he'd be cut. His body wasn't used to the stifling heat and humidity, and his back locked up. He couldn't catch a pass.

"My pride was hurt because I knew I was a better player than what I put on that field," Colston said. "Physically, my body just told me no."

His saving grace, he said, was learning the playbook. By the start of minicamp with the veterans, Colston began catching passes and found a rhythm. When then-Saints receiver Donte' Stallworth was traded to the Eagles, Colston again found himself a starter in his inaugural season with a new team.

The magical 2006 Saints season took the franchise to the NFC Championship Game, where Colston made a 13-yard TD catch against the Bears. Although the Saints would lose to Chicago 39-14, the game illustrated another Colston feature: resilience. After several slips and dropped passes early in the game, Colston came up with a crucial third-down, 29-yard completion before his TD catch.

"He's a big guy with excellent hands and probably the best body control of any big receiver that we've seen," said veteran safety Darren Sharper, who sometimes covers Colston in practice. "He's a tough threat because you can throw the ball in a big diameter around him and he's going to come down with it but he's also not scared to go across the middle."

Despite an early-season injury that kept him out three games, Colston finished his rookie year with 70 catches for 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns. He tied for second place in Rookie of the Year voting, ahead of teammate Reggie Bush, the 2006 draft's second overall pick. The next season, Colston totaled 98 receptions (a team record) for 1,202 yards and 11 TDs (tying a team record).

Colston I know my strengths: killing people with routes and making people miss in the open field. I'm 6-5 and can jump, and I can take a lot of punishment and block

-- Saints WR Marques Colston

"If we loved him we would have drafted him in the third round or the fourth round, so we liked him," Payton said that year. "We thought he had all those tools that are necessary and yet there's that uncertainty as to all the other things."

Colston broke his thumb in the first week of the 2008 season, missing the next six weeks. He struggled to regain his form after returning and didn't appear comfortable with the ball. Fans questioned whether he would still be Brees' go-to guy.

"Everyone sees Marques' size and hands, but what they maybe don't see is the precision of his routes and the trust factor between him and Drew," offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael said. "They work before and after practice every day, and they're never happy until it's the way they want it."

Carmichael also praised Colston's blocking skills, citing a key block he made on a Bush touchdown run against the St. Louis Rams in Week 9 this season.

'Am I fearless or crazy?'


When asked about his willingness to throw his body around, especially given his propensity to injury, Colston said, "Am I fearless or crazy? They're synonymous sometimes.

"I know my strengths: killing people with routes and making people miss in the open field. I'm 6-5 and can jump, and I can take a lot of punishment and block."

Pittsburgh Steelers tackle Willie Colon, Colston's former Hofstra roommate and teammate, has a favorite story when asked about his good friend.

"We were walking back to the dorms one afternoon, and he said he'd jump onto the roof of someone's car," Colon said. "Just straight up and down, no running start. He jumped right onto the roof on the first try. That he could stand completely still and jump onto the roof of someone's car was ridiculous."

Colston spent this past offseason fine-tuning his body to ward off potential injuries. He began seeing a chiropractor for his back, a physical therapist for his knees and a deep-tissue masseuse for muscle recovery and has worked out harder while watching his diet closely.

Through Week 12, he has stayed healthy and is 15th in the NFL in receiving yards (808). His seven receiving touchdowns are only two behind league leaders Larry Fitzgerald, Reggie Wayne and Vernon Davis. Colston leads all Saints receivers with 48 receptions.

"Anytime you face a guy like that, you can potentially deal with matchup problems all day," said Oakland Raiders Pro Bowl CB Nnamdi Asomugha via an e-mail. "He has been able to prove that each week, and it's a great asset for Brees and that offense to have."

As for Colston and Brees' four-year relationship, Brees said, "We just have that ESP where certain things we're able to see out there on the field together. Obviously, we're communicating on the sideline, but we know that look or that adjustment that needs to be made."

[+] EnlargeMarques Colston
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesColston has 13 100-yard receiving games, the third best career total in Saints' history.
Colston said it has been harder to be great each week this season because of double coverage and the Saints' other offensive weapons: Tight end Jeremy Shockey is a frequent Brees target, as are myriad other talented receivers. The Saints also have a three-headed running game featuring Bush, Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell.

It's a good problem to have. He cites the receiving corps' ability to block as another factor in the Saints' productive offense, which has scored 407 points, the fourth most in NFL history through 11 games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

"Sometimes we'll put the ball in the air 40 times, sometimes 20, but as long as we walk off that field with a win, everyone's happy," Colston said.

"He called me after every game that first [pro] season because he knew I'd be honest," Elizondo said. "I'd tell him, you did a terrible job blocking or you got to make that catch over the middle. He'd say,'You know what, Coach, you're right. Everyone else said great game, but I didn't do this right.' That's the sign of someone who wants to be a champion."

Despite recent injuries to the secondary and down-to-the-wire wins, the Saints might deliver that title this season. Several team members have been spotted wearing "SB44" T-shirts, a nod to their goal of appearing in Super Bowl XLIV in Miami in February.

Although Payton said the Saints' unblemished record -- which they share with the Indianapolis Colts, making them the first pair of 11-0 teams in the same season in NFL history -- might be seen as a target on their backs, his job is still to motivate his players for each game, each week.

"A lot of people would be surprised at how quiet such a star player is," Saints offensive lineman Jon Stinchcomb said of Colston.

"In today's game, there are a lot of players with talent that really try to keep the focus on them. Marques is a special talent but not one of those guys trying to stay in the spotlight."

Colston never dances after scoring a touchdown. He points skyward, hands the ball to the referee and runs to the sideline. The pointing is for his father.

"It's not only my dream but it's always been his dream that one of the four of us boys was going to make it," Colston said.

"To be here doing it at a high level, you get emotional on both ends. You're happy that you're able to realize that dream, but you wish he could be here to see it."

Homebody


Colston rarely goes out, choosing instead to spend his free time playing Xbox (NCAA basketball, not any football, because he said Madden is "too much like real life") or cooking in his New Orleans apartment. His girlfriend is a student-athlete at Stanford University.

"I like being by myself most of the time," Colston said. He sat and talked for an hour recently, laughing as the conversation wound down and saying, "This is about the longest I've ever talked."

When asked what he loves so much about football, Colston paused, looked down and stretched out his hands.

"It's something about the nature of the game, the physicality," Colston said. "It's always been that release, that one place where you can go and just let it all out." With that, he stands, shakes hands and quietly walks away.

The storm readies itself for another Sunday.

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a reporter for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com.

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.