The big win-win


Brees: Helping New Orleans rewarding

VENICE, La.  The average professional football player signs an autograph in the blink of an eye.

It takes much longer for a 10-year-old boy to put his John Hancock on a matte frame soon to surround a picture of him with a dozen New Orleans Saints players and 29 other children visiting from Ochsner Hospital and Children's Hospital of New Orleans.

With boat trailers still dripping water from the Mississippi River delta onto the dusty gravel driveway, Saints quarterback Drew Brees and professional angler Andy Mnichowski fronted a line of pickup trucks returning to the Venice Fishing Lodge during the third annual Brees on the Seas fishing event.

"I need autographs," shouted Collene Mnichowski, as she handed the frame inside the idling Chevrolet belonging to local fishing guide Jason LeBlanc.

Sitting in the passenger seat, Saints tight end Eric Johnson took the frame, signed his name and passed it back to his ace partner for the day, Eli Asseigne of Thibodaux, La.

"Here, Eli, they need your autograph," Johnson said, handing the boy the frame, then the marker.

On Sunday, everyone was an MVP and each autograph equally valuable.

For the second year in a row, Collene and her husband, redfish guide Andy Mnichowski, worked with Drew and Brittany Brees through their Brees Dream Foundation to help organize and execute Brees on the Seas. The event gives hospitalized children, and those receiving treatments for serious illnesses, the opportunity to fish with a Saints player and a local fishing guide.

"Many have never fished before or even been on a boat," the quarterback said after a catered lunch. "We had an unbelievable time."

Gathering players to make the trip down to Venice on the last weekend before the Saints begin organized team activities became Brees' job. The task proved as simple as calling a huddle at the team's training session.

"Drew just pulled me aside out there and asked me if I wanted to do it," linebacker Marvin Mitchell said.

The charismatic playcaller also employed the same method to convince Eric Johnson to join the excursion.

"He asked me to go and I figured it was a great mix," Johnson said. "I could connect with my team and connect with the kids. It was a win-win."

In addition to Johnson and Mitchell, punter Steve Weatherford, quarterback Tyler Palko, safety Chris Reis, guard Jamar Nesbit, tackle Jermon Bushrod, guard Tim Duckworth, tackle Jon Stinchcomb, safety Kevin Kaesviharn and recently acquired quarterback Travis Lulay participated in Brees' charity event.

"I'm new to the team; it's a good way to meet the guys and to help out," Lulay said.

The Mnichowskis handled all things related to the angling. Securing the Venice Fishing Lodge was easy; Capt. Mnichowski co-owns the property and business with Oh Boy! Oberto Redfish Cup fishing partner Billy Nicholas. Growing up in Louisiana, Andy's contacts run as deep as his Cajun accent, and finding guides didn't present problems, either.

"Hey, it's the zoo crew," Mnichowski teased his group of guides just after daybreak on Sunday morning. Before the players awoke and the children's bus arrived, each angler had parked his boat in the field behind the lodge. Mnichowski bounced in and out between the breakfast room where the players ate, and the patio where the guides waited until they learned when the bus would arrive.

For the event to be a success again this year, public relations staff and special events specialists from both hospitals stepped in to cover the logistics for the children: Three nurses came along for the entire excursion to administer medicines and be available should the need arise.

"Without this opportunity, these children would not get a chance to meet Drew, the players or even have a chance to go fishing," said Gina Lorio, a special events specialist for Children's Hospital of New Orleans.

An early start

The children left New Orleans in a bus around 6 a.m. on Sunday for the 80-mile trip to Venice. But the early wake-up call didn't affect energy levels. The new visitors to the lodge beamed with excitement as they were escorted off the bus.

According to 15-year-old Corrina Price, who fished with Brees and Michael Muller, getting up super early had become old hat.

"Getting up early? I'm used to it," Price said. "I go to the hospital early a lot."

When word came down that the bus from the hospitals had arrived, the Saints players had sprung into action. Fueled by a home-cooked breakfast that included biscuits, eggs and bacon, Jermon Bushrod rose from his seat and jumped into the impromptu reception line formed by his teammates just outside the lodge.

"Man, this is really great," Bushrod said, falling into place.

After a quick briefing, a dousing of sunscreen, the assigning of life vests and the assembling of teams by Mrs. Mnichowski, it was off to Venice Marina for launch.

"I've been fishing before, but we're taking it to a whole new level right now," Mitchell said. The Virginia native waited for his guide to pull the boat to the dock so that he, Connor and Cole Bertaut could climb aboard.

At launch, a line of boats followed Mnichowski and Brees out of the marina. Suddenly, one voice rose above the din of idling engines and churning water.

"You're going down, Brees!" shouted Children's patient "Crazy" Carl Barre from a boat positioned just behind the leader.

Brees nodded with an unconcerned smirk. The vocal Barre, who wore a surgical mask to prevent germs, almost missed the trip to Venice because he needed a higher white blood cell count to attend the event. When he later reached an acceptable level, he was cleared to fish. But now, Barre was challenging the Saints quarterback on fish count like he was a linebacker from some NFC South rival.

Good day fishing

The fishing was good on the full-moon day, and on each boat the kids managed to catch redfish. Many caught far more than their football-playing boatmates.

Asseigne, fishing with Johnson, nabbed a "perfect tournament redfish," according to guide LeBlanc. The 8-pound, 27-inch fish hauled in by the junior angler impressed everyone within eyeshot.

"I think I really came out here to get dominated by Eli," Johnson said. "You know, it really humbles you anytime a 10-year-old is a whole lot better at something than you are."

To the 28-year-old Yale alum's defense, he hadn't fished in 15 long years.

Fishing with Mnichowski and Brees, Price and Muller fared well, too.

"Corrina had never fished before -- this was her first time," said Brees, the eight-year pro from Purdue. "Her first redfish was a big, 30-pound bull red."

Appreciative of the experience, Price lightheartedly challenged the credibility of Brees' claim.

"Drew Brees was cool, he helped us a lot," she said. "But he caught all the fish and gave us all the credit."

An Austin, Texas, native with a passion for fishing, Brees only admitted to demonstrating techniques and recommending locations.

"Hey, they had to bring them in," he said in response.

A well-deserved lunch

Off the water and back at the lodge, the hungry anglers scurried off to join the lunchtime cookout. Redfishing for four solid hours builds quite the appetite -- no matter the size of the angler.

Several of the children's parents had also been waiting under the tent. One of the parents, Mickey Maitre Sr., enjoyed the food as he watched his son play catch with Brees. Mickey Jr. fished with Brees during the 2007 event and the two had remained close since.

"It's amazing to me how much [the players] do for the kids without blinking an eye," the father.

The boy's cancer has now been in remission for two years and he's more focused on playing baseball and finishing up school than anything else, Mickey Sr. said. Maitre Jr. fished with Chris Reis during this year's event.

But perhaps Stinchcomb, busy crunching his second sno-ball of the afternoon, best summarized the reason for participating in the event.

"For this one day, these kids get to forget that they're sick," the media-savvy right tackle said. "Today, they were on a boat with no doctor and the farthest from a hospital room they could be."