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Brees on the Seas Part I

6/7/2007

Editors note: This is the first of a two-part series on the "Brees on the Seas" event in Venice, La. Click here for part two.

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VENICE, La. — About half of the 14 New Orleans Saints who bunked in the Venice Lodge still had sleep in their eyes when the stretch Cadillac Escalade limo barreled down the driveway.

Inside, the smell of bacon and eggs filled every room of the Louisiana cabin. It was 7 a.m., but the four cooks scraping and flipping away in the crowded kitchen had been there for an hour, adding to a pile of food large enough to feed an offensive line — and rightfully so.

There were a few fat and happy customers chatting at the breakfast table, but conversation stopped with the words, "They're here."

Thirty-one kids from New Orleans Children's Hospital poured out of the limo and the small bus that followed. A poker game had kept the Saints up late, and they scrambled to wake up and make themselves presentable. But they weren't alone in their sleep deprivation.

"I only slept about two hours last night," a girl said to her friend as they made their way into the lodge. One child was wearing a face mask to filter the air; another walked on a prosthetic leg. But the figure standing in the garage as they walked by gave the kids a new ailment that helped the others temporarily fade: a severe case of drop jaw.

In Louisiana, you don't have to be a football fan to recognize Drew Brees (two eyes seem to do the trick). He stands at an even 6 feet and a little over 200 pounds, an impressive stature, but not something you'd immediately back down from in a bar fight. Acquired by New Orleans as a free agent after their 3-13 season in 2005, he quarterbacked the Saints to a 10-6 record and a division title last season.

He's seen as a savior not only to a football franchise long known as "the Aints," but, through his charity, the Brees Dream Foundation, to poor families, sick kids, and the homeless and displaced.

"He did more for this city and state than any amount of money or supplies could have done," said Louisiana insurance salesman Neal Record, while discussing the effects of the hurricane over dinner the night before. Record said he doesn't follow the Saints closely, but he follows Brees with fervor. "He could run for governor and win by a landslide."

As the kids were trying to pick their jaws up and the players were finishing breakfast, a more coherent group of professional fishermen began to gather around their boats in the back yard. Coffee in hand and eyes wide open, this group had seen its share of sunrises. They made small talk with the children as they waited for the players to join them.

"Does everybody know each other?" asked Capt. Andy Mnichowski, who had been planning this event for more than three months. The process began even before that, when Mnichowski — who guides out of Venice, La., when he's not fishing tournaments — was guiding Brees for a day of what is considered by many to be the best fishing in the world. "We caught a ton of fish that day," Brees said.

The rumblings and small talk of anticipation faded as 6-foot-6, 313-pound Jammal Brown stomped onto the back porch, ready to fish. Next to fill out the door frame was Steve Gleason, a defensive back starting his seventh year in the NFL, followed by the rest of the team. They were all there at the request of Brees, who had run this drill once before when he played for the San Diego Chargers: Call a guide, call the children's hospital, and watch the smiles roll in.

"I took a bunch of kids out down in San Diego, but not to this level," Brees said. "I just chartered one boat and took out 30 kids. We had a good time, caught a bunch of small fish, some bass and flounder."

Inspired by his fishing trip to Venice, Brees pitched the idea to Mnichowski in December, and the captain immediately called friends. Plenty of planning, broken commitments and last-minute saviors later, 18 captains and boats waited outside the lodge.

"We just called the hospital and told them what we had planned," Brees said. "They picked the kids and made sure that they could handle the heat and the weather and everything. Then we set up all the transportation to get them down here."

And there would be no small fish this time around — not in Venice. The area straddles the mouth of the Mississippi River, where a gumbo of fresh and salt water sustain a plethora of nutrients and baitfish. The estuary is so versatile, it is a favorite spot of both the Oh Boy! Oberto Redfish Cup, the premier saltwater fishing championship, and BASS, which has held two Bassmaster Classics (fishing for freshwater largemouth bass) at the delta.

Players were paired with two kids and a captain before loading up for a 10-minute drive to the Venice Marina. After all the boats were launched, Brees found a spot on Mnichowski's boat with Mickey Maitre Jr. and his dad, Mickey Maitre. Junior was living a dream. When the Make-A-Wish Foundation told Mickey — whose Hodgkin's disease is in remission — that he could have anything in the world, he chose a day on the water with Brees.

They didn't tell Mickey that he'd actually out-fish the iconic QB (who by day's end would be known as the "catfish king").

"Are you ready to go, coach?" punter Steve Weatherford asked Saints assistant coach Joe Vitt as everyone took off from the ramp. "I'm freakin' fired up."

Editors note: This is the first of a two-part series on the "Brees on the Seas" event in Venice, La. Click here for part two.