It's not his fault he's unnoticed as he walks into this restaurant, just as it's not his fault he's a half-hour late. There's just nothing arresting about him. He's of average height. He dresses like he shops at Eddie Bauer. His body type suggests someone who throws footballs in his backyard rather than someone who throws them before 60,000 screaming loons on Sundays. But you'd think at least one set of eyes would look twice. After all, he is a quarterback who gets his share of face time, and he sports a fuzzy brown birthmark on his cheek that's hard to forget.
"Sorry I'm late," Brees says. LaDainian Tomlinson understands.
Tomlinson knows when Brees is late for their weekly dinners, it's usually because of Drew's fiancée, Brittany Dudchenko. "You tell her to be ready in 45 minutes, but it still takes an hour," Brees says, watching her swirl into air kisses and wedding talk with Torsha Oakley, Tomlinson's fiancée. Both budding stars marvel at how their budding wives speak simultaneously yet somehow hear one another. Neither guy gets it.
This is where it starts for Brees and LT: dining on a Friday night, speaking the mind of the soon-to-be-married man, yucking it up as if needling their wives is an appetizer. They are two friends who met at a high school all-star game; two unrecruited nobodies who turned up as Heisman finalists; two franchise players snagged back-to-back in the Chargers' knock-on-wood 2001 draft. They are a pair of 23-year-olds learning the X's and O's of football and weddings together. They live minutes from each other, rotate as dinner hosts, get to the facility early and stay after practice late. A true Ya-Ya Brotherhood.
Tomlinson has already tied the Chargers record for most rushing yards in a game (217, vs. New England in Week 4), and owns the second-highest season rushing total in franchise history (1,236). Brees, in his first year as a starter, is providing a steady hand at quarterback for a team that in five years has whittled through Doug Flutie, Jim Harbaugh, Ryan Leaf, Moses Moreno, Erik Kramer and Craig Whelihan. "The Chargers have the future in two key positions," says Chiefs president Carl Peterson. "They hit a home run with those two."
Of course, it would be nice if those two could get a table. Minute after minute drips by. Finally, a hostess leads them to a booth in the corner. Still, not one person has done a double take. "If I get recognized, it's usually because of my birthmark," Brees says. "But not tonight."
So maybe they don't look the part of superstars. Both are short: Brees is listed as six feet, which is true. Tomlinson is listed as 5'10", which might be true when he's standing in cleats on concrete. But maybe what you see is less than what you'll get. "I was in Buffalo with Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas," says San Diego GM John Butler. "These two have what they had." On and off the field. It's coming slowly, but by way of a 5–1 start and a 21-14 upset of the Patriots, Tomlinson and Brees have made it cool to be a Charger again.
The two first met as the ugly ducklings of the Texas high school all-star game in 1997, a game that also featured future Chargers corner Quentin Jammer. Brees and Tomlinson were both passed up by the state's gridiron meccas, Texas and Texas A&M. Tomlinson was on his way to the only in-state school that wanted him, Texas Christian. The only Lone Star school that called Brees was Rice, and Rice ran the option. "When Drew told me where he was going, I said to myself, Purdue?" Tomlinson remembers. "Who goes there?" The only real connection the two made at the game was when Tomlinson made a diving snare of a Brees duck. "We both left that game late bloomers," Brees says. "We knew we could play and not many others thought we could."
They didn't leave intending to follow each other's career, but the numbers they put up made everybody notice. Playing sparsely as a freshman, Brees read about Tomlinson and watched highlight shows to see the scoring machine LT was becoming. Sitting across from Tomlinson at the restaurant, Brees says, "It went from 'Hey, I played with that guy!' to 'He's amazing!'" Tomlinson smiles, and takes his turn. "It was impossible not to follow Drew's career. Every time I turned on the TV, he was on it. I would watch it and go, 'Man, look at him now.'"
The next time Brees and Tomlinson met up was at the 2000 Heisman ceremony. Tomlinson had become only the second player in Division I history, after Ricky Williams, to rush for 2,000 yards in a season and 5,000 for a career, while Brees had broken every major Big Ten passing record in guiding Purdue to its first Rose Bowl since 1967. "Who knew we'd see each other there?" says Tomlinson. Brees finished third behind Chris Weinke and Josh Heupel. Tomlinson? He settled for fourth. That night, at the Downtown Athletic Club, in a room closed off by security guards, Tomlinson sat with his mother, Loreane, and cried. But before he flew back to Fort Worth, he wanted to talk to Brees. When he found him, he pulled him aside and whispered, "Wouldn't it be great if we played on the same team?"
Brees landed on San Diego's doorstep too. With the first pick in the second round, Butler was fishing for a starter and thinking cornerback. When teams supposedly hot on Brees -- Miami and Oakland -- passed on him, Butler nearly did a backflip. "No way did I think he'd be there," he says. "I said to myself, don't tempt fate too long."
The morning after the draft, Brees and Tomlinson saw each other in a San Diego hotel lobby and hugged. Brees bought two steel printing plates of The San Diego Union-Tribune sports page with the headline Chargers Land Tomlinson, Then Find Brees. He gave one to Tomlinson. It was only the beginning. They bought homes near each other. The girlfriends moved in. They double-dated and toasted the future.
And nothing else went right. After clearing 100 yards rushing twice in September and once in October, Tomlinson didn't do it again for two months. He finished the season with a paltry 3.6 yards-per-carry average and eight fumbles. "There were no 40-yard runs to pad his stats," Brees says. "He was used to getting 250 every week. Now he had to fight for every yard." Tomlinson still set a franchise record with 1,603 total yards. But if he's snippy, it's because no one noticed. He lost the Rookie of the Year award to Chicago's Anthony Thomas, who had 61 fewer carries, 242 fewer total yards, 37 fewer receptions and three fewer touchdowns, but eight more wins on a 13–3 Bears team. "Drew always told me to keep my head up," Tomlinson says. "Even when I didn't need him, he was there."
Brees saw action in one game last year: filling in for Flutie in the second quarter against Kansas City. "We're up 19-0, and before you know it we're trailing 20-19," says Peterson. "He almost won the game himself." Brees completed 15 of 27 for 221 yards and one touchdown in the 25-20 loss, then went back to the bench and watched Flutie finish out a 5–11 season. Trying to pick up his friend, Tomlinson served up an answer straight from Steve Young's Guide to Patience: "You're in a perfect situation. You have someone to learn from. I don't have anyone."
"At least you're playing," Brees shot back.
They figured the best way through it was to lean on each other. In March, as the two couples were vacationing in Hawaii, Brees said, "LT, this has got to be our year. I got to win this job."
He did. Brees was sharp in preseason, matching Flutie scramble for scramble, TD for TD. Instead of running around in a dither and throwing cross-field picks like most young QBs, Brees learned how to manage a team. Against the Chiefs in Week 6, he rallied San Diego from 10 points down in the fourth quarter. On a game-winning, 71-yard drive, Brees completed 6 of 7 passes, capped by a two-yard TD pass to Reche Caldwell with 11 seconds left. Brees has always put in extra work to make up for his lack of height. But in San Diego, six feet turns you into Randy Johnson when you're placed next to the five-foot-something Flutie. It's weird, but Flutie lost his job partially because of the workout habits Brees stole from him. "Drew is very instinctive and has a real feel for things out there," Flutie says. "There have been times when I was competing for a job and could do things that I knew the other guy couldn't. This time that's not necessarily the case." Like Flutie, Brees doesn't stand tall in the pocket, setting up with his legs bent, bouncing on the balls of his feet, staying low so he can dodge a rushing defensive end. Among starting QBs, nobody has been sacked fewer times than Brees.
His feet aren't his only positive attribute. He impressed Flutie and the rest of his teammates by keeping his mouth shut and not complaining about playing time as a rookie. The coaches fell for him during a skull session when former offensive coordinator Norv Turner drew 20 plays on a board, each one run out of five formations complete with audible and pass-protection calls. Turner erased the board and said: "Draw any four from memory." Guess who aced it. "Drew has a sixth sense," says Chargers head coach Marty Schottenheimer. "There are definite similarities between him and Montana. He's bright, competitive and makes good decisions -- all qualities Joe had."
With Brees keeping them honest, Tomlinson doesn't have to wear defenses around like a parka. For the first time since high school, Tomlinson says, the safeties aren't hovering over the line of scrimmage. "I'm looking up and seeing Cover 2!" he says. "You know how nice it is to see Cover 2? It means everyone is accounted for."
With a patchwork offensive line that lacked experience and depth last year, Tomlinson buried his head and hoped to find daylight. He missed almost all of camp in a contract squabble, and was trying to climb out of a hole all year. He didn't read fronts and didn't study tendencies, which left him running in place like Richard Simmons in pads. "The reason why he stutter-stepped had nothing to do with his courage," backup tailback Terrell Fletcher says. "It was more a matter of him not fully understanding what was going to happen out of the defensive front. He was surprised a lot."
This off-season, Tomlinson watched his eight 200-yard games from TCU and wondered if he was still that player. "You start thinking, 'Will I be a 115-, 130-guy my whole career?'" he says.
He knows the answer now: No. He's toying with linebackers again, seducing them outside before dancing crossfield through a slit as wide as this page is long and into open pasture. Tomlinson is playing faster than he did last year, but curiously, the game is slower. As he studied film for the Patriots, for example, he noticed that Priest Holmes (who'd rushed for 180 yards and two touchdowns against the Pats the week earlier) let his blockers set up, then hit cutback lanes against linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "I wanted to let the game come to me, just like Priest did," he says.
All of which leads Schottenheimer to link Tomlinson to another Hall of Famer, Walter Payton. "They have the same body type and the same kicking action when they run," he says. "Despite the fact that he isn't very tall, he has excellent power. You watch him hit a stack of bodies and they all go backward."
After the Chargers skunked the Pats, Tomlinson hopped in place at midfield, said a prayer in the end zone, then ran to some kids who were at the game on his dime. They were jumping when they saw him. Naturally, he jumped too. On a bad ankle.
Tomlinson's stat line -- 632 yards, 6 TDs, 29 catches -- would be even better had he not watched most of the fourth quarters of blowout wins against Cincinnati and Houston from the sideline. But then again, that's another perk of playing with Brees: a blowout win. "These two players would have impacted the league had they been drafted by different teams," says Peterson. But that's the thing, really. The last time Brees had an RB and Tomlinson a QB was in elementary school. Now they have each other. And even the guys they beat out are happy for them. Flutie hasn't griped once, and Fletcher knows better than to stand in LT's way. "This is their team now," he says.
Sounds fine to them. Back at the restaurant, sliding back in the booth, Brees is getting dreamy. "Hopefully, I'll be eating dinner with you 12 years from now saying, 'Remember that AFC championship game? Remember that Super Bowl?' That's what I visualize." Tomlinson nods and grins. They stare off to see those moments. Hoisting that trophy. Waving at Disney World. Golfing at the Pro Bowl. Retiring their numbers. Their boys playing Pop Warner together. Riding in the ticker tape through downtown, the kings of San Diego. It's perfect, Brees says. Which leaves but one problem.
"Hey, is she ever going to bring some menus over here?"
This article appears in the October 28 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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