Aaron Brooks doesn't go home very often. Raised in Newport News, Va., Brooks was a star quarterback at Ferguson High School and a two-year starter at the U. of Virginia, and he still has plenty of family, friends and fans back home. He's also something of a celebrity around town now, since rising out of obscurity last November and leading the New Orleans Saints to their first-ever playoff win. His mother, Catherine Brooks, is still there; so are his high school coach and mentor, Tommy Reamon, and most of his closest friends. But Brooks lives in New Orleans now. Or rather, his life is in New Orleans now. And maybe it's not that he doesn't want to go back home as much as he just doesn't want to go back.
Brooks is tired of the way things used to be, of a life and a football career conducted in the shadows. In high school he played second fiddle to some guy named Allen Iverson, then a schoolboy QB sensation at rival Bethel High. He was a benchwarmer until his junior season at UVa., a fourth-round pick in the 1999 draft by Green Bay and a clipboard caddy his rookie NFL season. Traded to New Orleans during training camp last year, he was barely a blip on the agate page. Even at the family barbecues, Brooks was runner-up in the dinner conversation to his flashy cousin, Michael Vick, who was destined to be this year's No.1 pick.
Brooks moved up, of course, when Saints starter Jeff Blake fractured his right foot against Oakland last Nov. 19, and the wiry 24-year-old elbowed his way into the Saints huddle, looked around and simply announced, "I'm next."
But for how long? Now that Blake's foot is almost healed, head coach Jim Haslett has declared the Saints' starting quarterback job an open competition. So for Brooks, the process of proving himself begins again. He does not want to go back to the sideline. He wants to be next, but not the next Shaun King -- the Bucs' young backup passer who rode one playoff wave in 1999 and may never be heard from again. Which means Brooks' challenge is twofold, because he could actually win the starting job and lose the battle he's been forever fighting by failing to meet the elevated expectations for him in New Orleans.
"Sometimes I stop and think, man, I have accomplished a lot," says Brooks, relaxing in early June with a towel draped over his head after a full day of practice. "Then the next moment I realize, shoot, I haven't really accomplished anything yet."
Growing up on public assistance as the youngest of three children, Brooks promised himself that when he could take matters into his own hands, things would be different. When he was able to make good on his childhood pledge through football, Brooks was genuinely wounded that outsiders-naysayers, shallow scouts, naive coaches-still conspired to lock him into second-class status. "I was never very fortunate as a kid," he says. "But to have to keep taking that kind of stuff as a grown man, that's what was so painful. At times, that stuff hurts ... bad."
Despite last year's meteoric rise (Brooks' rookie trading card has increased in value from two bits to a C-note since last November), those torturous feelings of inadequacy have not subsided. In fact, they've left behind a smoldering fire of self-doubt that, each day, Brooks feels driven to extinguish anew, one person and one workout at a time.
Perhaps that's why this spring Brooks has spent all his time in New Orleans instead of Newport News. The top student in what the Saints call QB School (which makes him eligible for the small glass trophy awarded to the valedictorian), Brooks has worked tirelessly, for up to eight hours a day and four days a week, on every aspect imaginable relating to the art of quarterbacking. He has become the NFL equivalent of a tick, attaching himself to the Saints this off-season, burrowing in, refusing to let go of his starting job. One minute he's speaking to a boy with cancer from the Make-a-Wish foundation, the next he's schmoozing a member of the front office, or acing a coach's pop quiz on the day's blitz-drill package, or making plans with his wide receivers to play golf and watch the NBA playoffs.
"I can't sit back now," says the soft-spoken Brooks. "I've thought about it, but I can't line up all those people who doubted me before and say, 'Screw y'all, I made it.' That's not my thing. My whole life, my thing has been, I'm gonna turn you into a believer, whether you want to be or not. Trust me, sooner or later I am gonna make you believe in Aaron Brooks."
Most of the NFL was converted late last season. Brooks threw for 1,514 yards and 9 TDs over the final six games of the regular season, and finished the playoffs as the highest-rated quarterback (92). In Week 13, he became just the third quarterback in NFL history to beat the defending Super Bowl champs (the Rams) in his first start; in Week 14, he threw for a team-record 441 yards against Denver; he followed that in Week 15 with 108 yards rushing against San Francisco. No other NFL quarterback has hit the 400-100 mark in the same season. "New Orleans didn't take a step back when Jeff Blake got hurt," says 49ers linebacker Winfred Tubbs. "They took a step forward."
Brooks then took a giant, albeit temporary, leap up to NFL elite status by engineering a 31-28 win over the Rams in the wild-card playoff game. He shed blitzers like overcoats and tossed a half-dozen needle-threaders on his way to a four-score day. Brooks also displayed his unique knack for saving his best decisions -- and his finest throws -- for the most critical moments, a talent that has drawn comparisons to John Elway's magic. "It's uncanny," says GM Randy Mueller. "The guy is like Houdini. Aaron has that rare athletic ability that allows him to take a bad play and make it into a good one."
With his underdog spirit and quietly aggressive style, Brooks also proved a perfect fit for the scrappy Saints. After Mike Ditka was fired following the 2000 season, Mueller brought in 37 new players, many of them unproven risks like eventual Pro Bowl wideout Joe Horn or bargain-basement retreads like defensive tackle Norman Hand. The misfit Saints banded together to win the NFC West, and Brooks seemed to embody the team's renegade character.
"Fourth quarter, four minutes to play, down by three points, it doesn't matter, we're still gonna be keeping it loose," says Horn, who adds that it's not uncommon to return to the huddle after a crucial dropped pass and have Brooks staring him down, yelling, "'Catch the damn ball, you big-nosed hyena!' I'll yell back something like, 'Well then, get the ball up, Mickey Mouse ears.'" The starting quarterback spot may be up for grabs, but this much is certain: When the Saints discovered their groove late last season, Brooks was the backbone -- and Blake was in the background.
"Aaron jumped in and kept us going because he was just like everyone else on this team," says Horn. "He represents this team. He has fun, he gets the job done and he gets off on embarrassing all those smart people who said none of us could play in this league."Not that the pundits didn't seem prescient. Brooks' first NFL pass was picked off by Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson and wound up putting the Saints in a 10-point hole. His second pass, though, was a 53-yard TD bomb to Willie Jackson. "When Jeff went down, you could almost feel the sideline deflate," says Saints offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy. "But Aaron comes back and throws a touchdown, and you could see him kind of go, 'Hey, this is my time.' Ricky [Williams] was out and Jeff was out, but he bounced back and the team bounced back. It was a defining moment for our whole season."
The next week, Haslett recoiled as he watched a blasť Brooks prepare for his first pro start. The coach went charging up to Mueller's office, skipping several steps along the way, screaming, "I can't get him going! I can't get him going! What are we gonna do?" Mueller, a soft-spoken, laid-back former quarterback himself, replied, "Just relax, Jim. Let him go. That's just Aaron."
Like Haslett, NFL scouts preparing for the 1999 draft mistook Brooks' calm-cool-confident style for aloofness -- or worse, a lack of intelligence. (At times, his demeanor can come across as something close to a full-body yawn.) Brooks graduated from Virginia with a degree in anthropology but scored a below-average 17 on the Wonderlic test at the rookie Combine -- and the label stuck. "I have always had a calmness about me," says Brooks, "and sometimes that can get misinterpreted."
The not-smart-enough Brooks was calling audibles and hitting his third and fourth reads almost from the moment he stepped into the Saints huddle. How many Wonderlic points do you get for being able to call Denver coach Mike Shanahan's bluff on the fake 3-4 defense he designed to confuse inexperienced passers? Or how about the successful two-minute drill he ran in that same game-without any timeouts? In terms of football smarts, that's Mensa material.
Physically, Brooks has always been off the charts, even though his 6'4", 210-pound frame looks like it could hide behind a yard marker. He's run a 4.5 40, leaped 35 inches vertically and is the rare quarterback blessed with a laser-guided cannon. Still, most personnel folks couldn't see past his somnolence. Mueller could, which is why he tried to snare Brooks from Green Bay the minute he got the job in New Orleans. "If you don't know this kid, I could see how his demeanor would bother you," says Mueller, the 2000 NFL Exec of the Year. "But that's the one position on the field where I want the guy to be cool and calm. For a quarterback, that's a big attribute."
And so Brooks' tranquil 'tude, the one trait that seems to have hurt him the most throughout his life, is now the very thing that may give him the edge in his showdown with Blake. Perhaps he has found a new home after all. "There's no question, Aaron is going to have his off days," says Mueller. "You can't play this game and not have those kinds of days. It's a bit like the game of golf. You have to learn how to manage your bad shots. The reason I like his temperament so much is because I think he can manage his bad shots -- he can handle the bad days -- a whole lot better with his kind of personality."
Conversely, Blake is a 10-year veteran who may be growing weary of competing for his job every year. He came to New Orleans, after all, because the Bengals refused to make a commitment to him. "There's no such thing as open competition," says Blake, who makes $2.5 million to Brooks' 325 grand. "I've been through that and it doesn't work. You either have a quarterback or you don't. I will give it everything I've got, and if that ain't good enough, well, hey, I'll just have to go somewhere else."
Although their stats for last season are nearly identical, Brooks put up his numbers without Williams, Horn and three other offensive starters lost to injury. And even if Blake's battered foot heals completely (as of early June, his movement looked limited and his throwing motion rusty), Brooks is still much more elusive and explosive outside the pocket, a versatility that allows McCarthy to open up his playbook.
Ultimately, what it comes down to is this: While Blake's passer rating (82.7) last season was a career high point, Brooks' (85.7) was a career jumping-off point -- and the same can be said for the Saints. "We certainly are not a finished product, we are constantly evolving," says Mueller. "Nobody in this league wants to be known as a one-year wonder. The one thing we don't want to happen is for this team to take a step backward."
That makes the choice at QB rather easy.
Because there's no way Aaron Brooks is going back.
This article appears in the June 25 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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