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Saintly Contender

WHO DAT goin’ deliver the New Orleans Saints a win and the secretaries a sandwich? None other than Drew Brees, whose five Jimmy John’s stores, soon to be 20, are going head to head with New Orleans’ iconic muffulettas and shrimp po’boys. Anyone who thinks they can beat him in his adopted hometown just might get the Saints’ “Who dat?” game-day chant in reply. 

I’m riding shotgun in Drew Brees’ Chevy Tahoe. I had expected Brees, the quarter-back for the New Orleans Saints, to drive up in a Mercedes. After all, he could get a good deal on one since the Saints play at the Superdome, now called Mercedes Benz Superdome. And even though the floodwaters in New Orleans mercifully receded after Hurricane Katrina broke the levies in 2005, Brees still pretty much walks on water here.

Drew Brees

In a No. 9 eats No. 9 world  (his favorite sandwich and his football jersey), Saints quarterback Drew Brees’ competitive streak delivers on the field and at office buildings around New Orleans.

Just an hour before meeting Brees at the Saints practice facility, I finished reading “Coming Back Stronger,” Brees’ book about his long road to the Super Bowl championship that saved both him and a city. I have a lot of questions that don’t relate to the reason I’m here. But my time is limited—just the 30 to 40 minutes the drive to his Jimmy John’s store in Covington, Louisiana, takes and an additional 30 minutes for the photo shoot. I have promised his agent not to ask for more.

As we sail along the 24-mile bridge over Lake Pontchartrain, photographer Michael Palumbo is already at the restaurant, hurriedly setting up lights.

I climb in the car, and Brees turns down the radio. “I’m rocking the ‘80s on 8,” he says, grinning as he points to the radio station on his dash. “That’s my thing.” He then excuses himself to make a quick call to his wife, Brittany, who is still back in San Diego. I try not to resent this other woman horning in on my time. He concludes the call after they decide who will take which child to practice or a school audition when he returns home. “I love you,” he says, hanging up.

He then divides his attention between the road and me.

Brees is a champion multi-tasker. He took the red-eye in the night before so he could spend Easter with his three sons and his pregnant wife, and still make it to a 10 a.m. workout session—and I’d like to think to our interview. After the photo shoot, he and his agent, Chris Stuart, will tour sites for additional Jimmy John’s on the way to a Frito-Lay event and another appearance that night. I am hitching a ride back to my rental car with the photographer. Ironically—and fortunately—Palumbo lives just a few blocks away from the Saints’ practice facility.

Brees has the confidence of a leader among big, strong men who wear helmets for a living, but also a playfulness I didn’t expect. He exudes happiness. He’s wearing an untucked blue-and-white checked shirt and jeans that cover his weight-lifted physique; a rubber band sandwiched between a sports band and a rubber cause bracelet given to him by a veteran; and a 1,000-watt smile. (He likes the way a tight rubber band feels on his wrist, he explains.)

I can ask him anything I want within reason, but here’s what I ask: “Why Jimmy John’s?”

•   •   •   •   •

There’s more to Drew Brees’ football story than football. At just barely 6-foot, Brees was considered small for a quarterback. A story in Sports Illustrated tells about the time Brees attended what the magazine called a “poke and prod” for scouts before the Hula Bowl in 2001. Brees’ height came in at 5’11 7/8” and he refused to leave the stage until they measured him again at 6’ even.

Drew Brees

Saints Quarterback Drew Brees, right, catches up with his manager and operating partner, Matt Jensen, at the store in Covington, Louisiana. 

Carl Buergler, his back-up quarterback at Purdue, laughs when he remembers how Brees likes to talk about the time he beat Andy Roddick in a tennis match in high school. Roddick, a former No. 1 ranked tennis player, beat him every other time, Buergler says, but Brees likes to talk about the time he defeated Roddick. It’s not self-delusion, it’s the way athletes toast life. When you complete 82 percent of your passes in a Super Bowl game, who remembers the ones that got away?

Reciting the list of accolades for Drew Brees is not freakishly fast—like, say, making a Jimmy John’s sandwich. Brees has been a pro-bowler (that’s a football fan favorite who is selected to play in the Pro Bowl, not a professional bowler) four times, a two-time Heisman trophy finalist who also took Purdue University  to the Rose Bowl in 2001, holds multiple QB records and won Super Bowl XLIV, at which he was named the Most Valuable Player. His victory was against the Indianapolis Colts’ Peyton Manning, no small feat.

According to Forbes magazine’s 2013 list of the World’s Highest-Paid Athletes, Brees is fifth, with total earnings of $51 million, which includes $11 million in endorsements. 

It’s not the money that motivates Brees. A Christian who is happily married to a woman he says in his book he plans to spend the rest of his life with, Brees’ focus is also on his Brees Dream Foundation, which raises millions for various causes in San Diego, New Orleans and West Lafayette, Indiana, where Purdue is located.

But what makes Brees’ story unique is he feels he was called to New Orleans when both the man and the city needed a comeback story.

San Diego was not going to make the playoffs in 2005, but in the last game of the season with the Denver Broncos, Brees scrambled to recover a lost ball and ended up with a defensive player on top of his throwing arm. “My body went numb,” he says. “I was in shock…As a quarterback this is my livelihood.” His right shoulder was out of the socket. The timing couldn’t have been worse. “It was the last game of a season going into a year without a contract,” he says, grimacing.

Brees gets solemn when asked how he handled the injury. He admits he allowed himself two or three days to wallow in self-pity and then decided God had allowed this to happen for a reason. He put in a Herculean effort to rehab the arm, and by the time teams were looking to add players, he was available. Two teams were interested, the Miami Dolphins and the New Orleans Saints. Eventually, the choice was obvious. Miami had doubts, the Saints had faith.

Being a quarterback, Brees says, means “getting comfortable being uncomfortable.” “Quarterbacks get way too much credit when we win and probably too much credit when we lose,” he says. But they are the leaders of the team and “everyone looks to the quarterback for confidence and poise.”  And you have to get comfortable “being the guy,” he adds.

Brees was picked up, along with several other players who didn’t make the early rounds of the draft. “We were the unwanted bunch,” he says.

Mirroring the team was New Orleans itself. Hurricane Katrina not only wreaked havoc on the physical city, but on its psyche. The Superdome had served as a shelter for thousands of victims, and the team had to play out of state for the 2005 season. There had been a mass exodus to higher ground and people were just starting to dribble back in. The jazzy city that knew how to throw a party had lost its mojo.

Brees led the team and the city to a winning season its first year back in the Superdome. And to a Super Bowl win a few years later. To say the city is grateful is an understatement. “Who dat,” New Orleans shorthand for “who dat say they want to beat them Saints,” has been incorporated into a Super Bowl song, as well as the Saints’ cheer.

“It’s a great vibe,” Brees says about New Orleans. “The people have such a great love for people who want to make their city better.”

•   •   •   •   •

So why Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches?

Drew Brees

The most popular delivery man is the QB himself.  Drew Brees says he tries to “grab a delivery” every time he‘s in one of his stores.

“I like the No. 9, the Italian Night Club,” he says. He pauses, looking for my reaction and it’s not until later I realize why. His jersey number is the famous No. 9 that can be seen on every man, woman and child in New Orleans on any given game day.

While in college at Purdue, Brees estimates he ordered sandwiches from Jimmy John’s at least three times a week—always the No. 9. Since the chain didn’t have stores in San Diego or New Orleans, he only could indulge his taste buds when back in Indiana for events like charity golf games.

When you make millions a year, there is no shortage of companies that pursue you. “We’d been approached by QSRs,” he says, “but they were not brands where I ate.”

Brees and his agent, Chris Stuart, were eating No. 9s in West Lafayette after an absence of six months, when Brees says he told Stuart, “We have to bring this down to New Orleans.”

And it’s not like he didn’t have some pull. Carl Buergler, that same Purdue back-up quarterback, was now Jimmy John’s director of operations.

Buergler knew how much Brees liked the sandwiches, so he called him with the good news: Buergler was talking to a group who wanted to buy the rights to New Orleans. There was silence on the other end of the line, and Buergler says he thought the call had been lost. Then Brees replied, “That sucks. I was interested in doing it,” Buergler remembers.

Founder Jimmy John Liautaud isn’t a celebrity chaser. “I was cautious about a guy who makes $50 million” wanting to run sandwich stores, he says. “But Carl convinced me. Once all the stars aligned, we did it.”

Brees, and his partner Stuart, were given one store to start—just like every other franchisee. After opening his third store, Brees signed a development agreement for 20 additional stores in the Northshore area of New Orleans. He has five stores open and his store near Tulane University is a nod to his own college experience eating Jimmy John’s, but more important, he confesses, is it’s close enough to his house to deliver.

Buergler knew Brees would be good for the brand. “He’s the most competitive guy I know,” he says. “At Purdue he was always the guy you’re chasing, and now we’re competing again.” That’s because Brees wants his stores to stay in the top 5 percent, and as the person who runs the corporate stores, Buergler’s stores are expected to be in the top 5 percent.

Buergler has no qualms Brees’ stores will perform. Brees attended training, picked Liautaud’s brain numerous times and emulates the sandwich master. “The more you do things just like Jimmy, the more successful your stores are,” Buergler says.

“Drew is totally engaged,” Liautaud says. “He’s into the P&Ls. He’s all over it.”

Buergler already knew about Brees’ legendary work ethic. “So much work (for quarterbacks) is done off the field,” he says. Brees would spend hours watching game films and perfecting his game. He works out all year with a trainer, and never takes the health of his throwing arm for granted.

As the back-up quarterback, Buergler didn’t see much playing time. “At Purdue, he never wanted to come off the field,” Buergler says. He still doesn’t. The back-up quarterback for the Saints, “doesn’t even have to bring his helmet to the game,” Buergler quips, adding, “He was amazing, so my job was pretty much a clipboard and headset to support him.”

Brees did do something for Buergler’s career, however. He introduced him to Jimmy John’s at a quarterbacks meeting. Buergler got a job there later and worked his way up to corporate.

As an owner, Brees has one advantage other Jimmy John’s operators don’t. When he delivers, people swoon—and not just over the sandwiches. He says he tries to “grab a delivery” every time he’s in a store. The last time, he went to an office to hand out sandwiches to six secretaries. “They were over the moon,” he says, laughing. “That was cool.”

On our visit, Brees was in the Covington store just a few minutes before people heard from the clerk at the neighboring Cold Stone Creamery that No. 9 was next door. He graciously signed autographs and posed for pictures. 

Two women having a meeting over lunch said they visited the restaurant after someone from the store brought by samples to their medical office a few days ago. “We sample every day so people will know we’re here, and in almost every case they order,” Brees says. “It becomes part of their lifestyle.”

Will he ever push for adding a muffuletta, New Orlean’s signature sandwich, to the menu? “There are other places in New Orleans that can do that,” he says. “We’ll stick to ours.”

Driving back across the longest bridge in the U.S., photographer Palumbo tells me something Brees said during the photo shoot. Palumbo wanted him to hold a sandwich like a football. “Give me your game face,” he prompted. Brees shook his head. “You know that’s not what this is about,” Palumbo says Brees replied. “How about a proud face. I’m proud of what we built.”

A couple more clicks of the camera and then Brees sits down and eats the prop—a No. 9 Italian Night Club. 

 
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