Long before Drew Brees, there was Aaron Brooks
Saints quarterback saved New Orleans pre- and post-Katrina
When you think of New Orleans, sports and Hurricane Katrina, the first person who normally comes to mind is Drew Brees.
The current Saints quarterback, who signed a year after Katrina slammed ashore with 150 mph winds, has always been viewed as the savior of the city, guiding New Orleans through one of the most catastrophic storms in American history. Brees and his family donated their time and money, rebuilding homes and creating mentorship programs in the storm’s aftermath. Five years later, Brees brought home the Saints’ one and only Super Bowl trophy.
But Brees came after all the water had retreated back into the Mississippi River.
The starting quarterback of the Saints on Aug. 29, 2005, who was with the team when it relocated to San Antonio, practicing on high school football fields and having team meetings in condemned buildings? That was Aaron Brooks.
You can’t be blamed for forgetting that. In 10-year retrospectives of Katrina in Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine, Brooks’ name is completely absent even though he was just the second black quarterback to ever start for the Saints and the first, in 2000, to win a playoff game.
Six years later, he was gone.
The former University of Virginia quarterback was selected in the fourth round of the 1999 NFL draft by the Green Bay Packers to serve as one of the backups to future Hall of Famer Brett Favre. Going from Newport News, Virginia, to Green Bay, Wisconsin, to New Orleans was like trading in Thanksgiving dressing for stuffing before coming back to your senses.
“I’m a Virginia dude. I went to UVA and then left UVA and went to Green Bay,” Brooks said. “So when I got down to New Orleans, I was almost culture-shocked by my own people.”
Originally losing the starting job to veteran Jeff Blake before the 2000 season, Brooks was thrust into the No. 1 spot for the final five regular-season games after Blake, the team’s first black starting quarterback, suffered a season-ending foot injury.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this is my moment,’ ” said Brooks, who has a near encyclopedic memory of replacing Blake on Nov. 19, 2000, against the visiting Oakland Raiders.
On his first pass attempt, Brooks was intercepted by defensive back Charles Woodson. On the next series, his next pass, a slant route, went for 53 yards and a touchdown to Willie Jackson. Before his first career start a week later versus the defending Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams, Brooks was so confident that he told a cameraman, “Get your popcorn and Coke, because it’s about to be a show.” He threw for 190 yards and scored three touchdowns in a 31-24 win.
Brooks would go 3-2 as a starter, culminating in a first-round rematch with the Rams that December. Four touchdown passes and 266 yards later, the Saints won their first playoff game in the franchise’s then-34-year history. “It was one of the greatest victories I’ve ever been a part of.”
What contributed to his success were his height (6-foot-3), a strong arm and the ability to stand in the pocket and zip a pass down the field. Because he is black, Brooks was also supposed to be a mobile quarterback. When he used to get asked why he stayed in the pocket so much, he’d respond: “Because I can throw the ball. You ain’t see my arm?”
In fairness, he was fast (4.53 seconds in the 40-yard dash), so he could take off and run when he wanted to. But he was more Russell Wilson than Michael Vick (his second cousin) in that he scrambled only when he absolutely had to. From 2000-2005, Brooks had the seventh-most rushing yards by a quarterback (1,140), sitting two spots behind Jeff Garcia.
Remember when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick ran for 181 yards against the Green Bay Packers in the 2012 playoffs and threw for another 412 against the team in the 2013 season opener? Brooks did that in just his second and third career starts, throwing for 441 yards versus the Denver Broncos in Week 14 of the 2000 season and following that up the next week with 108 rushing yards against the 49ers.
Over the next five seasons, Brooks would throw for 120 touchdowns (a team record until Brees’ arrival) and 19,156 yards, and he won 38 games.
And then Katrina hit.
The Saints and hundreds of thousands of residents fled New Orleans, setting up shop in San Jose, California, and San Antonio for the entire 2005 season. Their eight “home” games were played in New York, San Antonio and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which is 80 miles north of New Orleans.
Brooks criticized both the NFL and Saints owner Tom Benson for their lack of communication and direction during the team’s uprooting.
“I’m very sure [Benson] could have done a lot more,” the quarterback told CBS in late 2005. “For those who don’t understand, come down here to San Antonio and see what our conditions are like. It’s just bad.”
The Saints finished the season with a 3-13 record.
Brooks still has mixed emotions regarding how the team was treated by the league. He regrets how he handled the situation (“Looking back, I probably would’ve handled it a bit differently now that I’m older.”) but also how the storm and subsequent displacement set the team back for what could have been a promising season.
After consecutive 8-8 finishes in 2003 and ’04, Brooks believes the team was headed back to the playoffs for the first time since 2000. But All-Pro receiver Michael Lewis suffered a season-ending knee injury after just two games and Pro Bowl running back Deuce McAllister tore his ACL in Week 5. Fellow Pro Bowl receiver Joe Horn missed only three games but was hampered by a hamstring injury all year. The defense was one of the worst in the league.
“With the frustration mounting up from Hurricane Katrina, just added to all the frustrations that we had, particularly from my standpoint. … I thought that kind of set us back, it kind of set my career back in a way that I didn’t imagine. But that’s part of life, part of football.”
The franchise and fan base soured on Brooks; he threw 17 interceptions and just 13 touchdowns in 2005. In the offseason, Brooks was released. “Ding Dong, The Biyatch is gone! The stupid Biyatch is gone!!!!!!” a fan wrote on a Saints message board.
He later signed with the Oakland Raiders but struggled there as well, throwing eight interceptions and just three touchdowns in eight starts, all losses. He said he tore his pectoral muscle in his throwing arm — reports called it a strain — in Week 2, and he missed Weeks 3-9 to recover while refusing to have surgery. He returned in Week 10 to finish the season.
“If I would’ve got diagnosed properly at the time by the team, I felt like I probably would’ve bounced back a lot sooner and had more opportunities,” Brooks said.
He didn’t latch on with a team in 2007 despite being fully healthy and with the likes of Chris Weinke, Charlie Frye and Brock Berlin all getting at least one start. He told The New York Times that October that he wasn’t retired.
There was speculation that he was being blackballed by the owners for disrespecting The Shield after Katrina.
“A lot of times you get ostracized for speaking out, speaking out for what is right. I thought a little of that occurred,” Brooks says now. “Obviously you can look at what happened to Colin Kaepernick, pretty much the same thing. He gets ostracized for something that he felt was rightfully so, his beliefs. Not to bring politics into it, but we are not only players but we are human beings as well.
“I thought I did get ostracized. I wasn’t speaking out of turn, I wasn’t speaking for myself. I felt like I was speaking for everybody within the New Orleans Saints community, and it got perceived differently. Hey, man, I’m cool, man. I’m all right. I don’t have no beef. I thank Mr. Benson to this day. He made me a millionaire, so, you know, I’m good.”
Although Brooks didn’t finish his career the way he envisioned he would after that first win over the Rams in 2000, he acknowledges the impact someone like him could have on black boys watching football on TV.
“I just wanted to put myself in a position where I wanted black kids that was growing up had the opportunity to become a black quarterback in the National Football League,” Brooks said. “Not only be looked at as a runner, but he can throw the ball too, whether it’s in the pocket or out of the pocket.”
In the moment, he realized the burden he carried as a member of such an elite club. During the 2000 season, 55 quarterbacks started at least one game. Fourteen were black.
“I took pride in being one of the star black quarterbacks in the NFL. One of the reasons is because I wanted to be the next black quarterback to win a Super Bowl,” he said. “I wanted all those accolades. I wanted to represent not only myself, my family, but that fraternity of black quarterbacks.”
He especially relishes the games he would play against other starting black quarterbacks because it showed “everybody else in the world that we got two black quarterbacks on the same field at the same time, and look at them, they’re damn good quarterbacks.”
“I honor them, I represent them, I am them,” Brooks said.
The Undefeated will profile 30 black quarterbacks leading up to the 2018 Super Bowl, which marks 30 years since Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to win the big game.