FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - When he opened his eyes early Monday morning before attending a media briefing to honor his Super Bowl MVP performance, Drew Brees turned to his wife, Beth, and asked one question:
"Did yesterday really happen?"
The answer, of course, was yes. The Saints really did beat the Colts, 31-17, Sunday night in Super Bowl XLIV, and Brees really was the game's most dominant player, going 32-for-39 for 288 yards and two touchdowns in outplaying the more celebrated Peyton Manning.
But even Monday, Brees remained incredulous about the Saints' thrilling conclusion to a most unlikely Super Bowl run.
"I'm not sure if it's completely sunk in yet," he said. "It seems like as the minutes go by, it slowly does."
He's not alone. The entire Who Dat? nation along the Gulf Coast still is somewhat disbelieving of the win and its importance to a region still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. But as the days and weeks unfold, the reality will set in about how breathtakingly symbolic the Saints' rise truly was.
Not to be hokey here, because sometimes the hyperbole gets the best of us when it comes to celebrating the importance of sporting events. After all, these really are just games. But on this one, I think we can all indulge in how truly special this turned out to be.
All you needed to do was look at the explosion of joy that New Orleans became when the clock ticked down and it set in that this really was happening. If you don't think this game had a palpable effect on the collective psyche of a region once torn apart by the chaos and cruelty of all that rain and all that wind and all that loss of life and property, you need to check for a pulse.
Making it even more extraordinary: The player who had been willing to carry the burden of expectation for a people so battered by the last 4 1/2 years put on the most transcendent performance of all.
Brees, who believed he had found his calling when he visited with the Saints as a free agent only months after the hurricane, hoisted all those people on what turned out to be those gargantuan shoulders of his, and he carried them to a place no one ever dreamed possible.
"Our victory last night was the culmination of four years of hard work, fighting through a lot of adversity, ups and downs, and more important than that, representing a city that has been through so much," Brees said through sleep-deprived eyes yesterday morning.
Brees was magnificent in the biggest game of his life. Overcoming a sluggish start as the Colts built a 10-0 lead and appeared as if they might run away with the game, Brees settled down and put on one of the most stirring performances of any Super Bowl quarterback.
As he did all season, he found the right receiver nearly every time. Eight different Saints caught a pass. That included Jeremy Shockey, who willed his way to be traded after he missed out on the Giants' Super Bowl win two years ago because of a broken leg. How fitting that Shockey would be the one to catch the go-ahead touchdown pass with 5:42 left.
Now come the spoils of victory, starting with the requisite trip to Disney World. But the significance of what Brees did will last well after the celebrations are over no matter how long they last in the city where they throw parties better than anywhere else on Earth. The Big Easy will feel this one for years.
And Brees will have been the catalyst for all that good will. He is a man willing to pour everything into his mission, a man with a spirit that spawned the dedication of more than $2 million from the Drew Brees Foundation to help rebuild the Gulf Coast. And to see that faith rewarded in the construction of everything from high school athletic fields to community centers, and then to see him make a champion of a team known mostly for failure, was a confluence of good will we have not seen in sports and in life for so very long.
The afterglow of this one won't subside anytime soon. In New Orleans, it will last forever.