By Cynthia Zordich, Player Engagement Insider
It is Sunday morning, week 13 of the NFL season and Brittany Brees, wife of New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, is orchestrating plans for a noon kickoff against the Detroit Lions. She has coordinated and distributed all family and guest tickets, plus parking passes, loaded up her three sons: Baylen, Bowen and Callen, as well as her baby girl, Rylen, who will serenade them to the Superdome.
For this game, they have left a bit early to meet a special guest, on the field, pregame. The guest is Brian McKenna who was injured in a dirt bike accident and is now paralyzed from the neck down. Brian's initial connection with Drew and Brittany is telling of the kind of person he is and the kind of people they are.
It was Mardi Gras 2010, five days after the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV. Brian (and a life-size cut out of his best friend, Marine Infantry Officer Jackson Smith) had famously crashed the prestigious Mardi Gras Bacchus Ball to get a picture of Brees with the cut out of Jackson. Brian met Brittany first, and as soon as he told her his plan to cheer up his friend who was deployed in Afghanistan, it was done - in a snap and a flash. Five years later, after Brian's accident, Smith wished to return the gesture. An open practice at Tulane, coupled with an open-hearted Brees, resulted in a second photo - this time of Brees and Brian. Smith penned their story for the Washington Post and the rest (plus a few appearances on The Ellen DeGeneres Show) is history.
Today, Drew and Brittany have invited Brian McKenna and his family to the Saints game. Oh -- and The Ellen DeGeneres Show is filming, too.
Still, Brittany graciously agreed to an interview en route to the game, to talk about her partnership role in The Brees Dream Foundation and why My Cause, My Cleats matters.
To Brittany, the promotion sheds light on the positive impact NFL players are making across the league.
"I love that the NFL has enabled players to showcase their efforts through My Cause, My Cleats," she shared. "So often you hear the negative going on, you don't realize that so many players on every single team have their own charities, donate so much time to other charities, or have huge involvement in their communities."
Brees’ cleats, designed by Nike, pay homage to The Brees Dream Foundation and to military men and women across the U.S., including Brees’ grandfather, legendary Texas high school football coach, Ray Akins.
The Brees Dream Foundation was founded in 2003. Its mission is, "to improve the quality of life for cancer patients and provide care, education and opportunities for children and families in need."
The Honeymoon Baby. Drew Brees and Brittany Dudchenko met as undergrads at Purdue University. After leading the Boilermakers to the Big Ten Championship, Drew was drafted by the San Diego Chargers as their first pick in the second round of the 2001 NFL Draft. In 2003, Drew and Brittany were married in Coronado, California. While honeymooning, their conversation turned to purpose. They acknowledged their shared desire to impact the lives of others, their calling to help others.
"At that time, we were looking at the statistics," Brittany remembered. "We knew that the average career of an NFL player was three years. So, at that point, on our honeymoon, we're thinking, 'How can we make the biggest impact that we can - with the short amount of time that we have?'"
Thirteen years later The Brees Dream Foundation has raised over $25,000,000 for charitable causes globally.
Like all of their children, their honeymoon baby is raised and nurtured solely by mom and dad. Confirms Brittany, "Drew and I are the people who run the foundation. We do not have paid employees. We have Drew, myself, Drew's marketing agent (Chris Stuart) and my brother (Pete Dudchenko). The reason we keep such a tight knit group is accountability. You see it with other foundations, where sometimes money is given and you aren't exactly sure where it goes or if there is any left to give after overhead and expenses. We wanted accountability and we wanted to stand behind our partnerships and causes. Plus, it's always been our baby. It is something we love and nurture, together. It's hard to give it to someone else."
For Brittany and Drew, each cause is personal and dear to their hearts, each recipient impacts their lives.
They created the quality-of-life cancer program after witnessing Brittany's aunt suffer and struggle and ultimately lose her battle to cancer. After moving to New Orleans in 2006, only six months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the cultural city, Drew and Brittany immediately jumped in to contribute. They realized that with so many thousands of residents evacuating - they needed to think long-term. They needed to think about what would bring the evacuees back to New Orleans, a city that thrives on the pulse and personalities of its people.
"I thought about it as a mother," Brittany said. "What would I want for my children? A safe place to grow up in, an environment with parks and playgrounds and good schools. We focused on that because we knew if they no longer felt that New Orleans was a safe place to raise a family - they wouldn't be coming back."
In 2007 The Brees Dream Foundation partnered with Operation Kids to rebuild and recreate academic facilities as well as parks, playgrounds, athletic centers, after school programs and mentorship programs.
In 2011 they teamed up with Matthew and Camila McConaughey's Just Keep Livin Foundation to host The Amazing Race, a signature event created by the Brees Dream Foundation that benefits after-school fitness and wellness programs in New Orleans as well as provides care, education and needs for unprivileged children and families in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. With great foresight, Drew and Brittany also realized that encouraging young adults to plant roots in the community was crucial to continued growth and stability. With that, they launched the Trust Your Crazy Idea program to foster the talents of young entrepreneurs, artists and musicians.
"Which is what you love about New Orleans," Brittany added. "It's what makes and creates this city. The art. The music. The people who think outside-the-box in that New Orleans tradition. We want to encourage these kids to stay - to keep their talents here."
While planting seeds for the future of New Orleans, Brittany realizes that they are also harvesting rich and plentiful values in their children.
"Yes, it is important for our kids to see us give," Brittany acknowledged. "We tell them, 'You leave this world a better place than when you found it.' People talk about fame and they talk about blessings, but really that's ultimately what makes someone relevant in this world - if they've done something to change this world for the better. That's what being famous is. We tell our kids, 'You can go out and throw three thousand balls, make three thousand catches, run three thousand yards, but unless you leave the world a better place than when you found it - it all means nothing."
Cynthia Zordich is the co-author of When The Clock Runs Out and the founder of THREAD, a private platform for NFL women. She is the Wife of Former NFL Safety/current UM DB Coach, Michael Zordich and the Mother of Former Fullback Michael Zordich (Carolina Panthers), Former D-1 QB Alex Zordich and Daughter Aidan Zordich (Production Assistant, Funny or Die).