Drew Brees is beloved by many in New Orleans and throughout Louisiana. But for two men, Brees personally became a symbol of hope at precisely the moments they needed it.
In 2010, Jackson Smith was on his first deployment in Afghanistan as a Marine infantry officer when he learned that the New Orleans Saints had won the Super Bowl, just five years after Hurricane Katrina and days before Mardi Gras, Smith wrote in a piece for the Washington Post.
Because Smith couldn't be in New Orleans to celebrate the Saints' win, his friend, Brian McKenna, made a cardboard cut-out of Smith and took it everywhere he went during Mardi Gras, capturing photos of Smith at parades, parties and bars. McKenna sent Smith more than 50 photos with a note that said, "Didn’t want you to miss all this. Now you know, you didn’t.”
The last picture in the series, however, was the one that touched Smith's heart the most: A photo of his cardboard cut-out with Drew Brees at the Bacchus Ball.
"At a time in my life when I knew little beyond doubt and exhaustion, (McKenna's) gesture brought me through. I believed that I could never repay him or Drew Brees for what they had done for me," Smith wrote.
Five years later, McKenna suffered an accident that paralyzed him from the neck down. Because McKenna had brought Smith hope when he needed it, Smith decided to do the same for his friend in his hour of need. He created his own cardboard cut-out of McKenna and took it to the Saints' last open practice at Yulman Stadium.
Smith knew it was a long shot, but he managed to make contact with Brees and give him a "three second CliffsNotes version" of his story. Brees' response? “Get the camera ready.”
"And so he had done it again," Smith wrote. "For the second time Drew Brees had shown up to bring some measure of hope and good will to a person at their lowest point. I don’t think he knows the magnitude of what he has done for me or for my best friend."