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New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) reaches to give a kid an autograph before an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017.

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON

Drew Brees lost a hero this week. 

He had a feeling it might be coming. When the Saints had a free weekend after their Thursday night game in Atlanta in early December, Brees traveled back to New Baden, Texas, to see his grandfather, Ray Akins.

Brees realized as he was leaving that it might be the last time.

Akins died Tuesday, one day after Christmas, at the age of 92. Brees, who was visibly emotional, eloquently and beautifully spoke about the beauty of his grandfather's life in his weekly meeting with reporters Wednesday.

"He was probably one of the most incredible people, incredible man, you would ever meet," Brees said. "They just don’t make them like that anymore, honestly."

Akins, like Brees, was a football man. 

An offensive lineman, he played his college football at Southwest Texas University in the late 1940s, and after Akins graduated, the Chicago Bears offered him $6,000 per year to play center at Wrigley Field under the legendary George Halas. 

Akins chose to take a job as a coach at tiny Goldthwaite High School instead, and he coached for 38 years, becoming the second-winningest coach in the history of Texas high school football when he retired in 1988.

So he shared his primary occupation and passion with a grandson who has gone on to become a future first-ballot Hall of Famer and one of the greatest quarterbacks of his generation. 

But Akins meant much more than football to Brees.

"He taught me so much about life, about respecting others, about caring for others, about discipline, about hard work," Brees said. "Obviously, he was a football coach for 38 years, so there’s plenty of ball involved being a coach along the way, but more so than not, just spending time with him, watching him and my grandmother. They modeled for us what a relationship is supposed to look like in marriage."

Akins lived a life that Brees considers quintessentially Texan. 

The son of a straw boss in Brady, Texas, Akins grew up in a house with a dirt floor, no running water, no electricity. Brees remembers his grandfather telling him about taking mules to the well to get water once a week, about hunting and fishing to put food on the dinner table. He rode a horse to school. 

In 1943, at the age of 18, Akins was one of 10 men out of 100 chosen to join the Marine Corps, and he fought in the invasion of Okinawa, one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, as part of the 1st Marine Division on April 1, 1945. 

Out of the 153 men in the 1st Battalion, only three survived. Akins was one of them. 

"What he endured over there, I heard a lot about that over the years from him," Brees said. "He was very proud of being a Marine. ... While it was hard to talk about, I think, the war for a long time, he reached a point where he felt like there were so many lessons on it, and it was a way to honor the guys he served with, too."

Brees remembers the big events. 

But he also remembers the little things. Akins retired to his ranch in New Baden in 1988, and Brees grew up feeding cows and fixing fences with him, learning from a man who had already seen so much. 

Brees will head back to Texas after the Saints' game in Tampa Bay and spend Monday and Tuesday with his family, saying goodbye to a man who helped mold Brees into the man he is today. 

"I have a ton of memories, and his legacy will live on forever in his family," Brees said. "And those are all the things I want to instill in my kids, too."

Follow Joel A. Erickson on Twitter, @JoelAErickson.