The ancient Romans were a tough breed, but they exempted from war service soldiers who had injured their thumbs since the warriors could no longer grasp their weapons.
That sobering fact of history came to mind on Sunday when Saints quarterback Drew Brees was sidelined after hurting the thumb of his throwing hand. The injury happened when Los Angeles Rams pass rusher Aaron Donald caught Brees’ dominant hand, putting the Saints’ star player out of commission.
Though the season just started, the mishap has made for an anxious beginning for the Saints, Louisiana’s only professional football team in a part of the world where the gridiron rests at the heart of the civic culture.
Donald’s fateful interaction with Brees was a big blow for the Saints, who fell to the Rams, one of the team's biggest rivals, 27-9 on Sunday. When the Saints take on the Rams, we were reminded this weekend, epic bad luck seems to follow. During last year’s NFC championship game between the Saints and the Rams, as everyone knows, abysmal officiating quite possibly cost the New Orleans franchise a slot in the 2019 Super Bowl.
A bum thumb for Brees, who holds the NFL record for passing yardage, could end up becoming the sports world’s equivalent of Greek tragedy. All of which brings to mind the Athenians of centuries ago, who cut off the thumbs of defeated enemies to disarm them for good. “In Sparta,” the French writer Michel de Montaigne noted back in the 16th century, “the schoolmaster punished his pupils by biting their thumbs.”
Thumbs, it turns out, are more important than most of us have ever considered. “Thumb” stems from an ancient Sanskrit word meaning “the strong one” — a basic recognition that our lowly thumbs, which rarely get a moment’s thought in the course of the day, actually do a lot of heavy lifting.
“The strong one” is also an apt description for Drew Brees, who signed with the Saints as a free agent in 2006 nine months after suffering a dislocated right shoulder and torn rotator cuff. Those injuries made Brees an unlikely prospect to rise to the top of the NFL. But his tenacity quickly silenced naysayers, and his resilience resonated in a region rebounding with grit and determination from devastation after Hurricane Katrina.
Drew Brees — and the city and state he calls home — have faced tough challenges before and prevailed. We wish him a speedy recovery. Today, every citizen of Who Dat Nation is throwing him a hearty thumbs-up.