#6 Coming Back Stronger
by Drew Brees with Chris Fabry
Tyndale House Publishers, 2010
Winning a Super Bowl entitles you to a book. I don’t have any problem with that. Win the Super Bowl and the quarterback gets a book, the coach gets a book . . . hell, if a running back is the MVP, then even he can have a book (sorry defense and special teams). It’s an optional revenue stream, like saying “I’m going to Disneyworld!” after the game, and a fairly innocuous one. People who don’t think these temporary heroes deserve a book are probably the same people who were upset when the game itself pre-empted Dancing with Rehabbing Celebrities or whatever, i.e., not sports fans.
It is not expected that these trophy books be good. My assumed standard for an athlete’s topical memoir is that it be perfunctory. Everyone in professional sports has worked hard for a long time to get where they are. If someone’s performance in the championship game delivers the opportunity to tell his story, then I have every expectation that the story will be inspirational and serve as an example of how working hard and being a teammate can result in a big, just payoff. It wouldn’t hurt to throw in a little locker-room scuttlebutt either.
Quarterback Drew Brees’ memoir and story of winning the Super Bowl XLIV fails to live up to any of my expectations. It’s not that his story isn’t inspirational. The man fought through incredible amounts of adversity, always with a positive attitude, to lead the recently-devastated city of New Orleans’ football team to its first-ever championship win. A better-than-perfunctory book was there for the making, no question. The trouble is with the ham-fisted way either he or his ghostwriter, Chris Fabry, tries to straddle the line between telling an inspirational story and force-feeding the reader a Christian self-help book. There is no leaving it up to the reader to take away the lessons of Drew Brees’ ability to overcome adversity here. You are point-blank instructed about how to apply Brees’ lessons in your own life:
If God leads you to it, he will lead you through it. Everything happens for a reason, and everything is part of his master plan. If you let adversity do its work in you, it will make you stronger. When you come out the other side, you may be amazed at the things God has allowed you to accomplish – things you might not have believed were possible.
His message is ridiculously insistent. Some form of the above-quoted sentiment isn’t just the conclusion of each chapter (though it is that too), it is the concluding sentence of every paragraph. Coming Back Stronger would be an excellent book for unexceptional middle-schoolers to practice identifying themes. And, in case anyone does manage to miss it (or needs to cram for the test), there is a handy cheat sheet: the epilogue is a bulleted list summarizing the pabulum that passes for battle-earned wisdom: don’t give up; turn your defeats into triumphs; finish strong.
Even exploring something as mundane as crediting his physical rehab coach with helping him recover from shoulder surgery is first attributed to the powers of the almighty: “God gets the ultimate credit for healing my body, but as far as human beings go, Kevin deserves the kudos for my comeback.” Kevin is probably thrilled to get this shout-out from the Superbowl MVP, but I wish Brees recognized that God doesn’t really need those kudos right there. You get the impression that, given more space, Brees would first congratulate God for providing the gravity that facilitated Tracy Porter’s 4th quarter interception that sealed the victory. Tracy Porter can wait in line with the rest of the human beings.
The book is also utterly humorless. In Brees’ world the only time football players talk to one another is to have earnest one-on-one conversations about duty and responsibility. Worse, descriptions of individual football games, ostensibly from Brees’ point of view, are less interesting than Monday morning write-ups on ESPN.com. They are so clinical and devoid of personal color, I am convinced that they were written entirely by Chris Fabry using news clippings and videotape. The whole NFL season prior to the one the Saints won the Super Bowl is covered in 10 pages.
The Saints are incredibly popular in New Orleans, despite many years of playing terrible football, and winning the Super Bowl was extremely heartening for the residents still reeling from the devastation of hurricane Katrina. Drew Brees chose to play in New Orleans the year after the disaster, having spent the past year recovering from major shoulder surgery. So conflating the two comeback stories is a natural move for the narrative, subtlety being optional: “In a lot of ways, this city and I have had parallel journeys. New Orleans was trying to come back at the same time I was rehabbing my shoulder and trying to resurrect my career.” That said, once the story moves on from the initial decision to play in New Orleans, all further conflation of Brees’ career arc and the troubled city is handled with increasingly less tact. “Building a championship team is not an overnight process. It’s not all that different from the reconstruction after Katrina. You have to go through some pain and tearing down before you can get to work on the rebuilding process.”
God is constantly molding Brees for greatness . . . by tearing a tendon in his knee and the labrum in his shoulder, by letting him get benched and shown the door by the San Diego Chargers, and even through the suicide of his mother at the start of the 2009 season. It gets to the point where Brees actually loses track of why he’s enduring all these setbacks, seeming to suggest that God was harassing him with adversity to prepare him for future adversity. “Looking back, I can see how [terrible, Job-like tribulation] helped prepare me for better things down the road.” The functional part of that statement is, “Looking back.” Having won the Super Bowl makes it much easier to say all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. For the rest of us, Brees’ how-to book on unintentional Calvinism is a lot harder to take seriously.
Jeffrey Eaton is a fundraiser, amateur photographer, and Open Letters editor-at-large. He lives in Washington, D.C.