Drew Brees lifted his nose from the grind long enough to begin to appreciate the journey as it neared conclusion. That helped the former New Orleans Saints quarterback realize when the time was right for retirement, which he announced Sunday, March 14, exactly 15 years to the day after joining the Saints as an unrestricted free agent.
"I'd say ever since the 2017 season, I have truly approached each season like it could be my last," Brees said Wednesday, during a national conference call to discuss his new role, with NBC Sports. He will serve as a studio analyst for "Football Night in America" and as a game analyst for Notre Dame football, as well as work on events including the Olympics and Super Bowl LVI.
"I've approached the offseason that way and then I've approached each and every game during the season that way," he said. "There was no additional pressure with that, because I really tried to play every game like it was the Super Bowl, like it was the most important game of the season. So my preparation was always the same, it was always consistent. I always wanted to put my absolute best on the field every time out.
"What I started to do was maybe just enjoy some of the little things a bit more: The bus rides home, the plane rides home, the locker room after. Just smell the roses, so to speak, and really just stay in the moment and enjoy it, and knowing that if something happened where all of a sudden it was an injury or whatever and that was my last game, I know that I poured everything I could into it. I've just approached each year for the last four or five years that way, with that mind-set, and I feel like that's served me well. I think I've played some of my best football during that time.
"At the end of the day, the factors that go into this are, I've always said as long as I could play the game at a high level, I'm having fun doing it and able to stay healthy, then this is something I'll do forever. Obviously, I've had some injuries the last two years that have been frustrating, both of them kind of freak things. I don't think they were injuries that were saying I was getting old. Nonetheless, I have the thumb that holds me out five games two years ago, and then have the ribs and the lung that holds me out for four games this past year.
"Could I keep playing? Yeah, I'm sure I could. But I'm also looking at my kids, my family, the age of my kids and just gauging all of those things. There's a balance there. I also just felt like, I would just feel it. I would feel when it was time. And I felt that it was time."
The time when Brees decided where he would channel his passion came a couple of years ago, he said. The NFL's current all-time leader in passing yards (80,358), who is second all-time in touchdown passes (571), said seguing into a television role was a natural.
"I've always loved watching football – even when I wasn't playing it, people would always ask me, 'Do you go home and just shut the TV off because you just have had enough it?' " he said. "And I was like, 'No, absolutely not.' I love the game, I'm a fan of the game. I love watching college football, I love watching the NFL so if a game is on, I'm typically watching it.
"Usually, I'm sitting back and watching it from a quarterback's perspective: I'm studying the game, I'm studying the offense, I'm trying to anticipate what moves are going to be made on both sides of the ball. That's just kind of the way we process it as a quarterback.
"But over the last couple of years I really started listening to commentators and listening to their delivery and how they would set things up and the topics they choose to talk about, and the game became even more interesting that way, just feeling like that was something I could transition to. I'd say the defining moment for me was a few years ago, actually before the NFL season started. I believe this would have been 2017 – I flew my family up to Indianapolis because Purdue was hosting Louisville and Lamar Jackson in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
"So I flew the family up there to watch the Boilermakers and was watching the game, and was invited into the studio to chat football and the upcoming season, but also comment on the game. And I'm telling you, when I put those headphones on and I started seeing the game from that vantage point and then beginning to talk about it, it was like the light bulb went on and I said, 'Man, I can do this and I would love it, and I think I could be really good at it.' I think that's when I really started to think about it and take it serious."
Brees said it was difficult to walk away from football because he has dedicated so much of his life to the game.
"I'll count high school, because high school football was very important to me – so, from high school to college to the NFL, that's 28 years," he said. "So that's two-thirds of my life. I'm 42 years old, so for two-thirds of my life every decision that I've made has had football as the focus.
"Every decision you make is based on you as a football player – what's going to help you be in the best position to succeed as a football player. Every decision from the perspective of diet, what you're putting in your body and how you're working out and how you're recovering and the amount of time you're dedicating yourself to being the very best you can be at your craft.
"I understand why guys have such a hard time with the transition from football. I would compare it to, if you are a heart surgeon and you have trained a majority of your life to be the very best heart surgeon that you can be. From college to your post-graduate studies to med school to your residency to then finally becoming a doctor, being a heart surgeon, having a chance to do something that you've trained your whole life and have these dreams and ambitions of becoming this, and then all of a sudden you wake up one day and somebody tells you that you can't do it anymore.
"So I'd say that's where the biggest fear and stress for most guys is, just from conversations I've had with so many. There is a transition from playing the game to going and doing anything else, because you can't replicate the locker room, and you can't replicate running out of the tunnel. There's just moments and feelings and emotions that are really, really hard to replicate after you have been a professional football player.
"Now, I think the great thing about the opportunity that I have is, No. 1, I transition from one incredible team to another incredible team. I transition from a locker room where, man, I had so many great relationships and so much love and appreciation and admiration for the people that I work with. (Now) I get to talk about the game of football. I get to eat, sleep and breathe the game of football still. I get to show my love and passion for the game, still, but just in a different way. I feel like that's certainly what will help ease the transition for me from being a player to now, this role."