Brees proud of Saints journey from Katrina

By Simon Evans

MIAMI (Reuters) - Five years ago, quarterback Drew Brees found himself a free agent with a straight choice -- the laid back Florida lifestyle of the Miami Dolphins or the challenge of a New Orleans still recovering from the devastation of hurricane Katrina.

Brees chose the New Orleans Saints and is now one win away from taking the team in black and gold to the Super Bowl for the first time, crowning the city's comeback from disaster.

The Texan's choice has turned out to be inspired, not only in terms of his and his team's performances on the field but also in the impact the city has had on the life of the 31-year-old.

"It's been unbelievable, I said this from the beginning, I felt like it was a calling." Brees told reporters on Wednesday as he prepared for Sunday's NFC Championship game against the Minnesota Vikings.

"An opportunity to come here and not only being a part of the rebuilding of the organization and getting the team back to its winning ways, but to be part of the rebuilding of the city and the region. It's been very special."

Hurricane Katrina hit America's Gulf coast on August 29, 2005, killing more than 1,800 people, driving 2.16 million from their homes and causing $75 billion of damage.

"A lot of people watching were like me, Brees added. "You watched hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and New Orleans specifically on TV, and you just don't understand the magnitude of what happened here and the devastation until you actually come down and see it with your own eyes."

"So as a free agent, when I came on my visit six months post Katrina, it was still very much in shambles.

The Superdome roofed stadium that is home to the Saints and has hosted six Super Bowls temporarily became a shelter for those left with nowhere else to turn during Katrina and only re-opened a year after the hurricane.

"HOMELESS PERIOD"

During that year the Saints had to play at other venues outside the area and it was in the middle of that 'homeless period' that Brees had to decide whether to join.

"Your two choices are Miami and New Orleans," he recalled. "New Orleans 80% of the city damaged post Katrina and you're going there six months post Katrina.

"Or Miami, you know, from an outsider's perspective you say that is an obvious choice.

"For me, it was much different. I tried to look a lot deeper than just on the surface. You're looking around at a lot of the neighborhoods and there are still boats in living rooms and trucks flipped upside down on top of houses.

"For me, I looked at that as an opportunity. An opportunity to be part of the rebuilding process. How many people get that opportunity in their life to be a part of something like that?

"What we were able to do as a team and organization and the fans and the people of the city we were able to kind of really form a bond and come together.

The reopening of the Dome for a televised "Monday Night Football" game on September 25, 2006, was an emotional moment that Brees says was a vital part of the city's recovery.

"That was just a symbol that this city was going to come back, not only the way it was before, but better than it was the before. And we've continued to raise the bar since then."

(Reporting by Simon Evans in Miami; Editing by Nick Mulvenney)