Reggie White joined the Green Bay Packers as a free agent in 1993, signing a much-ballyhooed 5-year, $17 million contract. (These days that might buy you a blocking tight end. Might.) Prior to his signing, the franchise to the north had only been to the playoffs twice since 1967 and recorded only two winning seasons out of their previous ten. After he signed, the Pack went to the postseason six consecutive years. They won a Super Bowl in 1996. Their next losing season wouldn’t be until 2005. They’ve only had three sub-8 win campaigns since he put his name on that paper.
White did even more than that for the Packers. From a Robert Klemko piece for Sports Illustrated:
“Among players, Green Bay was depicted as some Russian place where you go and no one ever hears from you,” says former NFL tight end Keith Jackson, a first-round draft pick of the Eagles in 1988 who would go on to play for the Dolphins and the Packers.
Then something unprecedented happened. Upon becoming an unrestricted free agent in 1993, a player who had been named to six consecutive All-Pro teams in Philadelphia made a shock decision that would change the course of a franchise and the tenor of a town.
“Before that decision guys would say, ‘If Green Bay drafts me, I don’t want to go.’ It was Siberia,” says Jackson. “But Reggie White saw something different about it.”
Reggie White put Green Bay back on the NFL map.
Drew Brees joined the New Orleans Saints as a free agent in 2006. Over the previous thirteen seasons, the franchise had two winning ones, winning one playoff game in that period. Since Brees signed that contract, the Saints have never won less than seven games in a season. They’ve been to the postseason in six of twelve attempts. They won the Super Bowl in 2009.
And no NFL player is more emblematic of the city he plays for than Brees, who became a civic hero by leading NOLA’s emotional revival in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Here’s a wonderful passage from Jillian Eugenios at CNN:
He moved to the city a decade ago, when it was still reeling from Hurricane Katrina. It was six months after the storm, and he describes it as a ghost town. There were boats in the middle of the road, and cars upside down in people’s living rooms.
It wasn’t just the city that had to make a comeback.
“A lot of guys came here in 2006, including myself, as somewhat of castaways,” he said. “Many of us did not have many other options.”
Brees had been let go by the San Diego Chargers due to a shoulder injury. The Miami Dolphins had been interested in bringing him on, but were counseled against it because of his shoulder.
The New Orleans Saints was the team to put an offer on the table.
“We chose New Orleans because we felt like we could do something special down here,” he said. He moved to New Orleans with his wife Brittany, and he soon developed a close tie to the city.
“We leaned on each other in so many cases,” he said of his fellow New Orleanians. “As people are trying to rebuild their homes, rebuild their lives, they’re still coming to games to cheer on the Saints because it just gives them so much energy and enthusiasm … just this feeling that we’re all in this together.”
Brees is more than the Saints. He is every bit as New Orleans as the fried shrimp po’ boy from Verti Marte on Royal, washed down with an ice cold bottle of Abita Amber.
The Bears don’t need to sell the City of Chicago to free agents or 21 year-old Auburn cornerbacks. Ten minutes of the late night set at The Green Mill or a few pops with an aging scribe at the Old Town Alehouse will get that accomplished. The greatest cities on earth don’t need a tagline.
And hopefully the town won’t have to recover from any natural disasters in the near future. The city has plenty of unnatural disasters – the Tribune is no longer in Tribune Tower for Christ sake – but it seems to be surviving just fine.
What the Bears have needed more than anything is a franchise-altering presence on the field and it seems, through just two games of this season, he hath been delivered. Khalil Mack was traded to the Chicago Bears by Jon Gruden and the Oakland Raiders on Saturday, September 1st 2018 and it’s starting to feel like a move that has commenced a new era of Chicago Bears football.