AL HAMNIK: Purdue QB greats love rocking that cradle
Lenny Ignelzi | Associated Press New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees smiles during a news conference in San Diego in April. On Tuesday, Brees joined former Purdue quarterbacks Len Dawson, Bob Griese and Mark Herrmann at the "Celebrating Our Legends VI" event co-hosted by the National Football Foundation's Joe Tiller Chapter of Northwest Indiana in West Lafayette. Brees, Dawson and Griese all have Super Bowl rings but are proud to return to their alma mater.

WEST LAFAYETTE | They may not be the most interesting men in the world, but Purdue quarterbacks are cut from a different cloth when you're talking pro football.

Len Dawson, Bob Griese and Drew Brees all won Super Bowls. Brees was MVP of the last one, that wildly entertaining shootout with Peyton Manning's Indianapolis Colts.

Purdue's Big 3 were special guests at Tuesday night's "Celebrating Our Legends VI" event co-hosted by the National Football Foundation's Joe Tiller Chapter of Northwest Indiana.

As Dawson, Griese and Brees entered the Purdue Memorial Union, a hush fell over the ballroom and its record crowd of more than 800. These men are legends, past and present, who still bleed the Black and Gold.

At any moment, you expected them to take the snap and fill the air with tight spirals that made your hands sting.

"I think of how cerebral they were. They were all students of the game," marveled college Hall of Famer Mark Herrmann, another great former Purdue quarterback. "But the common thread is that they're winners.

"All had different abilities. But all had that common burning desire to lead their football teams. And when you get to that ultimate game and pull it off, you're sitting on top of the world."

Herrmann said there's a high level of play, of excellence, that's demanded of any Purdue quarterback. The moment you step behind center, you feel it tugging at your jersey.

Those who can't handle the pressure -- and there have been failures here -- pack up what's left of their pride and leave town.

"When legends play the game before you, it can be a great motivator or a detractor," Herrmann said. "There are a number of schools around that have had a great legacy of quarterbacks. But as the years go on, the list grows here.

"There is pressure to succeed and do well. The fans here have a high level of expectation and anticipation. Another one of the common threads is the great ones accept that and want to be the guy out there."

Ironic that when Brees accepted the Super Bowl MVP trophy last Feb. 7 in south Florida, he did so from Dawson, MVP of the 1970 Super Bowl while with Kansas City.

"I keep bragging about it all the time when other universities start talkin' about certain things," Dawson said. "I say: 'Wait a minute. The cradle of quarterbacks is in West Lafayette, Ind.'

"Bob was in two of them (with Miami) and won both (1976, '77). I was in two of them and won one. And then last February, the Saints and Drew Brees did the unbelievable because nobody gave them a chance."

Griese and Dawson found homes in the broadcast booth after hanging up the cleats, but still give fans a close and personal look at the game, whether pro or college.

They continue to work because that's what they did, even after each NFL season when bills had to be paid with average salaries.

"This is something special inside that 'cradle' that we're very proud of," Griese said. "The interesting thing about Purdue is that head coaches have changed, offensive coordinators have changed and they still put out quarterbacks.

"That speaks to the legacy of Purdue."

Brees did not speak to media or sign autographs on Tuesday, having held a news conference in town earlier this week. His agent has tightened the leash in public.

But does that really matter?

Brees returns to Purdue at least once a year to do charity and promotional work and joined wife Brittany in donating $2 million to Purdue athletics in 2007 for the student-athletic academic center that bears his name.

An autographed football just doesn't stack up.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at al.hamnik@nwi.com.