SAN ANTONIO — Even in the worst of times when the tendency is to curse the darkness, there are those among us who light the way with kindness and generosity.
I got to thinking about that Thursday when I read about the financial commitment New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and his wife, Brittany, have made to help the people of Louisiana in the wake of the pandemic gripping the country.
Drew announced on Instagram that he and Brittany will donate $5 million – that's right, a cool $5 mil – to help with hunger relief in a state that's already being slammed by the coronavirus.
"After considerable research and conversations with local organizations, we will be mobilizing our partnerships with Second Harvest Food Bank, Ochsner Health Systems, Walk-Ons, Jimmy Johns, Smalls Sliders and Waitr to prepare and deliver over 10,000 meals per day throughout Louisiana for as long as it takes to (help) children on meal programs, seniors, and families in need," Drew said via Instagram. "Let's all do our part, maintain hope, and get through this together."
Long respected as one of the most decent guys in pro sports, Drew Brees is a beloved figure in New Orleans and admired by Saints fans everywhere. Brees, 41, has played in the NFL for 19 seasons, including the last 15 with New Orleans. A Texas native, he helped lead the 2009 Saints to a league title with a 31-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.
As I marveled over the sizable financial commitment Drew and Brittany have made to such a worthy cause, my mind flashed to his late maternal grandfather, Ray Akins, who had a strong influence on Drew during his formative years.
I wrote about Akins, one of the best high school football coaches in Texas history, through the years and got to know him and his wife, Virginia. Born and raised in Corpus Christi, I became familiar with Akins' success at a young age.
When I reached Mrs. Akins by phone Thursday, it was as though time had stood still. We just picked up where we had left off.
"Ray would be so proud of Drew," she said. "He was always proud of him. He was proud of all our kids and grandkids. And I'm so proud of Drew, too. I'm so glad that he and Brittany are helping the people of Louisiana, but I'm not surprised. That's the kind of people they are."
Ray Akins, who died in 2017 at age 92, left an indelible mark on Texas high school football during a 37-year coaching career that was highlighted by his 23 seasons at Gregory-Portland.
Akins ranked as one of the biggest winners in state history, going 293-102-15 before retiring after the 1987 season.
G-P went 208-51-7 in its 23 seasons under Akins, winning a state-record 12 consecutive district championships and advancing to the Class 3A state final in 1971. Class 3A was the second-largest classification in the UIL then.
Marty Akins, the youngest of three children in his family, played quarterback for his father at G-P and was a senior on the 1971 team that lost to Plano 21-20 in the state final. Marty went on to Texas and made history as a senior in 1975, when he became the first wishbone quarterback to earn All-America honors.
I asked Marty what he thought his father would have said of Drew and Brittany stepping up in such a big way to help the people of Louisiana struggling with the scourge of the deadly coronavirus.
"I think my dad was proud of all of us," Marty said. "He really loved all of his grandkids and his kids. He did everything in the world for us. He taught us, among other things, not just love, but he was a very strict disciplinarian. He was very tough but fair.
"I would think that he would be saying that this is something Drew needed to do. Drew's been great for the city of New Orleans and for the state of Louisiana, and it's good that he's giving back. The fans love him there, adore him there, so I think what he's doing is fantastic."
The oldest of five children in his family, Ray Akins was born in 1925 on a ranch seven miles from Brady in Central Texas. He grew up during the Great Depression and enlisted in the Marines after graduating from high school in 1943.
Akins served in the South Pacific during World War II and saw combat in the bloody battle of Okinawa. He was one of only three men in a company of 153 to survive.
Akins' football teams reflected the discipline and grit of their head coach, who pushed his players like a drill sergeant. But he also gave them father-like guidance on and off the field, building relationships that lasted long after graduation.
Drew Brees saw that discipline firsthand when he and his younger brother, Reid, visited their grandparents at their ranch between Franklin and New Baden, two communities near College Station. Born in Dallas, Drew grew up in Austin and helped lead Westlake High School to a state title as a senior in 1996.
One of his biggest fans was Ray Akins. Brees shared his thoughts on his grandfather with reporters in the Saints' locker room after Akins' death on Dec. 26, 2017.
"He was probably one of the most incredible people, incredible men, you would ever meet," Brees said in a New Orleans Times-Picayune story. "They just don't make them like that anymore, honestly.
"He was 92 years old and he lived an unbelievable life. He taught me so much about life, about respecting others, about caring for others, about discipline, about hard work."
In conversations I had with Akins through the years, he always mentioned how much he enjoyed talking with Drew when they worked on the ranch together during the summers. In many ways, Akins helped toughen up his grandson before he became a standout quarterback at Austin Westlake High School.
"If you didn't like hard work and you didn't like discipline, then he wasn't your guy," Marty Akins said. "He just believed with all of his heart in the value of hard work and discipline. He'd tell us all the time when I played for him, 'The harder you work, the more lucky you become.'
"He would tell me all the time if I wanted to ever take a break – I hear his words all the time in my head where he would say, 'Well, you know, son, if you want to take a break today, that's fine. But there's somebody else out there that's working and is trying to catch you.' Of course, and then I wouldn't take a break."
All these years later, Drew Brees is driven by the memory of his grandfather.
"He was an incredible man," Brees said in the Times-Picayune story. "I have a ton of memories, and his legacy will live on forever in his family, and those are all the things I want to instill in my kids, too."