How Drew Brees helps a family of Saints fans recover from tragedy

It surrounded Tim as he waited inside University Medical Center for his son, Luke, to wake up.

It was August 2015, though the days and the hours spent in this room, listening to that rhythm, were causing the timeline to blur. But Tim forced himself to navigate through the haze and stay strong.

Eight days earlier, his 9-year old had been rushed to the emergency room with severe head and chest trauma. In the previous 24 hours, doctors couldn’t say for certain whether Luke was brain-dead.

Isolated inside the intensive care unit, Tim rubbed Luke’s leg, praying for something. Anything to help lift his spirit and bring a sense of comfort to his boy.

He thought he had already made a decision that would do exactly that.

Twenty days earlier, he had decided to retire from his position as men’s tennis coach at Texas Tech University. His 23-year tenure had been successful. But his daughters Alex, Kate and Ellie and his son, Luke, were getting older. His many job responsibilities — constant travel, recruiting, daily practices and competitions — were consuming his time. Time he would rather devote to his children.

Tim was invigorated that summer, taking a less demanding role as tennis coach at nearby Cooper High School in Lubbock, Texas, allowing him to continue his passion for coaching and teaching while spending more time at home.

His first practice was scheduled for the first week of August. He had been looking forward to the familiar sounds of it: the squeaking sneakers as players moved along the baseline, the pops of the ball connecting with the racket strings.

But that wasn’t what Tim was hearing that week.

His cellphone dinged. He had received a video message.

“Hey Luke, this is Drew Brees. Just wanted to say I’m thinking about you, buddy. Keep fighting. I’m hoping and praying for a full recovery.”

“I think he’s the most important person in Luke’s life,” Tim Siegel said of Drew Brees’ relationship with Siegel’s son, Luke. Courtesy of the Siegel family

Since that first message in 2015, set up through a mutual friend, Brees has reached out to Luke through phone calls, FaceTime and recorded messages. The two were able to meet later that year for the first time when the Saints invited the Siegels to New Orleans to attend practice. Two years later, Brees came to visit Luke in Lubbock. “I sent Luke a message five years ago,” Brees said in a recent interview. “And that has evolved into a friendship. A relationship. I can see a father’s love for his son when I see Tim and Luke. It’s the way I look at my kids. You love them so much, and you’ll do anything for them.”

“It’s incredible,” Tim says now, reflecting back on the first message. “Next to therapists and nurses, Drew Brees is the most important person in Luke’s life.”

He pauses.

“I may have lied. I think he’s the most important person in Luke’s life.”

No ordinary day

The intersection of 106th Street and Salem Avenue in southwest Lubbock has the look of a newly developed neighborhood: on one end of the cul-de-sac, a neat row of identically constructed homes with “for sale” signs planted in perfectly green lawns. On the other end, patches of straw-colored grass and dirt. A dead-end street.

It was 2 p.m. on Tuesday, July 28, 2015. Tim was teaching a tennis lesson at Cooper High. It was hot and humid — an otherwise typical summer day in Texas.

Tim’s phone rang.

Moments before, the Lubbock Police Department and emergency medical services had responded to a 911 call.

“It’s at 106th and Salem, in the cul-de-sac,” a construction worker calmly told the operator.

“Some kids were doing doughnuts in a golf cart, and it flipped over on him and he’s bleeding really, really bad.”

Luke had been riding in a modified golf cart with a friend when the vehicle flipped over, landing on him. Luke was rushed to University Medical. Tim and his wife, Jenny, arrived at the emergency room. Their son was surrounded by medical personnel. They needed space to work.

Tim took a walk down the wide, empty hallways of the hospital to calm his thoughts, while Jenny, a nurse practitioner, stayed in the emergency room. When Tim returned a few minutes later, one of the ER physicians pulled them aside to a private room.

He told them Luke had been in cardiac arrest for seven minutes.

A devastating prognosis

Eight hours later, Luke had been moved to the intensive care unit, where his parents were finally able to see him. When they walked in, their son was unrecognizable. He was sedated, surrounded by medical equipment, and connected to a breathing tube and multiple intravenous drips.

“All of the things that were coming out of his mouth and his nose, the swelling …” Tim said, trailing off.

Luke wouldn’t be stable enough for an MRI until later in the week. That’s when the Siegels learned of the severity of the trauma: Luke had suffered an anoxic brain injury — severe brain damage due to lack of oxygen.

“When the doctor said that Luke was anoxic, I remember Jenny almost collapsing because that’s not what we expected,” Tim recalled. “The doctor later told me that it was as if he was underwater for 25 minutes.”

“One ICU doctor told me, ‘Just pray he wakes up,'” Jenny said.

That week, Luke’s parents prayed for any signs of cognitive function. Scans were showing no indication of brain activity. On the eighth day, Luke’s scans showed brain activity — but the doctors’ prognosis was unimaginable.

A neurologist looked at Luke’s MRI. “It’s completely white,” the neurologist told them. “‘Based on this MRI, Luke will never use his limbs, he will never use his voice and if I hadn’t already seen Luke, he should never open his eyes.”

Tim refused to accept the prognosis. These doctors didn’t know his son. He was a fighter. And that thought gave him hope.

Sitting in the ICU with Luke, a week after that devastating prognosis, Tim was looking for anything that could bring a sense of comfort to his boy.

That’s when he received that first message from Brees.

A father, a son and their Saints

The Siegel family — which in 2017 founded Team Luke Hope for Minds, a nonprofit foundation to raise awareness and support for children suffering from brain injuries — has already witnessed big strides in Luke’s progression: through his voice, his movement and his eyes. And for Tim, who attends every physical therapy session with Luke, Brees’ impact on his son is paramount.

“A therapist will show a video, a highlight video of Drew Brees or the Saints, and that sometimes can lift him, can open his eyes,” he said.

Tim passed on his love of sports — and in particular, his love for the New Orleans Saints — to his children.

“My dad took me to a Saints game at Tulane Stadium when I was 6 years old. I remember being at the Tom Dempsey kick in November of 1970,” Tim said of Dempsey’s then-record 63-yarder to beat the Lions. “I was there. I have been a Saints fan all my life.”

After Tim married Jenny in 2001, it didn’t take long for her to realize they would be a household of Saints fans.

“I’m a Texas girl. So I come from a long line of Cowboy fans. And Tim just brainwashed my kids at a young age,” she said with a laugh, pulling away a strand of long, blond hair from her face. “He has turned all my kids and me on to the Saints.”

“My problem is that when the Saints lose a big game, I can’t be talked to for a while,” Tim admitted, a trait he knows he passed on to Luke. He realized it in 2014, after the Saints suffered a shocking 26-24 loss to the Browns, off the foot of Browns kicker Billy Cundiff in the final seconds.

“Two minutes left in a game, he asked me, ‘Dad, do you think we’re going to win this?'” Tim recalled. “After that last-second field goal, he didn’t want to talk to anyone.”

He could still see Luke in the back seat of the car, looking toward the window, tears streaming down his face.

“On one hand, I felt sad for him; on the other hand, I was so proud of him because it meant that much,” Tim said.

A new routine and an unexpected friendship

Luke Siegel’s bedroom is the ultimate Saints haven: from the multiple game balls from the team to his signed, framed Brees jersey to a painting of Brees above the gold-and-black-adorned bed. Luke’s Saints are always with him.

On Jan. 6, 2016, after nearly six months and 10 surgeries, Luke came home to Lubbock. His familiar bedroom was waiting for him, but since his accident, the daily routine for him and his family has changed. Luke’s movement and speech are restricted, requiring 24-hour care from his nurses and his parents. Tim sleeps in bed with Luke each night to turn his body every three hours.

“Our days consist of giving medications three times a day,” Jenny said. “Feeding him through his G-tube, that’s in his belly. Stretching him, taking him to physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy. Lifting him, repositioning him. It’s constant.”

Brees sees his friend’s improvement — and his fight — through each FaceTime call or video update from Tim. “I think everyone is inspired by Luke’s story,” Brees said. “I think Tim’s love for Luke and what he has tried to do to turn this devastating situation into something positive — where he can help others.”

The Siegels exhibit that fight and positivity whenever they visit Brees and the Saints in New Orleans — during the 2019 season, they traveled to the Superdome for two Saints games.

The team doesn’t see them as fans; the Siegels are family.

“We as a team love having Luke and his family around,” Brees said. “They represent all the right things. And I think Luke is a bit of a good-luck charm for us, too.”

Luke’s fight inspires his favorite team

In the early afternoon of Nov. 10, 2019, it was quiet in the Superdome. The kind of quiet that foreshadows the eventual storm of 73,000 screaming Saints fans. In pre-COVID-19 times, the arena would fill up slowly, starting with stadium workers, security, the overeager fans and season-ticket holders and, eventually, the players for their warm-up routines; all gradually building the buzz and the anticipation of game day in New Orleans.

About 45 minutes before kickoff against the Atlanta Falcons, “Money in the Grave” by Drake and Rick Ross blared from the Superdome speakers as the team warmed up on the field, players nodding along as they stretched and jogged.

As Saints linebacker Demario Davis walked out from the locker room, he saw 14-year old Luke Siegel on the sideline in his wheelchair, his family surrounding him. He was wearing his favorite Saints gear: his black No. 9 jersey and his lucky socks — the ones with Brees’ face on them.

Before Davis took the field to start his pregame routine, he made his way toward Luke.

“Look at this, Luke!” Tim said as Davis approached the family.

In one swift movement, Davis leaned over Luke, gently placing both hands on either side of his wheelchair, careful not to move the soft Saints blanket covering him. Luke’s eyes fluttered.

Davis’ headband was inches from Luke’s face as he spoke to him, his voice soft: “God is with you. You’re going to be all right.”

“Everything you [need to] know about Luke,” Davis said later, “is that he’s a fighter. That fighting spirit is what we need on Sundays. He’s an inspiration to us.

“I wanted to go up to him and his family to confirm that to him.”

The Saints lost that game to the Falcons. But victory means something else to Tim and Luke Siegel now. They still count the wins. They just measure them differently. For a father and son, there is victory in each day, in each other.

“He’s improving because of that fight that he still has,” Tim said. “What I’m trying so hard to do is not go back in time and not focus on the future, but try to be here today, because today I’m going to make sure that Luke knows his father’s right by his side, and that I’m going to give him everything that he needs today. And every day I see him and he responds to me, that’s a victory.”

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