When Drew Brees met Ron Dayne for the first time, the slim quarterback looked at the burly tailback and saw somebody very much like himself.
They met at a Chicago hotel four months ago, trading bits of conversation between countless interviews at the Big Ten Conference media day. Dayne and Brees compared notes on their experiences as college football stars and student-athletes who have spent their lives exceeding expectations in everything they do.
"He seemed like a good guy," Dayne said. "We just talked, because you don't usually get a chance to."
"It was my first chance to see him and hang out with him a little bit," Brees said. "We laughed a little bit and just wished each other luck and talked about how we were looking forward to this game right here."
But perhaps even more exciting is the dream showdown between Cool Brees and the Great Dayne, the signature athletes for their respective programs and two of the nation's most exciting players.
It's the final road game of Dayne's career, and if Brees bypasses his senior season to enter the NFL draft, the game will be his last at Ross-Ade Stadium.
In a photo-finish Heisman race between at least five players, the trophy just might go to Saturday's victor.
"From our perspective, and I'm sure it's the same at Wisconsin, we haven't thought about it or even addressed it," Purdue coach Joe Tiller said. "In our preparation, you're thinking about what you have to do to contain the entire team, not a matchup of this guy vs. that guy."
While Brees throws his arm off, as he did in attempting 83 passes last year against the Badgers, Dayne will be looking to pick up a chunk of the 321 yards he needs to set the major-college rushing record.
"These guys are in the midst of the Heisman race, but they're both team players," Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. "They're not thinking about that."
Although they couldn't be more different on the field, there are many similarities between the two. Their coaches and teammates say that at both players' core is a common decency. These Heisman candidates aren't likely to do anything to damage the reputations they have built.
"Everybody knows what a great kid Ron is, and Drew is that same kind of kid," Alvarez said. "They were both raised right, I think."
Dayne and Brees are players in the perfect situations to make the most of their respective talents. Both acknowledge they wouldn't be receiving such individual accolades if it weren't for the team systems in which they play.
Dayne, the prototypical hard-nosed runner, is the featured back in one of the countrys most run-oriented offenses behind one of the best offensive lines.
Brees has been allowed to throw at will in Purdue's wide-open game plan. That offense wouldn't work without a heady, somewhat cocky quarterback with the confidence to quickly find holes in pass coverage.
Brees has a favorite target in wideout Chris Daniels. Dayne works closely with fellow senior and left tackle Chris McIntosh, who has started every game of Dayne's career.
"Ron and Drew have had great opportunities, but they've also made the most of them," Wisconsin offensive coordinator Brian White said. "Both of these programs audition a lot of guys to fill the roles that Ron and Drew have. They're in the right place at the right time, but they're also real good."
Both players have been model citizens. Brees is an industrial management major with a 3.2 GPA, while Dayne spends much of his free time babysitting his 18-month-old daughter Jada, whose name he writes on his wrist wraps before every game.
Dayne stayed in school for his senior season because he wanted to be able to play more of a role in Jada's upbringing than an NFL schedule would allow. Brees has volunteered his time to an anti-smoking campaign and at an elementary school, helping kids with reading and math.
|Ron Dayne chatted with Drew Brees earlier this year, but it's all business Saturday.(AP)|
Both are almost wincingly pleasant in person. Brees has a folksy personal Web page on which, among other things, he predicts his 9-year-old sister Ashley will be a Broadway star someday.
Dayne and Brees have one more thing in common. They don't like talking about the Heisman.
"I guess it's the trophy with the guy trying to stiff-arm somebody," Brees laughed when asked about the Heisman. "I don't really look at it as something I have to have, or my goal in college football. I just want to play to the best of my ability."
"I don't think about it," Dayne said. "I think about the team."
Both players' schools also have taken low-key approaches to the Heisman race, befitting the unpretentious natures of their two stars. Neither is running an overt campaign to influence votes, as has become the custom at most schools.
Georgia Tech has promoted Joe Hamilton with the zeal of a senator's campaign committee, mailing everything from CD-ROMs to personalized mouse pads to sports writers around the country. But Wisconsin and Purdue largely have alowed their stars' play to speak for itself.
"I think if people see the way Ron plays and the way Drew plays, they'll form their own opinions," White said. "It should be a great showdown on Saturday."
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