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Signing footballs (and talking augmented reality) with Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees

Augmented reality is coming for you, NFL.

Kurt Wagner/ Re/code

It’s the day before Super Bowl 50, and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees was literally waist-deep in footballs.

Sitting in the back of a black stretch limo in San Francisco, Brees picked up the balls one by one, multiplying their value — some fans might claim making them invaluable — with the quick stroke of a blue Sharpie before tossing them back onto the pile.

Brees was on the way back to his hotel after an hour-long Q&A session with some of his biggest fans. Blue Jeans Network, a San Francisco-based video conferencing startup, hosted Brees for questions from a moderator and a live studio audience, all of which was broadcast online.

NFL athletes get paid big money for fan stunts or corporate events during Super Bowl week and Brees is one of the league’s biggest and most attractive names. But this was not one of those events: Brees did this one unpaid.

"This is something that we did on our own," he said in between autographs. Brees said he is considering using Blue Jeans Network for some of his charity work back in the New Orleans area and wanted to test it out. "Anything you can do that’s unique to your fans besides just traditional social media. They’re talking to me and I’m talking to them and it’s a different type of communication than just typing something out and sending it to the masses."

Brees has been in town to attend the Super Bowl Sunday afternoon. He’s a former Super Bowl winner and MVP himself — the league wanted to bring all the Super Bowl MVPs back for one photo as part of the game’s 50th anniversary. When you see him in public or in the media — and he’s been very visible this week in San Francisco — Brees is one of the most likable and energetic guys in all of sports.

In the privacy of his limo, though, he stifled a few yawns on the late afternoon ride. He’s still got the NFL Honors event tonight, the league’s annual awards gala complete with a red carpet and Conan O’Brien as host. "Been here since Monday," he said. "It’s been a long week."

That didn’t stop Brees from answering our questions about the future of NFL technology, his business endeavors and fantasy football. What follows is an edited transcript:

Re/code: I feel like I’ve seen you all over the place this week. What week’s busier — playing in the Super Bowl or coming to hang out if you’re not playing?

Drew Brees: [Chuckles] When I’m not playing. You’ve got a finite amount of time obviously. All of our corporate sponsors are out here, all of the people we do foundation work with. All eyes are on the Super Bowl City, so it’s an opportunity to really get in front of a lot of people and communicate the things that you’re involved with and are important to you.

You joked during your Q&A just now that seeing people you played against go into the Hall of Fame makes you feel old. Do you ever think of life after football?

Not yet. There are plenty of things I want to do and that I’m trying to position myself to do after I’m done playing. But I try not to reflect too much now nor look too far ahead because I just want to focus on the here and now.

Do you invest at all? I’ve noticed lots of athletes these days invest in tech startups.

When I say position myself for life after football, I’m part of the ownership group that does the area development rights for [sandwich shop] Jimmy Johns in New Orleans. So we are on our way to building 20 Jimmy Johns in New Orleans. I’m also part of an ownership group that owns a sports bar franchise, Walk-On’s Bistreaux and Bar.

Tech question for you. Have you ever used virtual reality to train? They’re doing that with the quarterbacks down at Stanford.

The Stanford guys came out and pitched VR to us at the Saints. So I’ve seen what they did. It’s really cool stuff.

You didn’t use it though?

We kind of got on it late. We got on it right during training camp and that’s when we’re already full bore with other stuff, so it’s hard to put any kind of time and energy towards it. But I think it’s a very valuable tool we could use. Part of that is just gathering content. You’ve got to have hours of footage, so you can just kind of plug yourself in and then actively play the game.

Do you think you might use it next season?

Yeah, potentially. I think it could be a great teaching tool for young quarterbacks especially.

How is tech changing what you guys do during a game? Has it infiltrated the actual game experience yet?

Microsoft has obviously had a big influence. We look at Surface tablets on the sideline now to look at pass pictures as opposed to the actual black-and-white photos. Lightyears better. We experimented with video during the Pro Bowl. So we’re probably going to move to video here pretty soon, which is another step up.

How do you think fans will be watching the NFL in five years? Do you ever think about that?

Yeah, I do. Have you seen the HoloLens? So the HoloLens is going to create this, they don’t call it virtual reality, they call it [augmented reality]. In virtual reality, you put the goggles on and you are in another realm. When you put these glasses on it projects certain things — it brings something else into your space but it doesn’t affect the fact that you’re standing next to me and I can still see you.

Does any of that matter to you as a player or is it just cool for fans?

Yeah. because with the HoloLens, stats are popping up. It showed [Seahawks quarterback] Russell Wilson throwing a pass and his fantasy points are popping up. So for all the fantasy people — and that’s a lot of people — that’s something you can track in real time.

How do you like fantasy football? You hear stories about some fans actually getting mad at players in real life for hurting their fantasy team.

I think it’s great for the game because before fantasy, people would just kinda look at their team, cheer for their team, it was all about their team. With fantasy, you’re really paying attention to like 20 teams now.

Are you familiar with DraftKings or FanDuel? What do you think about daily fantasy sports?

I actually have a relationship with FantasyDraft.com. It’s obviously a site where fans, through fantasy, can win prizes and that kind of thing.

So you’re okay with people winning money at these games?

It is what it is. When people are in fantasy leagues, there’s always something at stake. Just like when you go play golf, you’re gonna play a game. You’re gonna play a dollar per hole or whatever you’re going to play. So I think that’s just peoples’ way to compete, and obviously anytime there is money on the line that just heightens the experience.

The NFL is dealing with all kinds of safety issues now around concussions. What needs to change to make the game safer — the rules or the technology?

Let’s call it technique and technology. So technique is how are we teaching guys to tackle. Are we teaching them to tackle with their head or with their shoulders? It’s funny because you watch rugby and Aussie-rules football and they don’t have helmets. They have to tackle with their shoulders or else they’d break their face, right? I think we’re trying to take your head out of tackling as much as possible. Is it 100 percent? No. But there should be less [concussions] if we’re teaching proper technique.

From a technological standpoint, is there something they could eventually put in helmets to that could tell you the magnitude of a hit and that this guy needs to be checked out? I don’t know. It’s real unreliable at this point. It’s real tricky.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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