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Editor's note: Twenty years ago today, Tom Brady started his first NFL game in his legendary career. Here's a look back at Henry Bushnell's 2019 feature on what led to that point for Brady, who returns to Foxborough for the first time since he left the Patriots for Tampa Bay.
Act I began with a nod. With a turn and a slight jersey tug, then a trot. More than 6,300 days ago, boyish Tom Brady – unbuckled chinstrap flapping, eyeblack pristine – loped away from a New England Patriots sideline for good, toward his first meaningful NFL huddle. But as the GOAT bounded, the genesis of a legend unfolding in plain sight, David Patten’s mind began to drift. Back to the summer. Twenty miles southwest to Smithfield, Rhode Island.
There, while Drew Bledsoe, the NFL’s first $100 million man, ran the first team in training camp, Patten, a fifth-year wideout, teamed up with the threes – and with a certain sixth-round sophomore QB who offered him an early glimpse of greatness.
“I’m telling you,” Patten assures, aware of how ludicrous his proclamations would have sounded at the time, “we are slicing the No. 1 defense. We are killin’ them. And I remember going back to my hotel room feeling like, ‘Shoot, they got the wrong one with the $100 million.’ ”
So on that fateful Foxborough evening, when Bledsoe went down and struggled to get up, his brain concussed, insides bleeding, life legitimately endangered, Patten – unaware of the injury’s graveness – couldn’t escape his instinctive thought:
“Oh, we gettin’ ready to go off.”
Aside from vague recollections of precocious calmness and command, most of Brady’s opening act has been forgotten. The mundane first play call, the unsuccessful first drive, buried in mental archives beneath Super Bowl celebrations and comebacks, even by Brady’s inaugural supporting cast. But there were signs. Clues. And a select group of witnesses blessed with the chance to read them.
Nowadays, the 10 members of that first huddle are pastors and motivational speakers; ESPN NFL analysts and local television ones; Division II football coaches and licensed counselors; radio personalities and philanthropists. Their foundations have raised millions of dollars. Their kids have grown. They, like Brady, are all in their 40s. They have been out of the league for a combined 115 years.
But when they settle into couches Sunday evening, there the 41-year-old Brady will be, buckling up that chinstrap, starting his ninth Super Bowl, and cementing his place on almost every page of the NFL’s postseason record book. A win over the Los Angeles Rams in Atlanta would give him 30 playoff victories – almost twice as many as his closest challenger, Joe Montana – and an unparalleled sixth ring.
Seventeen years after Act I, Brady’s former teammates marvel at his longevity and sustained success. They use words like “remarkable,” “surreal,” “incredible” and “amazing.”
Not once was it uttered by more than a dozen early-2000s Patriots who spoke with Yahoo Sports about the beginnings of Tom Brady. Because there were hints, like the ones Patten received during camp in ’01. Hints before “Tommy” even dressed for a professional game. Hints that the skinny kid from the University of Michigan was special.
9 Cherrywood Lane
Brady, in one sense, hates the idea that he’s special. He demurs at the suggestion he’s the GOAT. In 2005, he called the “golden-boy” label “bulls- – -.” His preferred portrayal was that of an everyday dude. “I do the same s- – – every 27-year-old guy does,” he told GQ. “I am no different.”
Had he made the claim five years earlier, few would have disputed it. Because Brady, upon moving into his first condo at 9 Cherrywood Lane in Franklin, Massachusetts, was a fairly typical young adult. He could out-chug frat bros. His diet, according to former roommate David Nugent, primarily consisted of chicken wings, soda, pizza and the like.
On one occasion, when Brady and roommate Chris Eitzmann saw Nugent napping on their couch, the two threw boxing gloves on their left hands and grabbed Sharpies with their rights. They pummeled Nugent to disguise their true intentions, then laughed hysterically as the groggy defensive lineman drove off for groceries with permanent marker all over his face.
Oh, and in the heart of harsh New England winters, two of the three roomies would park themselves in front of their Nintendo for high-stakes games of “Tecmo Bowl.” Occasionally, the loser’s punishment was a naked lap around the condo building in below-freezing temperatures, with any unfortunate elderly neighbors surely horrified at the sight. The winner, of course, would then lock the garage door to prolong his foe’s embarrassment – because how else would 20-something-year-old males have fun?
Around the football facility, Brady often found himself on the wrong end of the pranks. In the locker room, he’d slip on socks to find them filled with blue or red ink. Out in the parking lot, his bright yellow Jeep might as well have had a bumper sticker that read, MESS WITH ME. “Like, dude, come on, come on,” Bledsoe jokes. “Let’s tighten it up a little bit.”
So one day, Bledsoe stuffed the Jeep’s vents with glitter and confetti, then watched gleefully as Brady cranked up the AC, only to be blasted by the colorful blend. “Man, I would give anything to have video of that right now,” Bledsoe says, before noting that for months afterward, stray pieces of confetti or glitter would float toward Brady’s face.
Within the everyday dude-ness, however, were some of those hints. Brady rarely lost “Tecmo Bowl” showdowns; when he did, controllers sometimes went flying. He was a devilishly good golfer, but once buried his putter in a green after a short-range miss. There are other fables of competitiveness, too: of drivers chucked, basketballs kicked and backgammon tables flipped.
And although Brady often returned to Cherrywood Lane with a takeout meal that would betray many TB12 tenets, he’d do so after being the last player to leave the Patriots’ prehistoric practice facility. And he’d carry his dinner down into the condo basement, where he’d set up in front of a big-screen TV for another night of film study. He’d do yoga before yoga was hip. He’d arise before dawn the following morning and repeat the routine, his thirst for football knowledge unquenchable.
He was so competitive and driven, even as a fourth-stringer, that former teammates need modifiers like “psycho” and “hyper” to explain him. He also had an uncanny ability to channel competitive fire into knowledge acquisition.
And my goodness, he had self-confidence.
Before Chris Eitzmann was Brady’s partner-in-crime or Nintendo nemesis, he was the first of many worn-down workout buddies. Throughout the summer of 2000, Brady and the undrafted tight end out of Harvard would stick around Bryant College as teammates trickled out. Eitzmann would run route after route until he physically couldn’t run another – a routine Brady would eventually replicate with Patten, Troy Brown, Wes Welker and many others.
On one August afternoon, after 30 or 45 minutes of post-practice perfectionism, Eitzmann was “completely gassed.” So the two called it a day. As they strode off the field, Brady turned to his friend with a matter-of-fact proclamation: “Look, I’m better than Drew,” Eitzmann paraphrases. “I’m going to beat him out.”
It’s a story that almost sounds too outlandish to be true. In reality, it’s one of many, part of an entire genre of bold Brady assertions that ooze self-belief. Per his sister, Maureen, teenage Tommy told his mother: “One day I’m going to be a household name.” Per a roommate at Michigan, he’d consistently declare: “I’m going to be a starting quarterback in the NFL.” At the roommate’s bachelor party in March 2001, in the shadow of Bledsoe’s 10-year contract, Brady told the roommate’s cousin: “I think I have a great shot at being quarterback this year.”
There is, of course, Robert Kraft’s famous story, of Brady’s pizza-box-in-hand introduction, followed by the words: “I’m the best decision this organization has ever made.” But there are others. Brady told fellow rookie Casey Tisdale in 2000 that he’d have Bledsoe’s job within three years. Once he got it, he told cornerback Ty Law: “[Bledsoe] isn’t getting this f***ing job back.”
When Brady arrived in Foxborough, Bledsoe’s positive early impressions led him to conclude that the sixth-rounder “was probably going to be a 10-year backup.” Other inferences were less kind. Because, as Eitzmann says, Brady did “not look like an NFL player by any stretch of the imagination.” And as Brown recalls: “He comes in with his shirt off, and you’re like, ‘Gol-LY!’ ”
Even Brady remembers his own early shortcomings, in part because he stumbled upon a notebook that quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein had left in a meeting room. Brady peeked inside to find an evaluation of himself, which read: “Slow on reads. Slow to react. Doesn’t deliver the ball on time. Everything he does, he needs to do quicker!”
But he worked and worked, sometimes alone in the weight room with strength coach Mike Woicik at 6 a.m. on Fridays. Later in the day, after almost every practice, he’d convene the scout team for what amounted to an entire extra session. After an hour of mimicking opponents, they’d run the Pats plays to stay sharp. “Usually players can’t get off the field fast enough,” offensive coordinator Charlie Weis recalls. “Not in his case.”
And if they weren’t sharp, Brady would correct mistakes. After a miscommunication with eighth-year receiver Vincent Brisby during OTAs in 2000, Brown recalls Brady, eager to amend the error, meeting the veteran to ask him what he saw on the play.
In the film room, meanwhile, he was relentless. “We watched sooo much tape,” says backup QB Damon Huard. When Weis and Bill Belichick took over the QB room after Rehbein’s tragic death in 2001, Huard recalls three-hour spells of uninterrupted study. Of six weeks’ worth of throws at a cornerback, each one dissected in agonizing detail.
Brady was so damn confident, even while buried on the depth chart, in part because he was so damn prepared. And that’s why when opportunity arose, he was so damn poised. So assertive, so businesslike. Ready to nail Act 1 on the first take.
’We might have something special here’
It was, Brady has said, the “hardest hit I’ve ever heard.” Countless others have offered similar accounts of Mo Lewis’ sledgehammer blow that laid out Bledsoe. That night, concern for the face of the franchise and well-liked leader overrode all other emotions, even back at 9 Cherrywood Lane, which now housed a starting NFL quarterback.
“We were all sort of concerned about Drew’s health,” Nugent recalls. “So there wasn’t any kind of excitement about, ‘Oh my gosh, I get to play.’ It was more like, ‘I hope Drew’s OK.’ ”
At Mass General Hospital, the first thing a stricken Bledsoe said to his father, Mac, was cruelly prophetic. “The world’s going to get to see what a good quarterback Tom Brady is,” Mac recalled his son saying. “He’s gonna be able to sign a free-agent contract with whatever team he wants.”
The following morning, Brady set out to ensure that team would be the Pats. Nugent remembers him stepping to the front of a meeting room the day after an early season loss, asking Belichick for a word with the team. Nugent thought to himself, “Tom, no, buddy. Not now, it’s too soon.” But head coach ceded the floor, and sophomore Tommy delivered his message, essentially: I know we’re not where we wanted to be as a team. I know I’m not the quarterback you’d expect to lead the turnaround. But I’m going to do everything in my power to do just that. All I ask is that you all do the same.
“I just remember the passion he had, and the seriousness of his expression,” Nugent says. “There was not one person in there that thought it was funny, that didn’t buy in. And sure enough … he became our leader that year. We never doubted him.”
Brady began to build bonds with the team’s elder statesmen, often accompanying the linemen to a since-shuttered Foxborough restaurant called Outlaw BBQ on Thursday nights. “We would sit back and eat, and drink beers,” center Damien Woody reminisces. “Man, we would have a ball.” And Brady, as tradition required, would often pick up the tab. “He ingratiated himself to us,” Woody says. “And when you have that type of relationship, man, that’s a lot of equity in your pocket.”
On the field, there were bumps and ebbs. There was a blowout of Peyton Manning’s Colts in Brady’s first start, one that began with a sack.
That was followed by two fumbles and a 20-point loss to the Dolphins. There were the four fourth-quarter picks in Denver sandwiched in between two three-touchdown, no-interception performances. Brady was more game manager than prolific passer. He threw just one December touchdown, yet the Pats went 4-0 behind defense and special teams.
His limitations made for a legitimate quarterback controversy and a “frosty” situation, as Bledsoe calls it, when the veteran QB was cleared to play in November. “There was still a fair amount of guys who were in Bledsoe’s corner,” Woody says.
But by then, the hints and clues were unmissable, Brady’s brain and aptitude undeniable. Weis points to a Week 5 game against San Diego. The Chargers, he recalls, “had this funky blitz where they were bringing the house. One specific look.” To counteract it, Weis tutored Brady to recognize the blitz at the line. If Brady did, he’d audible to a David Patten deep route that the two had drilled endlessly – at least 10 successful completions after every practice, after all others had left the field.
Before he could prove his smarts, though, Brady had to lead his first heroic comeback. Down 10 midway through the fourth, he engineered a 15-play drive that cut San Diego’s lead to seven. He found tight end Jermaine Wiggins to tie the score with 36 seconds remaining. Then, on the Pats’ first offensive play of OT, Brady saw it. The “funky blitz.” He likely tapped his helmet to send Patten streaking down the field. His throw drew pass interference, all but bringing New England into field goal range. Adam Vinatieri won the game less than three minutes later.
The fourth-quarter drives put the league – and various football-adjacent industries – on alert. They stimulated a flood of requests for endorsements, appearances, commercials and photoshoots. After one weeknight dinner at Outback Steakhouse, Brady departed to a standing ovation. As the season wore on, trips to movie theaters and grocery stores required a hood or a conspicuously low baseball cap. Nugent remembers Brady bumping into walls as he adjusted to the fame.
But the reaction to the San Diego victory that mattered most came late that night. Weis, decompressing after a long day, turned to his wife, Maura, and said of his new quarterback: “We might have something special here.”
“How special?” Maura asked.
“You know,” Weis said, “rare.”
“And the rest,” he says now, “is history.”
Cool, calm Tom
The final scene of Act I began in New Orleans, on a team bus, the night before the biggest game of Brady’s life – the first of what will soon be nine Super Bowl appearances. “I just remember how calm he was,” Nugent says, as the Patriots returned from their final Saturday meeting. “If I was in his shoes, I would just be peeing my pants, thinking about the next day. … He was asking me questions about how things were going with me, not a care in the world.”
The following day, with the game approaching, Huard remembers Brady posing a question that needed no answer: “You have any idea what it’s gonna feel like to be world champs in three-and-a-half hours?”
There was that calm confidence again, reappearing on the biggest stage of all. Less than an hour before kickoff, it even allowed Brady to discard his shoulder pads, lean back in his locker, and doze off. Twenty minutes later, he awoke from the most famous pregame power nap in sports history. Twelve minutes after that, Brady recalled, “we were running out on the field.”
Three hours later, he had the ball with 1:21 remaining and no timeouts, the Pats and Rams knotted at 17. John Madden, calling the game on Fox, advised him and Belichick to settle for overtime. Brady conferred with Weis, who told him they were going for the win, but clarified: “Take care of that ball!”
Bledsoe, standing nearby, had a slightly different message. “F*** that,” he told his former understudy. “Go out there and sling it.”
Brady obliged. He entered the initial huddle equipped with two plays and a statement: Let’s go win this thing. On his final pass before the decisive field goal, Brady told Wiggins he was coming to him. Sure enough, the tight end stuck his foot in the turf on a pivot route, and there the ball was, right on time for a 6-yard gain. The subsequent spike was memorably nonchalant. The kick was good the moment it left Vinatieri’s foot.
In the aftermath, Brady – still only five months removed from the scout team – was equal parts joyous and incredulous. Perched atop a podium, he picked out his family in the crowd, and brought his hands to his head, as if to say: Can you believe this?
The following morning, he flew to Disney World, the fairytale still seemingly not quite real. As he jetted back to Massachusetts on Monday night, few even considered that what they had witnessed was the beginning of unparalleled greatness.
Nugent might have been the first to see it. Or, rather, to hear it. A knock on his Cherrywood Lane bedroom door, at 5 a.m. Tuesday. He thought it was a dream. Instead, it was Brady, on his way to the stadium for a pre-parade workout, wondering if Nugent wanted to join. Less than 36 hours after the most improbable of Super Bowl triumphs, the two cruised through frigid pre-sunrise air, headlights showing them the way toward a deserted Patriots facility; toward an hour of lifting; toward an exclusive and extraordinary look at a burgeoning legend.
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