BLOOMINGTON, Minn. – On Sept. 3, 2012, James Develin reported to Gillette Stadium as a practice squad player for the New England Patriots. He had played college ball at Brown. As a pro, he played a game in the Arena League and then a few more in a minor league that soon went bankrupt. The Cincinnati Bengals put him on their practice squad for a year but then dumped him.
He was 24 and had never appeared on an active NFL roster, let alone in a regular-season game. He could get cut at any moment – he eventually would (only to be re-signed by the Pats a few days later).
He was a football nobody.
Trying to get his bearings at his first practice, Develin was surprised to be greeted by the outstretched hand of one of the NFL’s most famous and successful stars, who had beelined across the field to meet the new guy.
“Hi, I’m Tom Brady,” the Patriots quarterback said.
“Obviously,” Develin said, “I knew who he was.”
Making sure the practice squad fullback knew the name of the star quarterback was not the goal of the encounter. Brady knew that Develin knew who he was also. Everybody knows who Tom Brady is. That’s actually the problem as Brady’s stature has grown late in his career.
For the Patriots to be successful, Brady couldn’t be seen by his other Patriots as an iconic and unapproachable figure that they grew up watching on television. He had to be their teammate. He had to be their quarterback. He had to be someone they felt comfortable with.
He feels it’s a small, but critical reason why New England is playing Philadelphia on Sunday in their third Super Bowl appearance in the past four years.
“When they initially meet me, I think that’s probably when they are most surprised,” Brady said. “They’ve probably seen me on TV for a long time and they were young. I remember when Patrick Chung, he’s an older guy now, when he got drafted by our team and he was like, ‘Wow, Tom Brady.’ And I was like, ‘damn Pat, I’m not that old.’”
In quick order, he needs to establish relationships.
It is a good problem to have. Brady is an icon. He has five Super Bowl titles. He’s rich and famous. It’s particularly useful when he is trying to convince teammates to believe in him and the Patriots’ chance to deliver some improbable comeback. Or when he is offering tips on raising someone’s game.
“I try to communicate what I think is important at the right time,” Brady said. “I think that’s part of being a leader on the team. Obviously, having some experience as a veteran, I feel like I can give some people some advice that has some credibility.”
That can’t be the relationship for an entire season. He isn’t the coach. He’s a player. He’s a peer.
He’s also 40 years old in a league built on youth. The Patriots have 29 players on their roster 27 or younger. These days, Brady is more suburban dad than cool young guy. He’s got a wife and three kids. He has to find different ways to relate.
So, he introduces himself, asks about his new teammates background and has simple conversations.
“He’s just a regular guy,” Develin said. “He gets a lot of hype obviously outside the building but at the end of the day he puts his pants on one leg at a time just like everybody else. He’s just as personable and approachable as anyone on our team. He does a good job staying on everyone’s level.”
Said defensive end Trey Flowers, “he’s definitely interactive with his teammates and the young guys. He just has normal conversations.”
It’s simple. And it hardly makes him some superhero. It doesn’t take much. But Brady’s teammates believe it’s important. They acknowledge being nervous playing with a guy they grew up watching win Super Bowls.
Then suddenly they are being encouraged by Brady to speak up, celebrate in practice when they make a play against him, treat him like everyone else.
“I love when people joke with me because it means they are comfortable with me,” Brady said. “And I like when guys know me for a while because they feel free to cut loose. That’s kind of how I am and I like to go back and forth … a lot of smack talk back and forth.”
That includes Develin, who sees Brady as a friend now. He also represents the genius of Brady’s introduction. The one-time disposable practice player is now a trusted performer and was named to the Pro Bowl this season.
You just never know who you might meet at Patriots practice.
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