Real or imagined slights got Tom Brady to his 8th straight AFC title game

Dan WetzelColumnist

Tom Brady sounded relaxed Wednesday when discussing how his New England Patriots were the betting underdog (plus-3) in Sunday’s AFC championship game in Kansas City.

“It doesn’t change much for us, but it just kind of shows you what people think about what our chances are,” Brady said. “That’s about it. No more added comment to that.”

There was no repeat of last Sunday, when he declared to CBS, “I know everyone thinks we suck and, you know, we can’t win any games.” Here in the focus of midweek preparation, he was more philosophical.

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“I don’t think about it too much, what people might say or think,” Brady said Wednesday.

Tom Brady doesn’t sound like he needs a pep talk to get motivated for his eighth straight AFC title game. (Getty Images)
Tom Brady doesn’t sound like he needs a pep talk to get motivated for his eighth straight AFC title game. (Getty Images)

Ah, well, perhaps, but if so, that would run counter to Tom Brady’s entire athletic career which has been driven by the motivation gained from listening to and thinking about any and every negative thing ever said or thought about him.

This isn’t a unique quality for an elite athlete. Michael Jordan spent his entire career still fuming that one year back in high school he was put on the junior varsity. He even invited the coach who made the decision to his Hall of Fame induction and “thanked” him for driving him to greatness.

This is how it works. The smallest slight is the biggest motivator, which is why it stands to reason that by Sunday, a fired-up Tom Brady will take the field at Arrowhead Stadium trying to channel the emotion that got him there in the first place.

For all the Super Bowl rings (five), millions in the bank (considerable) and fame and fabulous family he has, the 41-year-old, future first-ballot Hall of Famer remains a grinder. America scoffed at his CBS comment – no one believes in the NFL’s all-time winningest quarterback and his non-parallel dynasty?

Yet it doesn’t matter how widespread the criticism was.

To Brady, he’s still the kid who while growing up in San Mateo, California, had to fight his way out of the shadow of his three older sisters, all local playing field legends who’d go on to be Division I college athletes in soccer and softball.

He’s still the pudgy high school freshman who was a backup quarterback on a winless team that managed just two touchdowns all season. To improve his agility and quickness, he spent the offseason engaged in a backyard speed exercise called the “five-dot drill,” running early in the morning and in the dark of night and in the middle of family cookouts until he willed his way to improvement.

He’s still the guy who had just one major school recruiting him (University of California) until he sent a highlight tape to drum up interest.

He’s still the young college quarterback who arrived at Michigan as the seventh-string quarterback and barely sniffed the field for three seasons – his first career pass, in mop-up duty, was a pick-six.

He’s still the college junior who upon winning the starting job had to share the role for two seasons with a local phenom named Drew Henson, forcing him to prove himself, and his maturity, on a weekly basis despite being the superior player.

He’s still the NFL draft prospect who generated little attention even though he had been an excellent college quarterback. The result was falling to 199th overall, behind six other quarterbacks – the Brady Six – a group he has never forgotten and still draws inspiration from.

He’s still the quarterback who got the job only because the starter, Drew Bledsoe, was injured, not because his coaches chose him. He then spent much of his career measuring himself against NFL royalty and former No. 1 overall pick Peyton Manning.

In Brady’s mind, he has never been the chosen one, no matter the results. Some of it defies history and reality.

For instance, yes, Brady wasn’t much of a quarterback when he began playing football. He was, by almost any other measure, an exceptional athlete. The Montreal Expos drafted him as a catcher coming out of high school. Prior to that, he was so adept at golf while in middle school that some still believe had he pursued the sport he could have reached the PGA Tour. And, yeah, he had only one scholarship offer as a high school junior, but it was to a Pac-12 school. And he got to mighty Michigan. And he did get drafted. And …

Look, he never was a nobody.

Yet pretending, or perhaps believing, he was a nobody is what got him to become not just somebody, but to continue the climb long past the accomplishments and age of others. He just doesn’t stop. If he hasn’t by age 41, he never will.

Across the way Sunday is a player who represents what Brady believes he never was – at least if Brady massages the story a bit. Patrick Mahomes was a starter as a freshman at Texas Tech, turned pro early and had the Chiefs trade three picks, two of them first-rounders, to move up and take him 10th overall.

Mahomes sat for most of his first season, but now is a likely Most Valuable Player, a true sensation who has overwhelmed the NFL. It may seem ludicrous from the outside to think a five-time Super Bowl champion is trying to prove himself against a 23-year-old with one career playoff victory, but that is how Tom Brady thinks.

One more game to show everyone. One more game to convince everyone.

Make him a field-goal underdog and it’s even better, no matter what he says.

“I mean, if you’re not motivated this week, you’ve got a major problem,” Brady said, dismissing the concept of extra motivation. “This is the week where you shouldn’t have to put anything extra in.”

He’s right about that. He’d come to compete no matter who against or where the game was played or what the oddsmakers and media were saying.

But this is still Tom Brady and a lifetime of actions say more than a news conference full of calm perspective.

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