Only a few days into his summer job with a Michigan construction company, Tom Brady received a particularly repulsive assignment.
The floppy-haired 19-year-old had to scrub an auto parts factory restroom blanketed by layers of construction debris, grime and who knows what else.
Five years before he claimed his first Super Bowl ring and one year before he became Michigan’s starting quarterback, Brady wrapped a heavy-duty trash bag around his prized right arm and went to work. He didn’t stop polishing until every toilet and urinal gleamed, until every sink and floor tile sparkled.
That unpleasant task was one of many Brady tackled over the summer of 1997 during his three-month foray into construction. Brady wasn’t licensed or trained to operate heavy machinery during his time with Dudlar & Sons Construction, so his primary role became helping to set up or clean up job sites.
He hauled equipment from one end of a job site to the other. He wheelbarrowed bags of cement in the sweltering summer heat. He scrubbed ceilings until his shoulders and forearms ached. Once, Brady’s boss even asked him and coworker Kevin Bryant to drive to his lake house and clean up the beer cans, trash and other remnants from a party the night before.
“Me and Tom were just looking at each other like, ‘Are you serious right now?’ ” recalled Bryant, a teammate of Brady’s at Michigan. “I’ll never forget that.”
Frank Dudlar offered construction work to many college athletes over the years, but not all of them were cut out for the job. A few even quit after a single shift. Brady was different. No task was too strenuous. No assignment was beneath him.
Halfway through the summer, Frank’s son, Gunnar, walked into his office to rave about how much time that Brady was saving him.
“You know that tall, thin guy with long hair down to the shoulders?” Gunnar asked. “Dad, he’s the best worker we ever had.”
Greatness hiding in plain sight
Before he courted a Brazilian supermodel, frequented red-carpet soirees and splurged on lavish waterfront homes, Tom Brady’s life wasn’t always so glamorous. He worked an assortment of odd jobs to earn extra cash in college or prepare himself for life after football, from security guard at a summer festival, to cashier at a golf course, to intern at a local Merrill Lynch branch.
While Brady’s coworkers had no idea he would someday be vying for his seventh Super Bowl ring at age 43, they did spot harbingers of success that some NFL scouts failed to notice. Brady displayed the same leadership skills, work ethic, attention to detail and self-deprecating humility behind a desk or at a job site as he has throughout his decorated NFL career.
“All those qualities he’s known for now were already apparent even back then,” said Mark Mann, a Merrill Lynch financial adviser who worked with Brady. “His potential for greatness was hiding in plain sight.”
“Career training,” Brady jokes, is what his first paying job provided. In elementary school, he made $25 per month leaning out the passenger door of his mom’s Volkswagen van and flinging copies of the San Mateo Times onto driveways of subscribers.
As Brady grew older, he showcased his arm strength in other ways. The multisport high school star zipped passes to receivers on the football field and threw out overzealous base runners from behind the plate, seizing the attention of college coaches and major-league scouts.
When Brady left his parents’ Northern California home to attend Michigan in 1995, he could no longer afford to focus solely on school and sports. Part-time jobs supplemented the scholarship money he received, affording him cash for groceries.
Ex-Michigan quarterback Jason Kapsner admits he and Brady had an ulterior motive for taking jobs at a pair of Ann Arbor golf courses during the summers of 1998 and 1999.
“We worked there so that we could golf for free,” Kapsner said with a chuckle.
On summer evenings, after 7-on-7 workouts were over, Brady and Kapsner would race to their cars and drive to the University of Michigan Golf Course or the Polo Fields Country Club. Then they would play as many holes as they could until the last rays of sunlight vanished and the sky grew too dark to see the ball anymore.
While free rounds of golf were their motivation, Brady and Kapsner earned their paychecks during their shifts. They took on all sorts of tasks, from washing golf carts, to monitoring pace of play on the course, to stocking shelves and manning the cash register at the pro shop.
At the campus golf course, Brady’s boss was the late Charlie Green, a Michigan athletics icon who for 40-plus years kept stats and operated the clock at football and basketball games. Charlie spoke fondly of Brady to his son Sean, describing their summer together as a career highlight.
“My dad said he was a great employee,” Sean said. “He had nothing but good things to say about his work ethic.”
In between Brady’s summer jobs at the golf courses, he also participated in a peer mentorship program organized by Michigan’s psychology department. He spent up to eight hours a week with an Ann Arbor third grader who needed help with reading, writing and math.
Charles Fahlsing, now 30, describes the experience as life-changing. He dressed as Brady for Halloween that year and wrote school essays about the Michigan quarterback. Years later, he too attended Michigan and became a mentor in that same program. He has since spent the past decade coaching kids and running summer camps.
“Really it started with the recognition that it just takes someone to care, someone to sit down with you and take an interest in you,” Fahlsing said. “For me, that was Tom. He was a big part of my life.”
Humble and hard-working
Whereas working at the golf course and mentoring Fahlsing were passion projects to Brady, his two internships at the Merrill Lynch office in Ann Arbor were more serious. Coworkers say Brady spoke of entering the financial services sector if his NFL aspirations fizzled.
At Merrill Lynch, Brady’s boss was Oliver Owens, who tasked him with updating client portfolios and researching stock and mutual fund reports. When Brady complained he didn’t have enough work to do, Owens kept him busy filing papers or updating the phone numbers and addresses in his rolodex.
Brady struck Merrill Lynch coworkers as humble and likeable, hard-working and detail-oriented. Maybe once a week, a few of them would corner Brady and coerce him into talking football. Not once could they get him to say something negative about Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, not even as Brady was platooning with ballyhooed recruit Drew Henson despite consistently outplaying him in practice.
Between Brady’s down-to-earth demeanor and modest physical gifts, nobody at Merrill Lynch recognized they were in the presence of a future Hall of Famer. Mann didn’t even bother to snap a picture or shoot a video when Brady came over to the financial adviser’s house for dinner and played catch in the backyard with his kids.
“How I would love to have had that now, but I didn’t have the foresight,” Mann said. “It didn’t even cross my mind to take a picture or get out my camcorder.”
In reality, even Brady didn’t yet realize his potential. NFL money was still an unfathomable dream to him back then.
As proof, Kapsner cites Brady’s reaction to an investment exercise the Merrill Lynch interns did. At the beginning of the summer, they received $1 million in mock money to invest however they pleased. For the next few months, they competed to see whose stock portfolio would make the most profit.
Kapsner remembers Brady asking him, “Can you imagine if this was real money?”
‘You don’t know how famous you are’
Seven-figure paychecks, of course, did come. So did Super Bowl rings and passing records, magazine covers and endorsement checks. Long before the onetime sixth-round draft pick cemented himself as an all-time great, it was clear he’d never have to work a real-world job again.
As Brady ascended to superstardom in the NFL, college friends and coworkers in Ann Arbor watched from afar.
Months after Brady’s first Super Bowl victory in 2002, Fahlsing attended a Patriots practice session during training camp. He brought with him a Michigan game ball that Brady previously had given to him.
A security guard prevented Fahlsing from approaching Brady, but the then-middle schooler was able to attract the quarterback’s attention. Brady recognized Fahlsing immediately, invited him over and chatted with him awhile before autographing his football.
“You should have told me you were coming,” Fahlsing remembers Brady telling him. “We could have arranged something.”
“You don’t know how famous you are,” Fahlsing responded. “It’s a little harder to get in touch with you now.”
When Brady visited Ann Arbor a few years later, Charlie Green sent word through a mutual friend that the quarterback’s former golf course gig was still available. Brady responded that he’d keep his day job with the Patriots, drawing a laugh from his old boss.
Of all Brady’s former coworkers, those who were by his side at the construction job might be the least surprised by his success. They saw him power through eight-hour shifts in 90-degree heat on days when he also did 7-on-7 drills and individual workouts. They saw him go from scrubbing toilets and wheelbarrowing cement at the beginning of the summer to supervising construction crews by the end.
“He progressed to the point where I could leave a job site for half a day or three quarters of a day and he was perfectly capable of superintending it for me,” Gunnar Dudlar said. “If anyone had any questions he couldn’t answer, he’d give me a call. That afforded me the opportunity to work on other projects.”
It makes Bryant laugh seeing the guy he scrubbed toilets with hobnobbing with celebrities and endorsing Aston Martins. It also makes Bryant smile whenever he sees signs that deep down Brady hasn’t changed.
“You can tell if somebody’s getting arrogant,” says Bryant, “but he seems like he’s the same grounded guy.”
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