INDIANAPOLIS — Tom Brady was 2 years old when Joe Montana pulled on a 49ers jersey. By the time his hero had won four Super Bowls, Brady was wearing the No. 16 replica and tossing parking-lot spirals at Candlestick.
“It was always a special time for me to go out there,’’ Brady was saying here last week. “My parents had season tickets and we’d go sit in the end zone about 10 rows from the top of the stadium.’’
Tonight, if he can lead the Patriots to victory over the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI, the kid who couldn’t play for his high-school freshman team and who was drafted 199th by the Patriots will join Montana and Terry Bradshaw in an exclusive fraternity — quarterbacks who’ve earned four championship rings.
“I don’t know if there’s a club,’’ Montana says. “Terry and I don’t sit around talking about that, but I think it’s great for him. Tom’s had a great career and the thing with him is, he’s still got enough age on him that he can probably get back here another time or two. So it’ll be fun to watch him.’’
Whether Brady earns a ring for his only unadorned finger — he came agonizingly close against the Giants four years ago in the Arizona desert — he’s already all but certain to join Montana and Bradshaw in the Hall of Fame. New York counterpart Eli Manning figures that Brady already has earned his bust and so does Montana, who was enshrined a dozen years ago.
“Oh, yeah, long before this,’’ he said. “You’ve got guys who’ve done not anywhere near what he’s accomplished and made it to the Hall of Fame. So obviously he’s well past that.’’
Brady’s career numbers (3,397 completions for 39,979 yards, 300 touchdowns and a 96.4 rating) are similar to or better than Montana’s (3,409 for 40,551 and 273 and 92.3) in three fewer seasons. And while their playing styles are decidedly different, they share the character traits that win titles — competitiveness, preparedness, composure, and an instinct for the jugular. “They’re assassins,’’ says former Giant quarterback Phil Simms, who was the Most Valuable Player in the Super Bowl XXI victory over Denver.
Brady, who has engineered 34 comeback triumphs in the fourth quarter to Montana’s 31, crafted two unforgettable title drives, leading his mates to Adam Vinatieri’s winning field goal over the Rams in the final 90 seconds with no timeouts, then taking them again into Vinatieri range against the Panthers in the final 68 seconds.
Montana, whose colleagues had things well in hand by halftime in their victories over the Dolphins and Broncos, only was required to be dramatic once, in the 20-16 decision over the Bengals. But his 92-yard drive in the final three minutes, capped by a touchdown toss to John Taylor with 34 seconds left, was the essence of Joe Cool.
“Coach [Sam Wyche] told us when we get to the fourth quarter this guy will dial in, that everything he’s done up to that point is a precursor — he’s filing it away,’’ recalled former Cincinnati defensive back Solomon Wilcots, who’s now a SiriusXM radio analyst. “But we knew that because we had played them the year before. We had that game won with seconds left and he beat us on the last play. In the Super Bowl we had the right plays called to stop him, but . . .’’
Montana was so chill that he’d had to be thawed out in his final college game at Notre Dame, when hypothermia put him in the dressing room during their Cotton Bowl meeting with Houston. Montana returned in the fourth quarter and led the Irish to a 35-34 victory on the last play.
Yet Montana wasn’t drafted until the third round, taken after Jack Thompson, Simms, and Steve Fuller and he rode the bench behind Steve DeBerg until midway through his second season.
“What you saw his first year was a calm composure and a confidence that, hey, I can get this done,’’ recalled former Colts coach Tony Dungy, who played his final season with San Francisco when Montana was a rookie. “There was never any doubt in his mind just the few times that he played that year. You saw that swagger. I think Tom has that same swagger.’’
Though Brady later conceded that the scars from being bypassed until the sixth round ran deep, he never doubted that he’d be The Man in New England and he told his owner so at their first encounter. “I’m the best decision this organization has ever made,’’ he informed Bob Kraft.
Even though he came to camp as the fourth quarterback and appeared in only one game as a rookie, Brady prepared each week as though he’d be the starter, which he became three games into his second season when Drew Bledsoe sheared a blood vessel in his chest Week 2 against the Jets.
Which is why Brady demands that backups Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett match his preparation. “Life is about taking advantage of opportunities and you never know when you’re going to get them,’’ he said. “You have to be prepared to take advantage when you get them.’’
Steve Young, who’d started for the Buccaneers, had to wait four years to get the job in San Francisco, where he eventually won three rings. “Bill Walsh literally did tell me when he recruited me out of Tampa Bay that Joe was hurt,’’ Young said last week. “I would probably not have taken that opportunity if I thought that Joe was going to play for four more years and win two more Super Bowls. Our relationship was always tough because I didn’t want that job backing up and Joe didn’t want me to even be around, so there was a lot of tension.’’
Montana often didn’t even wait for Young to relay the plays that Walsh was calling from the sideline. “Before I could signal it, Joe called it,’’ Young recalled. “I’m like, ‘Joe, I didn’t even signal it.’ He said, ‘I read Bill’s lips.’ Doesn’t that sound a little bit like Tom?’’
Brady basically has the entire playbook stored on a memory chip inside his hippocampus, including archives. “Last year when we were getting ready to play Buffalo, he had remembered a play he ran against Buffalo in 2002,’’ said offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien. “It was a double move by a receiver that they hit and he felt like that was a similar play that we could use in that game. Sure enough, right hash, home game, going toward the lighthouse. Look it up, 2002, and there was the play.’’
Everything goes into Brady’s mental Rolodex. “I meet with Tom at the beginning of the week, and he always has seen all of the film, as much or more than I have going back to previous games,’’ said coach Bill Belichick.
Montana had an uncanny ability to figure out the nuances of a game plan within seconds after it was introduced on Wednesday morning. “How does he do that?’’ Young wondered. “I found out that he had the game plan faxed to him on Tuesday night and that he would memorize it overnight. So then I got the game plan faxed to me on Tuesday night. I think Tom has taken from the previous generation that it’s like going to law school. Quarterbacking has a true element of cerebral reflexive memorization. If you have control of all the information, if you know what everyone’s doing reflexively, now you can put your attention on the 11 guys across from you and pinpoint them. That’s where Tom is now. He’s dictating the defenses. That’s where Tom is well beyond anybody else.’’
Exhaustive preparation begets confidence which begets composure under pressure. “Joe played his biggest in the biggest games,’’ said Brady. “I love watching old highlights of him because he was very graceful playing the position. He always seemed like he was very much in control.’’
The Joe Cool persona was authentic, his former teammates attest. “It wasn’t anarchy in the huddle,’’ said CBS analyst Randy Cross, who played guard on three Super Bowl teams with Montana. “Joe was not a panic guy. He was not a yeller or a screamer. The bigger the moment, usually the less you heard out of him.’’
Sometimes, Montana appeared a bit too unruffled. “There were times when I thought, ‘Geez, Joe, you should yell at somebody,’ ’’ said Young, who’s now a spokesman for the Van Heusen Institute of Style. “He was cool all the way through. There were times when I thought that he just shouldn’t be that way — I wouldn’t have been. But because he was so successful it always spun in his favor.’’
Montana was a Kipling hero in a helmet, keeping his head about him while all around him were losing theirs. “His secret was at the end of games when everybody was distraught and tired and beat up and the game plan was shot, Joe would do the simple thing when no one else was doing simple things any more,’’ said Young. “He would always do the fundamental thing and in the fourth quarter that fundamental thing would be the thing that broke the back of the defense.’’
If Montana came unglued, the Niners would go bust and his coaches and teammates knew it. “Bill [Walsh] and Bobb McKittrick, our line coach, told us if one of us or all of us had a bad game that Joe could overcome that,’’ Cross said. “But if one of us or all of us have our best day and Joe has a bad day, there’s a pretty good chance that we’re going to lose anyway.’’
Brady had an uncharacteristically bad day against the Ravens in the AFC title game and while the Patriots managed to win anyway, he told a national TV audience that “I sucked pretty bad.’’ “He is very hard on himself and he continues to be,’’ said receiver Wes Welker. “That is why he is so great.’’
The fierce drive that eventually moved Brady to the top of the depth charts at Michigan and Foxborough hasn’t abated. “It doesn’t matter what the game is, he’s very competitive,’’ observed running back Kevin Faulk, the only Patriot who predates Brady on the roster. “You can be shooting a piece of paper in a trash can and he’s competitive with you. That’s just him. It’s how he is.’’
Brady could have started at another college but he opted for Michigan, where he came in as the seventh-stringer and rode the bench for two years behind Brian Griese. “All of a sudden in comes Drew Henson,’’ said Gil Brandt, the former player personnel chief for the Cowboys who’s now a SiriusXM radio analyst. “Most guys, if they’re not competitors, they pack their car and they stop at Montana State on the way home. But it shows you there what kind of a competitor Brady was.’’
He doesn’t play the position the way that his hero did. “Tom’s a completely different style of player than I was,’’ said Montana. “He’s most of the time in the shotgun. I don’t think I ever stepped foot . . . well, I did once. They snapped the ball over my head and Bill said forget it, get under the center.’’
What the two men have in common, besides the classic champion’s qualities, is a place in the game’s history. Montana has been retired for 17 years. When he throws a football today, he’ll be tossing it to eight fans at a tailgate party as part of a Volkswagen re-enactment of “The Catch,’’ Dwight Clark’s soaring grab that beat the Cowboys and put the 49ers into the Super Bowl. “I swear he was trying to throw the ball away,’’ Brandt said.
Brady will be throwing to any receiver, tight end, running back or eligible lineman who happens to be open. Four years ago his touchdown pass to Randy Moss with 2:42 to play figured to be the one that would earn him his fourth ring. Tonight Brady gets another chance, which is why informed observers already put him alongside the best who’ve ever played.
“People think it’s easy to go to the Super Bowl,’’ mused Dungy, who won his ring with the Colts five seasons ago. “When I was in Tampa, Brett Favre was clearly the best offensive player in the league at the time. Reggie White was the best defensive player in the league. Mike Holmgren was probably the best coach. And the Packers won one time. It’s hard to do. So you look at guys who’ve gotten their team there over and over — Bradshaw, Montana, Staubach, Brady — that’s pretty special. This’ll be No. 5 for Tom. You don’t need to say any more than that.’’