FOXBOROUGH — Bill Clinton was still president when Tom Brady participated in his first training camp with the Patriots in 2000. The Y2K scare was just subsiding, the iPod was still more than a year away from being released to the public, and AOL was still the most popular way to connect with friends and check your “electronic mail.”
That era is long gone, and Brady is obviously quite different. Then, he was an unknown sixth-round pick looking like a long shot to make the Patriots as the fourth quarterback. Now he’s a future Hall of Famer, three-time Super Bowl champ, two-time MVP, part-time fashion model, and an international star.
But it’s pretty remarkable to hear him talk about his 15th training camp, which he began with his teammates on Thursday morning. Almost 37 years old, an age at which most players fortunate enough to still be playing in the NFL try to rest their bodies for the regular season, Brady instead can’t get enough of the training camp grind.
“There’s no easy way about it — just got to grind, put the work in, listen to the coaches,” Brady said Thursday, dripping with sweat. “You just appreciate the moments that you have, and every year is something different. This could be your last training camp — you never know. So you have to make it count. You can’t take anything for granted in the NFL.
“There’s always a lot of work. I don’t think there’s ever a day you can take off, especially with the limited amount of practices that we have. You have to make them all count.”
This won’t be Brady’s last training camp, barring a catastrophe, but he can see his NFL mortality staring back at him every day. It comes in the form of Jimmy Garoppolo, the rookie who was taken in the second round just in case Tommy Terrific can’t make it through the end of his contract in 2017.
Brady’s NFL legacy is pretty much secure — he’s already in the short conversation for best quarterbacks of all time — but he knows he only has so many years left, and desperately wants another Super Bowl ring. And the only way to get one, Brady believes, is to have the same mentality now as a superstar as he did as an unheralded rookie.
“This game is a very humbling game. You can’t ever think that you’ve got it all figured out,” Brady said. “There’s nobody that’s immune to it. You’ve got to put the work in, you’ve got to give it all you got and hopefully on a daily basis you continue to make improvements.
“And I think it goes to the guy that’s the newest on the team to the guy that’s the oldest on the team. I don’t think you ever have it all figured out. You try to come out here and put yourself in a position to compete, and when you get your opportunity you have to go out and make it happen.”
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels even went so far as to say that Brady’s accomplishments don’t buy him any benefit of the doubt at this stage of his career.
“You don’t get to carry any past success into the next training camp. You don’t get to carry any past status into the next training camp,” McDaniels said. “And I think that’s very clear to our coaches and our players. Nothing is going to be handed to you. Everybody’s in a competitive situation.”
OK, that’s a little much. Let’s not pretend that Brady is in any sort of quarterback competition, or that he doesn’t own the rights to the starting job for at least another year or two.
But Brady still treats practice that way, which is the best way for a soon-to-be-37-year-old quarterback to stay sharp and on top of his game.
“The thing that’s so impressive to me is how he comes back every year like he’s a first- or second-year guy,” McDaniels said. “He’s excited about everything — from staying at the hotel, to meeting forever, to coming out here and working in 90-degree heat . . . When you’re fortunate enough to see a guy that embraces this process after doing it for so many different years and having so much success, I think it’s refreshing.”
Brady isn’t just the Patriots’ All-Pro quarterback this time of year — he’s also one of their most valuable coaches. Many of his teammates were in elementary school when Brady began his NFL career. If the Old Man with his Hall of Fame credentials already secure can work his tail off through training camp and embrace the “process,” then so can the youngsters looking to carve out a spot in the league.
“There’s no drop-off, and I think that’s great for young players to see,” McDaniels said of Brady. “It’s not, ‘Well, I don’t have this to learn,’ or, ‘I’ve already done this 15 times.’ We’ve got to go back to school, we’ve got to go learn more things, we’ve got to get better at our techniques and fundamentals and then hopefully we put a better player on the field at every position. And I think Tom would be the first one to tell you that that’s the process he’s about to embark on now.”
Hard to believe that this is the 15th time Brady has embarked on this “process.”
“It goes pretty fast,” Brady said of his NFL career.
Working like a rookie, though, helps Brady keep it going.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.