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‘Leaving becomes part of the game.’ So is coming back. The all-time greats on Tom Brady’s monumental return

Tom Brady returning to Foxborough might be the biggest comeback moment of all.Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

There are only a handful of athletes, all of them all-time greats, who can relate to what Tom Brady is about to experience this weekend in Foxborough.

After 20 years and six Super Bowls, Brady will return to New England as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a player who helped build a franchise, who brought prominence and greatness to a once-mediocre organization.

The reception is going to be positive. But from the athlete’s perspective, there is no guarantee the crowd reaction will be hospitable. LeBron James returned to Cleveland to a chorus of boos, and angry and demeaning signs, but that was expected.


Ken Griffey Jr. remembers getting a call from Mariners president Chuck Armstrong weeks before a planned ceremony for his return to Safeco Field as a Cincinnati Red in 2007, and he was uncertain about whether to participate.

Griffey was picked No. 1 in the 1987 MLB Draft by Seattle and spent 11 years there, earning an MVP, 10 All-Star appearances, 10 Gold Gloves and led the franchise to its first two playoff appearances. Still, after asking for a trade to Cincinnati, he wasn’t sure the Seattle faithful would embrace him seven years after he left.

“It was nerve-wracking to say the least because you don’t know what to expect,” he said. “For [Brady] it was 20 years and for me it was 11. Flying in [to Seattle] not knowing what to expect, reminiscing but you still don’t know how people and fans are going to act. You hope for the best but you’re prepared for the worst. Going back for the first time, you have no idea how they are going to react. You just don’t know.”

Ken Griffey Jr., who came up as a star with the Mariners, said his first trip back to Seattle with the Reds was "nerve-wracking."MARK DUNCAN/Associated Press

On June 22, 2007, the Mariners gave Griffey a king’s reception with a lengthy pregame ceremony that included gifts, a photo collage and plenty of time for the soldout crowd to give him multiple standing ovations.


“It’s emotional but I didn’t get really nervous until I started driving in, getting into the ballpark,” he said. “See familiar faces as you pass in the hallway. It was one of those days I’ll never forget, my family will never forget, but people have to remember there’s thousands, upon thousands of memories that [Brady] has made for the people of Boston. So I see an overwhelming ovation when he comes in but you’re still nervous.”

There have been plenty of famous comeback games and receptions. Michael Jordan returned to Chicago in January 2002 as a member of the Washington Wizards and was greeted with a three-minute standing ovation. Reggie Jackson returned to Yankee Stadium as a member of the California Angels and homered off Ron Guidry, offering the fans his customary bat flip as the ball sailed into the right-field seats.

Peyton Manning was given an emotional reception in his first game back in Indianapolis as a member of the Denver Broncos.

On some occasions, home fans pour on the praise for the returning player, a message to their organization for letting him go. Steve Garvey received a two-minute ovation when he returned to Dodger Stadium as a member of the Padres after he was not re-signed after 13 years in the organization.

Or how about Opening Day 1981, when Carlton Fisk came back to Fenway and golfed the go-ahead three-run homer off Bob Stanley in the eighth inning, touching home plate as the pro-Fisk Fenway crowd went into frenzy.


One player who can relate in many ways to Brady is his idol, Joe Montana. Montana missed all but one game in two seasons in 1991 and 1992 and wanted a chance to compete with Steve Young for his starting job in 1993. When the 49ers only offered Montana a chance to be Young’s backup, he asked for a trade.

As a member of the Chiefs, Joe Montana faced the Niners in Kansas City in 1994.Han Deryk/Associated Press

After helping the 49ers build a dynasty with four Super Bowls in nine seasons, Montana was essentially ushered out, joining the Kansas City Chiefs for his final two seasons. He faced his old team Sept. 11, 1994, throwing two touchdown passes and outdueling Young in a 24-17 win.

“Well Tom’s situation is a little different,” Montana said. “No. 1, he left. I didn’t have a choice. And plus I don’t think he’s facing the type of team we faced [in ‘94], that team went to the Super Bowl and won. I don’t think that’s going to happen with New England but I’m sure he’ll have fun.

“You try to approach it as any other game and there’s a little more excitement because you know everyone on the other side.”

But just as Montana harbored some ill feelings toward the 49ers for his unceremonious departure, Brady may hold similar emotions because coach Bill Belichick had been trying to find his replacement for years, and he wouldn’t offer the 14-time Pro Bowler a two-year contract, as the Buccaneers did.


“He probably doesn’t really give a crap because he won a Super Bowl,” Montana said. “It’s like playing against your best friend, you never want to lose. When it’s something that close to you, it has a different meaning.”

Like Brady did in Tampa Bay last season, Montana proved doubters wrong with a stellar 1993 season in leading the Chiefs to the AFC Championship game.

“The team came together quick, sort of like they did in Tampa,” Montana said. “All I wanted to do is continue to play and there was no real reason not for me to play. I wasn’t ready to leave San Francisco but once they made up their mind, I knew I wanted to finish my career on the field, so I started looking.

“The greatest wide receiver to play the game [Jerry Rice], he didn’t finish in San Francisco and neither did Ronnie Lott. Leaving becomes part of the game. I tried to make the best of it that I could.”

What sort of reaction will Tom Brady get when he returns Sunday night?Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

Montana said it was finally time to retire at 38, when his body could no longer withstand the pounding but doesn’t regret trying to continue his career with another team. He said he fully supports the 44-year-old Brady playing until he’s ready to stop.

“I think it becomes a thing where the game’s too much fun,” he said. “When you’re done, you’re done. Once you retire, there’s no going back to it. You quit cold turkey. So I say play as long as he’s able to.”


Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.