The gangling kid with the dimpled chin toting a pizza box down the stadium steps could have been the Papa Gino’s guy. Only Tom Brady sensed then that he’d become the cornerstone of pro football’s greatest dynasty. “You’ll never regret picking me,” he told Patriots owner Robert Kraft at their first meeting.
Two decades later, No. 12 leaves the NFL at age 44 as the finest quarterback ever to play the game. An unprecedented seven victories in 10 Super Bowl appearances, with five Most Valuable Player awards. Thirty-five postseason triumphs, more than twice as many as Joe Montana, with records for most touchdown passes, completions, and yardage. The only signal-caller with more than 200 regular-season wins. And both the youngest and oldest quarterback to win a title.
“He’s the leader. The general. The best ever,” said receiver Danny Amendola, one of Brady’s favorite targets for five seasons. “And that’s the end of the story.”
‘“He’s the leader. The general. The best ever. And that’s the end of the story.”’
Danny Amendola, former Patriots receiver
Nobody predicted that narrative when Brady was plucked from the leftover bin in the sixth round of the 2000 draft, the 199th player (and seventh quarterback) chosen.
“I remember sitting in my bed as the clock was ticking by and realizing that I might not get drafted and have to figure out something else to do with my life,” Brady said years later. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget that day.”
Since he’d first strapped on a helmet at Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, Calif., Brady had been overlooked. He didn’t take a snap for an 0-8 freshman team.
“That tells you how bad I was,” he said. “I couldn’t crack the starting lineup of a team that didn’t win a game.”
Brady began his Michigan career as a seventh-stringer. Even though he was the two-time captain, he had to share the starting job with Drew Henson, which didn’t help his draft prospects.
“You say, ‘OK, they don’t really want this guy as their starting quarterback,’ ” Patriots coach Bill Belichick observed later. “They want another guy. What’s the problem here? It was a bit of a red flag there.”
At the NFL Combine, Brady appeared an ungainly and unpromising specimen, looking like a bare-chested Ichabod Crane in shorts in his photo.
“I can’t ever live that down,” he said.
The scouting report was dismissive of his size, strength, and speed.
“He was timed with a sundial,” observed his father, Tom Sr.
“I’ve never been the fastest guy in the world,” his son conceded. “I’ve never moved the best, I’ve never been very strong. People have always said: ‘He can’t.’ ”
What Brady could do was win. When he was a senior, he knocked off Penn State on the road and beat Ohio State for the spot in the Orange Bowl, where he twice led the Wolverines back from two-touchdown deficits for a 35-34 overtime decision over Alabama.
New England quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein, who worked out Brady in Ann Arbor, urged that the Patriots grab him.
“Twenty-years from now,” Rehbein told his wife, “people will know the name Tom Brady.”
No lack of motivation
Brady was an afterthought when he arrived in Foxborough, the fourth man on the depth chart behind Drew Bledsoe, John Friesz, and Michael Bishop, wearing a number that hadn’t been assigned in a dozen years. Since Bledsoe had signed a record 10-year, $103 million extension, it seemed unlikely that Brady ever would see the field.
Still, he prepared as if he were expected to be the franchise messiah, obsessed by years of being bypassed.
“Those are the types of things that motivate you,” he said. “You don’t forget where you came from. The scars that you have from those days are deep scars.”
Brady became the leader of the rookies, pushing his confreres in drills and diligently running the scout team.
“Tom was special his rookie year,” Belichick said, “even though he didn’t play.”
Brady was the only player to turn up for all 60 offseason workouts. One Friday night before a game, an assistant coach spotted him working by himself in the practice facility. By then he was Bledsoe’s backup, ready for his moment. It came late in the second game of the 2001 season when Jets linebacker Mo Lewis hammered Bledsoe, shearing a blood vessel in his chest.
Brady took over and started for the rest of the season, leading the Patriots to the AFC final against Pittsburgh.
“I’m not giving this job back,” he told cornerback Ty Law.
And although Bledsoe finished up that day after Brady went down with a knee injury, Brady got the call for the Super Bowl date with the favored Rams.
“Here’s another bowl game,” he told himself when the Patriots got the ball on their 17 with 90 seconds to play in a 17-17 contest and no timeouts left. He coolly drove them to the St. Louis 30 and left it to Adam Vinatieri to win the franchise’s first championship with an 48-yard field goal.
“Yeah, baby. Way to go, 12,” exulted Bledsoe, who’d urged Brady to “sling it” on the final drive. “You are the man.”
Once Bledsoe was traded to Buffalo in April, Brady was the only man.
“You are our Moses,” defensive lineman Anthony Pleasant told him before the 2002 season finale against the Dolphins.
Other quarterbacks may have had better arms or more mobility, but none inspired more confidence in the huddle than Brady.
“In my eyes, he’s basically perfect,” said running back Corey Dillon.
The intangibles that got Brady drafted generated victories.
“His talents are sort of abstract,” 49ers coach Bill Walsh said. “He’s a great competitor. He’s thinking clearly all the time. Some people don’t understand that, don’t appreciate that. Brady has those inherent characteristics you’re born with.”
Brady had an instinctive knack for conjuring with time and space.
“Guys like that, they get it at every level,” said Belichick. “It just seems easy to them. They get out there on the field and they make adjustments during the game. They just instinctively know what to do.”
‘“Guys like that, they get it at every level. It just seems easy to them. They get out there on the field and they make adjustments during the game. They just instinctively know what to do.”’
Bill Belichick on Tom Brady
Exhaustive preparation accounted for much of Brady’s uncanny ability to move his team down the field in the time available. When he sat down for weekly meetings, he had the material mastered.
“He’d come in and already be a day ahead of everybody,” observed Jimmy Garoppolo, who backed up Brady for four seasons.
His insistence on advance study, even on the nights before the Super Bowl, bordered on becoming a “pain in the butt,” said offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. There was no such thing as too much groundwork, Brady believed.
“Some players get confused when they get a lot of information,” he said. “For me, I love the information.”
Brady’s knowledge of the intricacies of rival defenses allowed him to improvise, both at the line and after the snap.
“He can make split-second decisions better than anybody that I’ve ever seen,” said Belichick. “It’s incredible some of the things that he processes. He can instantaneously do the right thing at the right time.”
Nobody was better at moving an offense down the field when he absolutely had to. The sequence that beat the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI was merely a prelude. In the 32-29 shootout victory over Carolina in XXVIII, Brady produced the go-ahead touchdown with less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter, then staged a final drive capped by another Vinatieri game-winner with nine seconds to play.
Down 10 points to Seattle with eight minutes left, Brady finished off two sustained marches with tosses to Amendola and Julian Edelman for a 34-28 triumph.
But his greatest resurrection was the 34-28 overtime shocker over Atlanta after the Patriots had trailed, 28-3, midway through the third quarter. Four of the five drives were longer than 70 yards, including the 91-yarder that tied the score with 57 seconds remaining and the 75-yard killer in the extra session.
So it was startling whenever New England comebacks fell short, when Brady’s Hail Mary launches fell uncaught against the Giants in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI and when he was strip-sacked by the Eagles in LII.
Year after year the Patriots were in the playoffs and No. 12 was at the helm, urging his mates to “lock in, laser focus” and producing hugs and helmet bumps after touchdowns or exasperated stares after three-and-outs.
“Tom always brings the ampness to the table,” said tight end Rob Gronkowski.
His surrounding cast changed annually but he was the indispensable constant.
“Nobody is too good to be replaced around here,” linebacker Mike Vrabel observed. “Well, besides Tom.”
Brady’s durability and his insistence on shrugging off injuries was extraordinary. In 2004, the day after intravenous treatment for a 103-degree temperature, he threw for 207 yards and two touchdowns in 11-degree weather to win the AFC title at Pittsburgh.
The next year, he played with a sports hernia sustained in December. In 2009, he played with a broken ring finger on his passing hand and three broken ribs. If he’d had concussions, as his wife, Gisele, said he did, he didn’t mention them.
Brady had 15 understudies in New England, and nearly all of them were unused insurance policies; he missed only 19 games after he earned the starting job. Fifteen of those games came in 2008 after he tore up a knee in the opener against Kansas City. The other four absences were due to the suspension for his involvement in using underinflated balls.
“I feel like I’ve always played within the rules,” Brady insisted. “I would never do anything to break the rules.”
Yet NFL commissioner Roger Goodell still sidelined him and docked the Patriots $1 million and two draft picks.
“I’m not going to lie,” said receiver Edelman. “It’s like one of your buddies going off to jail.”
If that season’s Super Bowl victory over the Falcons was about revenge and redemption, the stifling of the Rams two years later was about legacy.
No other quarterback had won more than four rings. How many would be enough? Brady wouldn’t say.
Football, he said, was “synonymous with my being.” The league’s oldest quarterback talked about performing until he was 45, and his TB12 diet regimen of electrolyte-enhanced water, veggies, fruit and seeds, and pliability exercises, guided by controversial guru Alex Guerrero, kept him fit.
But what kept Brady going was his relentless hunger for victory.
“It’s been about winning,” he said. “That’s why I’m still playing today. Because I want to win.”
One more Super Bowl
Yet his “Tom vs Time” documentary on Facebook prompted speculation that he knew his personal clock was ticking. The 2019 season, in which the Patriots offense struggled, frustrated him. Brady was operating behind a makeshift line. He didn’t have a deep threat after Antonio Brown was released after one game or a tight end with hands or a 100-yard running back or a path-clearing fullback after James Develin went down early.
Brady’s impatience with botched routes and dropped balls was obvious as the punchless Patriots were dropping four of their final six outings.
“He is not done,” said CBS analyst Tony Romo, the former Cowboys quarterback, as New England was losing to the Titans in the first round of the playoffs. “He needs help.”
Brady said after the game that it was “pretty unlikely” that he would retire (certainly not on a pick-6 at home), but he wouldn’t say that he would come back for a 21st season. But would he finish his career elsewhere?
“I don’t know what the future will look like,” said Brady, whose 20-year tenure with New England was a quarterback record with one team. “I’m not going to guess.”
Peyton Manning, his good friend, played out his career in Denver. Montana, Brady’s hometown idol, ended his in Kansas City. Brett Favre retired as a Viking.
Like them, Brady moved on to a new challenge, signing a two-year contract with Tampa Bay worth $50 million that included a no-trade provision. The Buccaneers, who’d had one winning season in nine years and hadn’t made the playoffs since 2007, did everything they could to make Brady comfortable. They designed their offense around him, signed former teammates Gronkowski and Brown as his targets and Leonard Fournette as his primary ball carrier.
Brady responded by leading Tampa Bay to its first Super Bowl title since 2002 and earned a record fifth Super Bowl MVP award by completing 21 of 29 passes for 201 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-9 rout of Kansas City.
Instead of retiring at 43, the oldest quarterback to win a championship, Brady continued on for another season in 2021, leading the league in passing yardage, completions, and touchdown passes. He also brought the Buccaneers back from a 27-3 third-quarter deficit against the Rams in the divisional playoff game before Los Angeles prevailed on a last-second field goal.
Although Brady had signed an extension for another year, he concluded that he no longer could make his customary all-in commitment to his team. So he announced his retirement in an Instagram post that notably did not mention the Patriots.
“The future is exciting,” Brady wrote. “Exactly what my days will look like will be a work in progress.”
Read more about Tom Brady’s retirement
- Tom Brady announces retirement from the NFL after 22 seasons
- Dan Shaughnessy: Tom Brady goes down as the greatest athlete in the storied history of Boston sports
- On Football: Yes, it was odd that Tom Brady didn’t mention the Patriots in his retirement announcement
- Chad Finn: One Tom Brady prediction that never came true
- Tom Brady wrote 962 words and didn’t mention the Patriots. Read his retirement announcement.
- These 5 Tom Brady records might never be broken
- Watch: 12 unforgettable moments from Tom Brady’s career
- Timeline: Looking back at the highlights from Tom Brady’s 22-year NFL career
- Photos: Looking back at Tom Brady’s 22-year NFL career
- Watch: Thanks Tom, an animated series
- Tom Brady’s former teammates, competitors react to his retirement announcement
- Gisele Bündchen posts emotional Instagram message after Tom Brady announces retirement
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.