Tom Brady’s time in Foxborough, where he turned the NFL record book into a lesson in new math and hoarded Super Bowl rings like Beanie Baby collectibles, on Sunday will be the centerpiece celebration of the Patriots’ season opener at Gillette Stadium.
Over the course of 20 seasons (2000-19), Brady went from that unknown face auditioning among Patriots quarterbacks to become the face of the franchise, if not the entire sport. Now 46 years old, he is also in an exclusive class of athletes who, no matter where their playing days led from here, their identity will be forever Boston.
Brady’s three years in Tampa? That seventh shimmering, diamond-encrusted ring with the Buccaneers? Mere footnotes at the bottom of Brady’s pigskin curriculum vitae.
“Absolutely, I mean, as far as I’m concerned, Tom Brady’s a Patriot,” said Fred Lynn, who forged his Forever Boston bona fides during his heralded run with the 1970s Red Sox, which began with MVP and American League Rookie of the Year honors in ‘75. “Yeah, sure, he did some other things, but that’s not who he is, that’s somebody else. He’s Tom Brady. He’s a Patriot.”
In recent days, the Globe contacted Lynn, Ray Bourque, and Drew Bledsoe, all of whom played elsewhere after here, and all remembered first and foremost for their days wearing local colors. All three agreed that Brady’s enduring legacy will be the things he did in a Patriots uniform, just as they feel that the days they spent here will stand as the defining times of their careers.
“Let’s just get this straight from the start,” said Bourque, laughing as he returned a call to discuss the topic, “I’m no Tom Brady.”
There truly isn’t a direct comparison to Brady in Boston sports history, if anywhere else, because no one here won a half-dozen titles, defined the franchise, and continued their playing careers elsewhere. Nine members of the Celtics dynasty have their names on at least six NBA titles, ranging from Bob Cousy (6) to Bill Russell (11).
Of those nine Celtics, Cousy was the lone one to leave and play elsewhere, suiting up for seven games in Cincinnati as player-coach in 1969-70. The Houdini of the Hardwood was 41 and had been retired for six seasons.
Bourque, frustrated by a depleted Bruins roster, finally asked out of Boston in the spring of 2000 at age 39. He was by then a four-time Norris Trophy (top defenseman) winner but did not have his name on the Stanley Cup. He didn’t feel he had a realistic chance of winning it in Boston as retirement approached.
“I bleed Black and Gold,” said Bourque, who won the Cup the following season in Denver, then retired and immediately moved back here permanently. “I always said that, and then it changed, and I’m sure Tom probably felt the same for the longest time, you know, never saw ourselves leaving Boston. I know I never thought I’d leave the Bruins and he probably thought he’d never leave the Patriots, but . . . ”
Then-general manager Harry Sinden accommodated Bourque’s wish to leave by trading him to the Avalanche, though his preferred landing spot at the time was Philadelphia. Brady departed the Patriots as a free agent at age 43, by then much of the core group that won six titles had aged out. His passing targets were depleted.
“I never talked to him directly about it,” said Bledsoe, the Patriots’ franchise quarterback for eight-plus seasons (including leading them to the Super Bowl during the 1996 season) before Brady took over a couple of games into 2001. “But I think at a certain level he wanted to see if he could go do it somewhere else, and I also think he’s no dummy, he saw that it was going to be a little bit of a rebuild coming and that played into a little bit. They’d had great teams for a while, and all of a sudden some of his guys weren’t there anymore.”
Bledsoe, now 51, played five more seasons, three with AFC East rival Buffalo and the final two with Dallas. His near decade here, though not framed in championship titles, forged and defined his career, which is why he considers himself mainly a Patriot. The initial transition, he acknowledged, felt weird.
“Especially in Buffalo, playing the Patriots and I’m looking across the line of scrimmage at all my buddies,” he recalled. “You know, all the practice time and hanging out with all those guys, and a few months later looking across the ball at Ted Johnson, Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, and Ty Law, all of those guys, man, it was pretty crazy.”
Bledsoe lives most of the time now in Whitefish, Mont., but also spends long stretches in Oregon and Walla Walla, Wash., home of the Bledsoe Family Winery. A member of the Patriots Hall of Fame, he returns to New England a few times each year, he said, and is always heartened by the reception he receives from the locals. He believes they, like him, frame his career around his years as a Patriot.
“I didn’t want to leave,” recalled Bledsoe, reached in Seattle as he was about to board a flight to Montana. “That wasn’t part of the plan. Nine years, kind of grew up there, still have a strong connection with Mr. [Robert] Kraft and see him quite a bit. He’s always been incredibly kind and good to me. So, yeah, that’s still my strongest connection by a long shot.”
Lynn, 71, lives close by the Pacific Ocean in Carlsbad, Calif., just north of San Diego. Dealt to the Angels in January of 1981, after parts of seven seasons in the Red Sox outfield, he played 11 more major league seasons, the first four of those in Anaheim. He was a standout at Southern Cal when the Sox drafted him in 1973. “So the right answer is, I’m a Trojan,” kidded Lynn, when asked how he frames his career.
Yet whenever he’s out of the house to run errands, said Lynn, now more than 40 years since being dealt from the Back Bay, he almost always wears a Red Sox cap.
“I feel I’m part of the Red Sox before anything else,” he said. “Here in southern California, there’s a big Angel contingent up here, and they’ll say to me, ‘Well, you’re an Angel player.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, yeah, but, uh, yeah . . . ’ ”
Lynn was a key member of some powerhouse Red Sox clubs in the late ‘70s, and lived through two of the franchise’s most stinging defeats, including Game 7 of the 1975 World Series, and then the one-game playoff at Fenway in 1978 against the Yankees.
“I thought I’d be a Red Sox player for life,” said Lynn. “I changed my whole style of hitting because of Fenway Park. You know, I pulled everything prior to going to Fenway. I saw that wall in left, I thought, ‘Damn, I’ve got to move the ball over there somehow.’ ”
Watching from clear across the country, said Lynn, it was hard on the eyes to see Brady play three seasons in Tampa.
“In another uniform, not the Patriots, especially with Gronk,” mused Lynn, referring to tight end Rob Gronkowski. “It would be like me and [Jim] Rice going at the same time, a double-whammy for the fans.”
Bourque, playing golf in Pebble Beach this weekend and touring California wine country, stood on Garden ice in October 2001 and hoisted his Bruins No. 77 to the rafters. Only some four months earlier, he finally lifted the Cup high over his head in Denver as a proud member of the Avalanche.
The Cup was a crowning achievement, one he wished happened in the city he called home.
“For me, I’d never won, whereas Tom’s won six, I mean seven, but six with the Patriots,” said Bourque, who will be 63 in December. “For me, the reason to leave was trying to win, and trying to compete. The hardest decision of my life. I wish I hadn’t had to do it, but I did. Had the team been in a healthy situation, I don’t go [anywhere]. No way. But it wasn’t. That’s fact.”
Bourque, for years the owner of Tresca, talks with Bruins fans regularly at the North End eaterie. The talk is most always about his days in Black and Gold, though occasionally the subject of his 15 months in Denver will come up.
“It’s the odd fan, and it’s not like they’re mean or anything,” he said. “Nothing bad. They’ll say something like, ‘Well, it didn’t happen here.’ And I just tell ‘em, ‘Yeah, I tried my best for that to happen.’ ”
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.