Tom Brady’s humble beginnings here had hints of greatness
Tom Brady, a skinny Patriots rookie subsisting on junk food and dreams in a no-stars motel on the Foxborough strip, was engaged in two struggles he seemed certain to lose. Both involved Drew Bledsoe, New England’s entrenched starting quarterback and the NFL’s highest-paid player.
It was the summer of 2000, and Brady was fighting for Bledsoe’s job. He also was trying to vanquish the Patriots great in a pranking war that laid bare each man’s will to prevail.
Round 1 went to Bledsoe when he rigged the vents in the rookie’s car so that when Brady turned the ignition, the air blower unleashed a blizzard of glitter that enveloped him.
Long before Brady gained international fame and commanded big money to pose for glossy marketing campaigns — that’s him in the high-tech PJs — he was draped in Bledsoe’s glitter, dumbstruck, to the delight of Patriots teammates who had lain in wait for the ambush.
Now, as Brady prepares to guide the Patriots against the Atlanta Falcons Sunday in his record seventh Super Bowl start, it seems like a lifetime ago that he arrived in New England as a fourth-string quarterback bent on avenging the humiliation of every NFL team that spurned him until the Patriots made him the 199th selection in the 2000 draft.
He was a nobody in a football no man’s land. The Patriots had not won a Super Bowl in their 40-year history. Gillette Stadium had yet to be erected. And Bill Belichick, newly arrived as the coach, had let Brady languish deep into the draft’s sixth round, selecting him only after he had chosen the likes of Dave Stachelski, a tight end, and Jeff Marriott, a defensive tackle, neither of whom ever started an NFL game.
Welcome to the show, kid, fate seemed to whisper to Brady. Here’s your number, 12. Take a locker next to 11, Bledsoe, and prepare to become the butt of his pranks. Maybe you can scrapbook some memories.
Brady had other ideas. All of 22 and ensconced at the former End Zone Motor Inn, where the Patriots lodged their new players for the summer, Brady rode one night with rookie linebacker Casey Tisdale to a nearby pizzeria. Along the way, Tisdale vividly remembers, Brady vowed, “Within three years, I will have Bledsoe’s job.’’
Several other teammates recall similar predictions, but none remembers snickering, because they were struck almost immediately by Brady’s football IQ, his leadership skills, his team-building instincts, his competitive grit, his commitment to practicing on the field, training in the weight room, studying in the film room — and his readiness to counter-prank the team’s reigning star.
They also saw early signs of him becoming a Belichick disciple. Belichick, stern as ever in his first full meeting with his 2000 rookies, recited his litany of rules, then surprised them with an oral quiz.
“Brady,’’ Belichick barked at the nascent fashionista, who was decked out in corduroy pants, a long sweater, and a scally cap. “What do you tell the media if you tear a knee ligament and they ask you about the injury?’’
“You say you have a bad leg,’’ Brady replied, parroting Belichick’s instructions to say as little as possible.
Days earlier, Brady had attended the team’s precamp quarterback school. He was the only rookie.
“I’ll never forget, it was the four of us — Drew, me, Michael Bishop, and Tom,’’ recalled John Friesz, the second-string signal caller. “The rest of us waited for him to start asking rookie questions, like every rookie does when he comes into the NFL. There are things you just don’t know as a rookie.
“Not Tom. He didn’t ask a single rookie question. I was scratching my head at how advanced he was before he even stepped on the practice field. I knew right then he was special.’’
Third-year fullback Chris Floyd had been lifting weights before the draft when Belichick asked him about Brady, his former teammate at the University of Michigan. Amid clanging weights and grunting players, Floyd briefed the coach on Brady as a third-string sophomore quarterback in Ann Arbor.
“As a football player, he knew everything, even then,’’ Floyd said in an interview. “If I had a question about a play and didn’t want to go to a coach, I went to Tom because I knew he would always have the answer.’’
In Brady’s junior year at Michigan, he narrowly won a fierce competition for the starting quarterback’s job. He went 20-5 over his final two seasons and capped his collegiate career with a dramatic victory over Alabama in the 2000 Orange Bowl.
By the time he reached Foxborough, Brady was so confident about his future that he quietly held out for a couple days before he agreed to a reported nonguaranteed three-year deal estimated at around $1 million, with a signing bonus of $38,500.
He drew on the bonus for a down payment on a cookie-cutter townhouse in Franklin that he bought from teammate Ty Law for $265,000. To make ends meet, he enlisted defensive tackle David Nugent and tight end Chris Eitzmann as housemates.
Only later would Brady buy and sell swanky real estate from Boston to Manhattan to a Los Angeles palace that would make the Medfield manse that Bledsoe sold to Curt Schilling in 2004 for $4.5 million seem like a bungalow.
In 2000, Brady’s nutritional regimen also matched his budget. Long before he embraced a mostly vegan diet and began marketing $200 TB12 cookbooks featuring the likes of sweet potato gnocchi with escarole, his go-to lunches were ham-and-cheese subs with onion rings, washed down with orange soda, his dinners often pizza.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft remembers encountering Brady that summer as the rookie carried a pizza box toward the stadium. Brady paused to introduce himself and, with all the audacity of an undiscovered prodigy, famously informed Kraft, “I’m the best decision this organization has ever made.’’
Brady had yet to date Tara Reid, have a child with Bridget Moynahan, and marry and begin raising two children with Gisele Bundchen. He had little time for dating, and one night he found himself awkwardly greeting a girl who knocked on his condo door and asked him to accompany her to her high school prom.
“He couldn’t say ‘no’ to her face because he’s so nice,’’ Nugent recalled. “So he called her later at the number she gave him and explained that he couldn’t go but thanked her for the offer.’’
Brady was more inclined to socialize with his teammates. One summer night, he took seven of them to a game at Fenway Park, thanks to Red Sox outfielder Darren Lewis, his occasional workout partner back home in California.
Another night, he joined a group of teammates at the Foxy Lady strip club in Providence.
“Everybody was loud and drinking beer and having fun,’’ Floyd said. “And Tom was sitting in the corner, all quiet. It looked weird, but that was Tom.’’
Brady was adept at guarding his reputation without alienating his teammates. At Michigan, his close friends “were into beer pong and beer guzzling, but he always laid low and stayed out of trouble,’’ Floyd said.
His chief form of recreation that summer involved a video game.
“He went to a pawn shop and bought an old Nintendo system,’’ Nugent recalled. “We played ‘Madden Football’ for hours, and if he lost, he got so mad that he threw the game system across the room against the wall.’’
Bishop recalls a more subdued Brady. On their occasional trips to Boston to play pool, Bishop said, “We spent a lot of time just talking about the team and our college days and where we saw ourselves in two or three years.’’
They were competing for the same job and, Bishop said, “so hungry we could taste it.’’
They made a pact.
“We agreed that if either of us got the opportunity, we would take the job and wouldn’t give it back,’’ Bishop said. “No matter which one of us got the opportunity, the other one would be happy for him.’’
Neither of them, however, was given a snowball’s chance in summer of getting an opportunity anytime soon. Bledsoe had taken every snap the previous season, his seventh as the starting signal caller. He was a three-time Pro Bowler who had broken nearly every major team record for a quarterback, and in 1996, he had led them to the Super Bowl, where they lost, 35-21, to Brett Favre’s Packers.
Brady had lots to prove and little time to do it. He played well in two preseason games, but media analysts predicted that his Patriot days would be fleeting. NFL teams rarely carry four quarterbacks, and Bishop remained ahead of him on the depth chart.
“Brady is likely earmarked for the practice squad — even if it means risking losing him on waivers,’’ the Globe reported late that summer.
Belichick, it turned out, thought otherwise. He began to recognize Brady’s special traits, among them his obsessive preparation.
Friesz had never seen a quarterback so tirelessly analyze film of himself leading a scout team in practice. And Nugent recalled returning home from road games early in the morning when Brady didn’t travel with the team and finding him hunched over a coffee table, studying his playbook.
“I said, ‘Tom, how do you not get frustrated?’ ’’ Nugent recalled. “He said, ‘I can’t control what anybody else thinks of me. All I can do is focus on the things I can control, like how much I know the playbook, how hard I practice, and how hard I work out.’ ’’
Belichick rewarded Brady with a precious spot on the 53-man roster. But the coach, in making the announcement, indicated he would have preferred to release Brady and sign him to the practice squad if not for the chance of another team claiming him off waivers.
After all, Belichick had no immediate plans for the kid. Brady was inactive for the first nine games on the 2000 schedule, and he has since described one of his sharpest memories of the season as idly scarfing nachos before kickoffs while his teammates prepared for action.
He finally dressed for a game in Week 11, but only because Belichick ignored the noise from Patriots fans. With Bledsoe listed as questionable because of an injury, the Patriots website polled fans on which backup quarterback they favored. The landslide winner was Bishop, with 78.5 percent of the vote, followed by Friesz (12.8 percent) and Brady (8.7 percent).
Bledsoe managed to start the game, but Belichick, bucking the fans, elevated Brady above Bishop that week on the depth chart. Eleven days later, on Thanksgiving in Detroit in 2000, Brady made his NFL debut, calling four plays in the fourth quarter of a 34-9 defeat, the team’s worst of the season.
The loss dropped the Patriots to 3-9, and Brady was stunned afterward that many of his teammates appeared indifferent.
“Why does it seem like nobody really cares?’’ Friesz recalls Brady complaining.
Friesz tried explaining that the team had lost its shot at the playoffs and that professional football players often react to wins and losses differently from collegians.
“None of it made sense to him,’’ Friesz said. “He didn’t like the quit he saw.’’
Brady did not play again his rookie season, but he continued to impress his teammates. Even as he clung to a roster spot, he risked Belichick’s wrath in practices by trying to protect his teammates, particularly the linemen who blocked for him.
Grey Ruegamer, a backup lineman that year, said, “There were times when I screwed up and Belichick started riding my butt, and Tom would say, ‘Hey, coach, that was on me, not him.’ He would take a bullet for a teammate. That kind of loyalty goes a long way.’’
Others were impressed by Brady’s perfectionism. In a routine scrimmage that summer, Tisdale picked off one of Brady’s passes. Afterward, Brady wrapped his arm around Tisdale.
“Nice interception,’’ he said. “But you will never intercept a pass from me again.’’
Tisdale knew better than to be offended.
“Tom wasn’t being a jerk,’’ he said. “It was just his way of trying to be the best he could be.’’
Others admired Brady for trying to parry Bledsoe’s pranks. He countered the glitter blast by securing a life-size cardboard standup of Bledsoe and wedging it into the revolving door at the Patriots practice center. With every turn of the door, Bledsoe’s image spun around, as if his teammates had not already seen enough of him.
“That’s when Drew said, ‘OK, I’m going to win this,’ ’’ Friesz said.
Bledsoe enlisted a friend who knew an FBI agent to help him obtain a vial of the red dye used to foil bank robbers. Friesz secretly poured it into Brady’s socks in his gym bag, and when Brady donned them in a locker room filled with his teammates, the dye ran up his socks and stained his skin all but indelibly. He left scarlet footprints in the carpet as he stomped to the shower, his teammates chortling.
“The stains went deep into Tom’s skin,’’ Friesz said. “He had to go to Home Depot and get every solvent they had and scrub and scrub, and he still didn’t get it all out.’’
So it was that Bledsoe won the pranking war. But the course of the greater struggle soon turned.
On Sept. 23, 2001, in the fourth quarter of a 10-3 loss to the Jets in Foxborough, Bledsoe was leveled by linebacker Mo Lewis and suffered an injury that knocked him out for two months and effectively ended his reign as the Patriots starter. In went Brady, poised to fulfill his prophecy.
He started his first NFL game the following week, piloting a 44-13 rout of the Colts in Foxborough. But the Patriots faltered a week later in Miami, 30-10, and their record sank to 1-3, hardly playoff-caliber.
The next morning, Belichick held his regular team meeting. As it ended, Brady asked to address the players. The coaches departed, and Nugent cringed.
“As much as I liked and respected Tom, I said to myself, ‘Man, this is just too soon,’ ” Nugent recalled. “He was so young, but he stood in front of a room full of grown men and said, ‘I know these aren’t the circumstances you expected this year, but our time is now. I’m going to do everything in my power to win every game. I just need you guys to be with me.’
“There was something about his passion that lit a fire under everybody.’’
The Patriots won 12 of their next 14 games, then the Super Bowl, with Brady named the game’s most valuable player. He would win three more Super Bowl rings and twice more be named the game’s MVP.
Today, Bledsoe runs a winery in his native state of Washington. Friesz is in Montana, often ice fishing, and Bishop is home in Texas, training young athletes. All three plan to watch Brady try to become the first quarterback to win a fifth Super Bowl, and one of them, Bishop, expects to reflect on a pact they made 17 years ago.
“To this day, I have the most respect for Tom because he did what we said we would do: When his opportunity came, he took the job and didn’t give it back,’’ Bishop said. “He’s still doing what he loves to do, and I’m happy for him.’’