FOXBOROUGH — Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn’t need to warm up before a 2016 home game against the Patriots because a knee injury had him sidelined. So he had a different priority before the game: acquiring a wall decoration for his home office.
Wearing street clothes on Heinz Field, Roethlisberger approached Tom Brady.
“I’ve never done this before,” Roethlisberger told the Patriots quarterback, “but I would love to get a jersey at some point.”
“Sure, I’d love to,” Brady replied. “Let’s do it.”
Add Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl champion, to the extensive list of people who want such an item, or at the very least a Brady autograph. Most people, however, are not an NFL quarterback who can walk up to Brady before a game. The close proximity to the field spectators enjoy during training camp provides perhaps the best opportunity for the average fan, but opportunity usually does not translate to success.
For the average fan to obtain Brady’s autograph, patience, preparation, and plenty of luck are needed.
“You better have a good sign or something,” backup quarterback Brian Hoyer said.
The demand for patience starts in the wee hours of the morning. Brian Rosenberger, of Milford, typically arrives for each day of training camp at the general admission gate near the practice fields between 3:30-4 a.m. This affords him a better chance of being first in line, as he was on Wednesday. Once the gates open at 8:30 a.m., he can be one of the first to jog to the field and grab a front row seat on the bleachers, more than an hour before practice begins.
“If you are not front row,” Rosenberger said, “you are not getting Tom Brady.”
Rosenberger would know. He has obtained five Brady autographs over his eight years of attending camp. Five might sound like a big number, but that is just a sliver of the 150-200 autographs Rosenberger estimated he has procured.
Rosenberger has missed out on getting Brady’s autograph more than he has succeeded. After the Monday night’s practice at Gillette Stadium, Brady skipped over him, moving swiftly down the barricade separating him from fans for about a minute until he exited down steps beneath the stands.
That’s how Brady typically operates when he signs. He seldom speaks or stops while fans shriek and press against one another, jostling for position.
“It’s a frenzy,” Rosenberger said. “The heavens open up, the angels come out of the clouds, then you see a white light, and it’s Tom Brady.”
Fans chasing Brady’s autograph go on high alert for the annual night practice. It’s well known that this is typically one of two days during training camp every year that a fan with no special access has a shot at Brady’s autograph. The other is the quarterback’s birthday, August 3.
Chances are still slim on those days, even with a solid strategy.
“I thought we had one,” Dartmouth resident Krystal Sears said. “But he tricked us.”
The past two times Sears has attended the night practice, she watched carefully and took note of where Brady signed. As she walked out of the night practice in 2018 still without Brady’s autograph, she vowed that she would do everything she could to end up in that spot next year and leave with the quarterback’s signature.
So there she was when the Patriots practiced Monday in the spot she had seen Brady sign at Gillette Stadium. The problem: Brady went elsewhere.
It’s the latest episode in coming up short for Brady’s autograph. Sears and Scott Smith, a couple that has attended camp for six years, have never come closer than about 15 feet from Brady in their collective pursuit of his autograph. As a kid, Smith had his best chance in 2002 when Brady walked toward him. But then Brady skipped over him.
Just like Brady’s on-field performance, his elusiveness in this setting remains unchanged with age.
“It’s a quest, for sure,” Smith said.
And they planned to continue that quest the rest of the week, staying through the weekend. Both took the week off from work to attend camp. They selected this past week on purpose — they knew it included the night practice and the birthday practice. Brady turned 42 on Saturday.
“[His birthday] is one of those days where you might want to get here a little earlier,” North Attleborough resident Emily Thomas said Wednesday. “If you normally get here at 5 or 6, you might want to get here at 3 or 4. I am just going to hope for the best.”
Hope is all that Thomas, 22, has had during her two decades of attending camp. She first traveled to camp as an infant and has an autographed Patriots onesie to prove it. She has obtained many autographs since then, but not Brady’s.
Securing an autograph at Patriots camp is more difficult than at other camps around the league. For example, the Vikings have a designated autograph area where a different position group signs each day. The Steelers don’t, but most players have to walk down a hill, past fans, to enter the practice fields.
The Patriots, by contrast, enter and exit far away from where fans sit.
But if a player decides to delay his exit and walk toward the fence on the outside of the practice field, fans have a shot at a signature.
Anticipating that Brady would make that stroll on Saturday — his birthday — some fans intended to arrive at the gate before sunrise.
Sears and Smith planned to bring all the Brady merchandise they could, including a Brady beach towel. They would have their Sharpies ready, so that when practice ended and everyone began to stand, they would be prepared in case Brady shuffled in front of them and decided to sign one of their many items.
One thing they did not plan for: The Patriots chose not to hold practice Saturday, dashing the hopes of so many fans and freeing up their pre-dawn schedules. Several Patriots instead were traveling to Canton to see Ty Law inducted into the Hall of Fame before the team flew to Detroit for the week.
Before they learned of the schedule change, Sears and Smith stood in line one morning wearing Brady jerseys with TB12 hats and making plans to set their alarms for a time before first light on Saturday. They would drive together to Patriot Place as they always do, and likely spend part of that ride fantasizing about it finally being the day they would secure a signature from one of football’s all-time greats.
Said Sears: “I think I’d cry.”