Friday, March 6th, 2020

Six Appeal

Neil Reynolds

Six Appeal

Neil Reynolds NFL

“Hopefully, I can win it every year. If I’m going to ask for something, I’m going to be really greedy and ask for that.”

Those words come from an interview we conducted with Tom Brady more than five years ago, but are equally – if not more – pertinent now. At that stage, the New England Patriots quarterback had already constructed a Hall of Fame CV comprised of three Super Bowl wins and countless individual gongs. Most would have been satisfied, yet Brady has spent the ensuing years ensuring that not only will he go down as an NFL great, but the greatest.

He enters the 2017 NFL season on the back of the coup de grace of his remarkable career. New England were down 28-3 in Super Bowl LI, prey to an Atlanta Falcons outfit that spent the first three-and-a-half quarters feasting upon opponents who couldn’t match their speed and verve.

Until the old man decided enough was enough.

Having helped New England cut the deficit to 16 points, Brady orchestrated two touchdowns drives and as many two-point conversions in regulation before the coin landed on heads to signal the beginning of overtime. By that point, everybody in Houston’s NRG Stadium knew what was coming. The surgeon went to work, completion after completion, until he tossed the ball back to James White to finish the job. By crossing the plane, the running back completed the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history, putting the exclamation mark on the legacies of Brady, head coach Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots dynasty.

They say the NFL’s biggest stars are the ones who thrive when all the chips are on the table, in the final throes – or throws – of the biggest games. In Brady’s last two Super Bowls, 49 and 51, he has completed 34-of-42 passes for 370 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in the fourth quarter and overtime. The second of those crowns was Brady’s fifth, one more than any signal-caller has ever managed. If that isn’t enough, he has been to the Big Dance seven times in 15 years as the main starter, losing the other two by three and four points.

For most 40-year-olds, the overriding emotion would be satisfaction. Not Brady. Two days after his finest hour, he sat with renowned American sportswriter Peter King, of The MMQB, and talked of playing another half-decade. “I know next year isn’t going to be my last,” he said as the rest of the NFL shuddered.

“A lot of players work incredibly hard, but there’s a combination of things Brady does and has,” King tells Gridiron. “There are not a lot of players who’ll go to bed at eight o’clock at night; or go a whole season without eating anything that will be remotely bad for them; or get suspended as he did last year for four games when he thinks there’s absolutely no reason he should have been and just get focused on football again and not just want revenge on Roger Goodell. With all of those factored in, I’d say he’s the most unique person I’ve covered in 33 years of covering the NFL.”

Mention the number six around Brady and you’ll likely see his ‘laser focus’. Its importance was documented in an ESPN documentary The Brady Six, during which the quarterback – at that point a three-time champion – breaks down in tears remembering the weekend of rejection that has driven his remarkable run.

That two-day stretch began on April 15 2000 when then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue put the Cleveland Browns on the clock to commence that year’s NFL Draft. Including their selection of Penn State defensive end Courtney Brown, a total 198 choices were made – six of them quarterbacks, hence The Brady Six – before Brady heard his name called. The agony of that wait, the latter part of which was spent heartbrokenly strolling around the block with his parents, still sparks emotion in Brady.

Yet, in reality, it was a fitting end to a collegiate career highlighted by rejection.

The day he arrived on campus at Michigan, Brady faced an uphill battle. He’d barely been a blot on the radar of most scouts following an unspectacular career at Serra High School in San Mateo, during which he only earned the starting job as a sophomore after the No. 1 guy quit the team following a season in which they didn’t score an offensive touchdown. Even amid that barren run, Brady hadn’t been deemed good enough to see the field.

But the boy who grew up in the Bay Area idolising Joe Montana was hooked on football from the day he stood in the bleachers adjacent to the end zone at Candlestick Park and watched Dwight Clark complete The Catch. He shunned a promising baseball career – Brady was selected in the 18th round of the MLB Draft by the Montreal Expos, but would have gone much higher had he opted against college – to pursue his dream of being an NFL quarterback.

Opportunity came from a recruiter called Bill Harris, one of the few men who saw the skinny quarterback as a potential. Yet before Brady even made it onto campus, Harris departed Michigan for Stanford, leaving the man he vouched for in the hands of a staff who had little use for him. Brady was one of seven quarterbacks on depth chart in year one, and his prospects only diminished the following year when Michigan won the battle to recruit All-Everything local star Drew Henson.

For Brady, the Wolverines years were frustrating. He consistently outperformed Henson, only for coaches to implement a job share as outside pressures demanded the illustrious recruit he competed with was afforded opportunities. That trend continued up until midway through his senior season when Brady entered the contest with fierce rivals Michigan State in the second half. Michigan trailed by 17 at that stage, only for No. 10, as he was then, to almost engineer a miraculous comeback as they narrowly lost 34-31.

But while he fell short in that outing, better returns were to come when Brady was finally handed the starter’s job as he led the Wolverines to wins over Penn State and Ohio State, before signing off with a stunning 35-34 Orange Bowl triumph over Alabama in a game where Michigan twice trailed by 14 points. Yet, as overdue respect began to come at Ann Arbor, most at the next level were unconvinced.

Steve Mariucci, then the head coach of Brady’s beloved 49ers, was among those looking for a quarterback. Instead of the hometown boy, he and former Hall of Fame head coach Bill Walsh – at that stage the team’s general manager – opted for Giovanni Carmazzi in the third round.

“I couldn’t forget about Brady if I tried,” a rueful Mariucci tells Gridiron. “What if we drafted Tom Brady? I think about that a lot, but we were looking for a different kind of guy. He ran a 5.2-second 40-yard dash – which I think may be the slowest of all-time for a quarterback. But I think his story has made a lot of people look at how they evaluate quarterbacks. It’s not just about the measurables; a big part is what’s inside.”

Carmazzi was out of the league in a year, never playing a regular season game. Yet the great Walsh was far from alone; Brady was passed over 198 times, a continuation of the rejections that still fuels a crippling fear that his job is always up for grabs. “You don’t take it for granted – you really never know when your last day is going to be,” he admits.

Even with the various bitter moments up to that point, Brady was not lacking the assurance that earned him the moniker of ‘The Comeback Kid’ in college. “I always had confidence and belief in myself that I could do the job,” he says. So confident that, upon arriving at his first training camp with the Patriots, Brady sought out owner Robert Kraft to pass on a simple message: ‘I’m the best decision this franchise has ever made.’

The same assurance Brady displayed during that infamous conversation with Kraft was on full display 18 months later.

Come Super Bowl XXXVI, the story of that skinny kid from Michigan who’d replaced New England’s $100million man was well-worn. He had been given an unlikely chance by fate, or more accurately the power of New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis. The hit he delivered on Drew Bledsoe – fresh off signing a 10-year, $103million contract a few months previous – became heard around the world. New England were 0-2 after their backup entered that game and failed to engineer a turnaround, but they would lose just three more games all year.

The next few months were Brady’s introduction to the world, as the dorky quarterback engineering the plucky Patriots’ unlikely run towards the NFL’s biggest prize. He was the American Dream, coming along to the delight of a country in mourning after 9/11, aided by some moments of luck Hollywood couldn’t have dreamt up, and driven by a remarkable will to win that was on full display at the season’s crescendo.

With 1:21 remaining, New England had already overcome all odds. Fourteen-point underdogs entering their contest with The Greatest Show On Turf, the Patriots had flown into a 17-3 lead – only for the defending champion St. Louis Rams to bare their teeth in the second half. The score was 17-17 with New England on their own 17-yard line and John Madden, a Hall of Fame former head coach sitting in the commentary booth, had a message: “I think they should play for overtime,” he said.

The Patriots, though, had other ideas – much to the surprise of everybody watching. “It’s funny when you go back to that game, Tom only threw for maybe 150 yards,” Kurt Warner, the Rams’ quarterback that day, tells Gridiron. “That’s not great by our standards and you wouldn’t say he had an overwhelming game. All of the momentum was on our side and everybody thought, ‘Okay, take a knee and see if you can win the game in overtime.”

Brady hit J.R. Redmond three times in the next four plays for five, eight and 11 yards, and suddenly New England were in business. Madden switched opinions, going from ‘I disagree with what the Patriots are doing here’ to ‘Now I kinda like what the Patriots are doing’. Madden, like most, was flabbergasted by the calmness shown by the second-year man under centre. “He was loving it,” adds former Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis to Gridiron. “No nerves, nothing. This is a second-year guy coming in and following instructions to the letter.”

A throwaway as the Rams brought pressure preceded the final two dagger completions: 23 yards to Troy Brown and six to Jermaine Wiggins. Brady spiked the ball on the next play – “The only mistake he made was he clocked the ball too early before the game-winner,” jokes Weis – turning it over to Adam Viniatieri to finish the job from 48 yards.

A legend was born. Warner adds: “To watch him manage that drive was incredible. Nobody knew he was going to be this guy, but it was special. That ability to settle down, be calm in the moment and handle big situations. That is the one thing in that game or season made you sit up and take notice, but still nobody knew what was to come. There was something special there, but not this.”

The ‘this’ Warner refers to was quickly apparent. Within three years, Brady had added another two Super Bowl rings to his collection, and his career hit a peak in 2007 when setting a new NFL record with 50 touchdown passes in a campaign as the Patriots went unbeaten in the regular season.

Their defeat to the New York Giants in that Super Bowl had barely hindered his legacy, nor did another to the same opponents four years later. But the initial story had lost some of its lustre in time – so Brady set about building an undisputable case in the second half of his career with another two triumphs. “I see him as the greatest of all-time,” adds Warner. “It’s hard to compare guys over eras but you have a guy who has played in seven Super Bowls and won five – at this point. And he isn’t even done yet! You can see he’s the best already and yet last year was maybe his best, with another championship. It’s going to be a slam dunk by the end of his career, but he’s already the best to me.”

Slam dunk sounds about right, because Brady is entering 2017 on the back of his best season yet. “The stuff that worked for me didn’t really work so well for me the second time we played them,” admits superstar Denver pass-rusher Von Miller in conversation with Gridiron. “I really don’t have a whole lot of advice on how to stop TB12. You have to take every opportunity you get with that guy. He is a robot but he does make human mistakes sometimes.”

Except the ‘human mistakes’ are becoming more infrequent. After missing his controversial first four games through suspension for Deflategate, Brady threw 28 touchdowns to just two interceptions, racked up 3,554 yards and was again the best quarterback in football despite being nearly 40. Pro Football Focus gave him an overall season grade of 99.3, the highest in their grading history (since 2006). “Tom Brady is a magician out there,” adds Miller’s Denver teammate Aqib Talib. “He knows where everybody is going to be and he knows who is going to be open. That’s what makes it so hard to play against him.”

There is more to this story than just knowledge, though. Brady thrives due to an approach to personal fitness and nutrition that is unrivalled among modern sportsmen. As well as settling in for bed around 8pm every night, he eats no white sugar, flour or salt (unless it’s the Himalayan pink variety), instead favouring vegetables, whole grains and lean meats. That dietary approach mixed with a unique gym routine centred around stretching and flexibility.

Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith tells Gridiron: “He’s been doing it very well for a long, long time and he just seems to be getting better. He is where everybody else is trying to get to. There are so many things that make him great – anticipation, accuracy and winning with his brain. He makes plays week in and week out, year after year. It doesn’t just happen by accident and it’s not all natural. I know he works really hard at it. He is no spring chicken, so I know he works really hard in the offseason in terms of his diet and preparation.”

But just what is driving Brady’s commitment at this point, when he already has an unrivalled CV? Warner, who similarly battled his way to the top, believes he has the answer: “The biggest thing is that when you’re always fighting for everything, there is always pressure. When things are given to you and you know there’s another chance, you can always take it a bit easier. Whereas, if you go through things like Tom did, or I did, you know every time you’re out of the picture, there’s a chance you may lose your job. I think there is something special about guys who’ve always had their backs against the wall. They are ready for the big moments, and those are the guys you want to go away with. They’ve been tried and tested.”

It doesn’t appear Brady’s championship window will close anytime soon, especially after the Patriots were incredibly aggressive this offseason in bolstering their Super Bowl roster. Those efforts, and the man under centre, ensure that New England enter the campaign as favourites to win again, setting up the tantalising possibility that Brady may soon have six rings – one for each quarterback selected ahead of him 17 years ago. Yet, even then, he probably wouldn’t be satisfied. That’s just the way Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. is wired.

This article originally appeared in the first ever Gridiron Annual Bookazine, published ahead of the 2017 NFL season. For individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE

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