We always knew we’d be summing up Tom Brady’s career one day when he finally — finally — called it quits. On Tuesday, when the 44-year old Brady made it official, writers across the nation plopped down to put the most stellar career in NFL history into words.
I’ll start not with a word but with a number. One hundred ninety-nine. For me, that is the Tom Brady story and the Tom Brady lesson. Brady was the 199th pick in the 2000 draft. For everything this man did from the front of the pack, it’s what he did from the back that changed football.
Yes, it’s true that Bart Starr was selected with the 200th pick (he barely played in college) and Johnny Unitas was a ninth-rounder (college injuries) and Roger Staubach was a 10th rounder when Dallas drafted him (he was in the Navy.)
But those were the 1950s and 1960s. By April of 2000, drafting players had become a science. Teams employed full-time analysts. The combines were in full swing. You weren’t supposed to miss this badly.
Brady was tested, timed, poked and prodded like a prime heifer at auction. The results were dismal. From the report:
“Poor build. Skinny. Lacks great physical stature and strength. Lacks mobility and ability to avoid the rush. Lacks a really strong arm. Can’t drive the ball downfield. Does not throw a really tight spiral. System-type player who can get exposed if forced to ad lib. Gets knocked down easily.”
Wow. With scores like that, you wonder why Brady went so HIGH?
But he is the ultimate hare to the tortoise, the crab to the crane, the snail to the deer. He was seventh on the depth chart when he arrived at Michigan. He was fourth when he got to New England. He simply never stopped believing that he could be the best, and he drove himself until it came true.
Which means the most admirable part of Brady’s journey wasn’t his confetti showers at Super Bowls. It was the work that nobody saw, the scratch and claw it took to climb into the starter’s seat.
It began in our own backyard.
What we couldn’t see at U-M
Many people just assume that Brady was a college star, even if they don’t know where he went to school.
Michiganders know better. They know Brady made no headlines when he accepted the Wolverines’ scholarship. That after being redshirted as a freshman, he sat as a backup for two years in Ann Arbor. That he lost his first two games as a starter and finished that year with 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. That he had to straight-arm Drew Henson from stealing his job in Brady’s final season, before finishing strong with an Orange Bowl win over Alabama.
If you look back at Brady’s time at Michigan and ask yourself “Why didn’t we know more about him?” it’s because he wasn’t a lightning rod of attention. He didn’t do spectacular things. You didn’t hear a lot because there wasn’t that much to hear. He was pretty good. So were a lot of Michigan quarterbacks that were never heard from again.
But what we didn’t know Tom Brady could do, Tom Brady knew he could do. The first time he met Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Brady famously said, “You’ll never regret picking me.”
He didn’t even know whether he’d make the team at the time. He rode the Patriots bench his entire first season, completing one pass all year. And had starter Drew Bledsoe not suffered a ghastly injury in the second game of the 2001 campaign, who knows if Brady would ever have become what he did?
Remember, Bledsoe had signed a 10-year, $103 million contract extension a few months earlier. It took a pretty iron-jawed coach (Bill Belichick, in his second year in New England) to turn his back on that and say Brady, after leading the team to the Super Bowl, would be the permanent starter.
But there was no hiding Brady’s light under a bushel anymore. The Patriots won three Super Bowls in four years with him under center. They had to wait a decade before starting another title winning streak, this time three more championships in five years, giving Brady six rings, more than any quarterback in history.
Still, you can argue the most impressive thing Brady did came in 2020, when he uprooted everything he knew to take the reins in Tampa Bay — during COVID-19. Practices were limited. Contact was limited. Brady pushed the boundaries to get in reps with his receivers — at school fields, in parks, wherever they could escape scrutiny. He seemed to attack the challenge of winning without Belichick the same way he attacked a blitzing line. Stare it down and go right over it.
Brady’s seventh and final Super Bowl, at age 43, was a magnificent declaration that youth will be served, but service can be slow. Young Patrick Mahomes could not measure up to Brady last February at Raymond James Stadium. And Tom walked off with one more ring, one more MVP award, and an immeasurable sense of satisfaction.
Once more, he had come from the back of the pack.
Leading from the back
Brady rarely played with other superstars. You’ll spend a lot of time trying to remember the best running back he ever handed off to in New England, or the best wide receiver to catch his passes. Randy Moss, probably the most talented, took a plane and drove to Brady’s hotel while Moss was still an Oakland Raider to tell Brady privately he wanted to play with him. The duo were only together for parts of four seasons. But Moss knew something:
“If he’s the hardest working man in the building,” he told ESPN yesterday, “then the sky’s the limit for your organization.”
So it was for the Patriots, and, for a couple of years, the Buccaneers.
But Brady’s true legacy will not be in titles, wins or even stats. Despite holding records for more yards than any quarterback, more touchdowns than any quarterback, more playoff wins than any quarterback, despite throwing for the most yards in his career in his final season (5,316) — who does that at age 44? — it won’t be numbers that measure Brady’s most long-lasting effect on NFL football.
It will be any time a quarterback is passed on in the early rounds, any time a late-round passer barely makes the team, any time a backup comes off the bench and puts his foot on the gas and never looks back.
Tom Brady created a mold. And that mold was forged, like a sword, in doubt.
“I was always kind of motivated by people that say ‘you can’t do it, you’re not good enough, you’re not fast enough, not big enough, don’t have a good enough arm,’ ” Brady told Michael Strahan last year.
The next guy who hears those words, if motivated enough, will think of Tom Brady, think of those scrawny photos of him at the combine, and that abysmal scouting report, and say to himself, “He did it, why not me?”
And that will be Brady’s most long-lasting gift to football. Not how he ran from the front, but how he pushed through from the back, to ensure his story would be, now, and for a very long time, unforgettable.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.