by Austin Chen, Sports Section Editor
photo contributed by AP Photo/Tom Dipace
Tom Brady has always lived a unique life — one spent in pursuit of perfection. Few people choose to live like this, and even fewer achieve that goal. It takes a special kind of person to do so, one willing to deny themselves vices and pleasures, one willing to dedicate every waking hour to honing their craft, one willing to demand more out of themselves than even the harshest critic.
Even that isn’t enough, though. Reaching true perfection requires some deep, innate drive, an inexorable hunger within oneself, that, where others may say “good enough,” instead demands the relentless pursuit of “more.”
Tom Brady was perfect. He dedicated his life to the New England Patriots, but now that he’s playing for Tampa, every Pats fan under 18 has lost the only quarterback they’ve ever known — and the perfection that came with him.
18 years ago, a jaded, cynical fanbase watched in terror as a lanky, lead-footed, baby-faced, sixth-round draft pick out of Michigan stepped in to replace Drew Bledsoe, their newly minted (but now brutally injured) franchise QB, just two games into the season. The Pats lost that evening in November, and their future was cast in shadow. What would follow was the single-greatest turnaround in a team’s fortunes football has ever seen.
To truly appreciate this turnaround, one must first look back to what the Pats used to be. In 1994, the New England Patriots were precariously close to becoming the Saint Louis Stallions. Then-owner James Orthwein had been angling to move the team to his hometown, but luckily, local paper magnate Robert Kraft strong-armed Orthwein into selling the team. It was a relief to fans that the Pats weren’t going to move, but they’d seen too much disappointment to feel anything more than cautious optimism. The Pats hadn’t had a winning season in five years, they’d only ever played in one Super Bowl nearly a decade ago (and lost 46-10) and their all-time best player was a left guard. Fortunately for New England, Kraft’s ownership would bring far brighter days.
Fast forward to the 2000 NFL draft. The sixth round has just begun, and a 23-year-old Tom Brady is wandering the streets, unable to watch as quarterback after quarterback gets selected before him. He doesn’t know it yet, but in the Pats’ draft room, a very special head coach has taken a liking to the Michigan product.
You can’t tell the story of Tom Brady without talking about Bill Belichick. The two are inseparably intertwined, no matter what either chooses to do post-football. Belichick has spent a lifetime around the game; his father, Steve, was a longtime college coach at the United States Naval Academy, and Belichick’s oldest football memories are of him watching game film with his father at age 10. Once he graduated from college, Belichick spent the next decade as an assistant coach in the NFL, going from team to team before ending up as the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants in 1985, with whom he won two Super Bowls.
After a four-year stint as head coach of the Cleveland Browns and plenty of drama (where he spent time as a Pats assistant, as well as technical head coach of the New York Jets), Belichick became the head coach and de facto general manager of the Patriots in 2000.
Belichick’s first draft for the Patriots was the 2000 NFL Draft, and now-owner Kraft later recalled the minutes before the Pats went on the clock for pick number 199 in a mini-documentary focused on that draft. He mentions Belichick taking a look at who was still available, and remarking, “Wow. Brady’s still on the board.” With that, Brady became the biggest draft steal in football history.
Well, he would be. Problem was, the Pats already had three QBs on the roster in 2000. If Brady wanted to start, he had to beat out all three, including Bledsoe, who had just received a then-record contract for 10 years and $103 million.
Luckily for Brady, he had a starter’s confidence from his first training camp. In the same mini-documentary, Kraft recounts a story from this first training camp, in which Brady, a sixth-round draft pick that had no right interacting with the team’s owner other than simply exchanging pleasantries, went right up to Kraft and introduced himself. Kraft responded, “I know who you are. You’re our sixth-round draft choice.” Kraft later recalled how Brady “looked me, like a laser, eye-to-eye, and he said, ‘That’s right. And I’m the best decision this organization has ever made’”.
The very next season, after Bledsoe sheared a blood vessel in his chest, Brady led the Pats to victory in 11 of the next 14 games. Then, in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, Brady won what would become known as the Tuck Rule Game and with that, set the Pats on the road to Super Bowl XXXVI. Brady proceeded to take down the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams for the Pats’ first-ever Super Bowl title. That season, and the decades of dominance to come, have validated Brady’s confidence a hundred times over.
Twenty years later, Brady has created a lifetime of memories for millions of people: fans, haters and impartial observers alike. From the nine Super Bowls to each of his NFL-record 255 wins, to every pass thrown en route to the most yards and touchdowns in playoff history, Brady has left an indelible mark on football history.
But it wasn’t just his on-field contributions that carved his bust on the fictional New England sports Mount Rushmore. Everything from his dedicated engagement with the Best Buddies organization (especially locally) to his iconic bromance with wide receiver Julian Edelman has captured the minds and hearts of New Englanders young and old, and his impact on the region will never disappear.
Ever since he stepped in for Bledsoe that evening in 2001, Pats haters and pundits have always wondered when the day the “bad man” would finally leave New England would come. It took two decades, but that day eventually came. All that’s left for Pats fans is to say so long, and thanks for everything.
So thank you, Tom. Thanks for the Super Bowls, all nine of them, thanks for 18 winning seasons, thanks for the last 20 years. Have fun in Florida. If anyone deserves it, you do.