One day – presumably – Tom Brady is going to retire, which means he will, at some point, return to Foxborough for enshrinement in the New England Patriots Hall of Fame and celebrate the 17 AFC East crowns and six Super Bowl titles he won there.
This Sunday, when his current Tampa Bay team visits Gillette Stadium to play the Pats, is not that day.
“I’m not going to necessarily reminisce,” Brady said on his “Let’s Go!” podcast. “I don’t think this is a moment for that.”
Maybe not for Brady, but it is for plenty of New England fans who will drop adoring applause (pregame at least) on their former hero as he takes the field from the visitor’s tunnel this time.
They’ll be reliving an unprecedented run of NFL success from a lightly regarded prospect who, famously, wasn’t selected until the 199th overall pick in the 2000 draft. That Brady went even that high – and to New England – is due to the diligence of two men: then-Patriots quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein and then-player personnel director Bobby Grier.
This was the spring of 2000 and Bill Belichick had just taken over as head coach. The roster needed a massive overhaul.
“We had a lot of rebuilding to do,” Belichick said years later. “We had a few good players, but once you got past those guys, there were a lot of things that needed to be changed.”
Quarterback, where Pro Bowler Drew Bledsoe was the starter, was about the only position that didn’t need an upgrade. They even had two capable backups. Yet Belichick wanted to aggressively pursue every prospect at every position. No stone should be left unturned.
That led Rehbein to watch and rewatch film of Tom Brady at Michigan. Brady didn’t look like a NFL QB. He was thin, slow and lacked both arm strength and footwork. His NFL combine performance left much to be desired.
Yet during actual games, he delivered. Brady completed 61.9 percent of his passes his senior season and led the Wolverines to victories over Notre Dame, Penn State, arch rival Ohio State and Alabama. There was something there.
No one else thought much about Brady because for the first half of his senior season, he was forced to share the starting job with sophomore Drew Henson. Michigan coach Lloyd Carr described Henson, a hyped local high school star, as “without question ... the most talented quarterback that I’ve been around.”
Carr rarely offered such hyperbolic praise, so it was Henson, an exceptional athlete who would later play for both the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Yankees, that was on the radar of NFL scouts. Brady was just a guy.
Yet Henson couldn’t manage to fully beat him out. In Brady’s senior season, Carr employed a bizarre system where one player would start the first quarter and then the other the second quarter. Then at halftime, the coaching staff would evaluate who was doing better. That QB would play the second half.
Brady won the second half starting job in four of the first five games as Michigan jumped to a 5-0 record. Yet in Game 6, at Michigan State, Henson got the second half start but struggled. Brady was sent back in and led a big comeback only to fall short, 34-31. With that, Carr had finally seen enough. Brady was the full-time starter.
“Tom separated himself," Carr said.
The problem for NFL scouts was that he hadn’t separated himself sooner. If Tom Brady was so good, why wasn’t he the starter the entire season?
Yet what Rehbein and Grier saw was that Michigan had made a mistake, not Brady. Henson was hyped by fans and media, but Brady was better. Tom should have been the starter. They also liked that Brady was a team captain. They liked that Brady didn’t transfer when buried on the depth chart early in his career and instead fought for playing time. Brady also appeared unfazed by getting pulled in and out of games, a good trait for a backup.
Rehbein decided to fly to Ann Arbor to watch Brady work out in person and meet him. Meanwhile, Grier called Lloyd Carr up to ask about Brady. He was the only person in the NFL to do so.
"I told him, 'You will never regret drafting Tom Brady,'" Carr said.
Fine, but they didn’t need a QB. They graded Brady as a third-round choice, but began trying to fill other needs – two offensive linemen, a running back, a tight end, a defensive tackle, a defensive back. (Interestingly, none of these players would amount to much. Only fourth-round tackle Greg Randall would become a full-time starter, and that was for just one season.)
By the time the sixth round arrived, Brady was still on the board. Not a single team wanted him. New England couldn’t believe it. Neither could Brady, who grew so frustrated watching the draft at his parent’s house in San Mateo, California, that he took a long walk and later swung a baseball bat out in his yard to blow off steam.
Finally, Belichick called. He wasn’t going to pass up on a prospect everyone else was undervaluing. Brady would join the Patriots … with no promise of making the roster.
Brady was unfazed. After all, he’d started as a seventh-stringer at Michigan. So a few months later, when he saw Patriots owner Robert Kraft at training camp, he walked up and introduced himself.
“I know who you are,” Kraft said. “You’re our sixth-round pick out of Michigan.”
Brady nodded, but wanted to let the owner know he wasn’t just another late-round selection hoping to make the team.
“I’m the best decision this organization has ever made,” Brady said.
All these years and Super Bowls later, Brady’s boast proved true.
Sunday may not be a day to reminisce about that for Brady, and it may prove bittersweet for everyone in New England, but that a conquering hero is back on his old grounds is a testament not just to the greatness of Tom Brady, but to the extra work of a personnel director and a quarterbacks coach in uncovering the all-time late-round steal of the draft.