As the NFL playoffs continue on this weekend, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots will take center stage.
Brady has become an icon in professional sports, and is associated with leading a Patriots' dynasty as well as ranking among the all-time greats.
As precise a passer as Brady is, people who know him best always remark about his tremendous level of commitment, focus, determination and toughness. Where it may be hard to see at times behind his Madison Avenue appeal and super model wife, it is the intangibles that he possesses that makes him one of the NFL elite.
It's hard to develop those kinds of attributes, and where dealing with adversity often reveals character, a recent Sports Illustrated article describing Brady's college career at the University of Michigan that tells the tale of who Tom Brady is, and how he's developed that grit and mental toughness that now separates him from his peers.
Michael Rosenberg writes of Brady's ability to overcome adversity at Michigan, as well as his determination and commitment to be a success.
The story of Tom Brady's college career has been retold and refined so often that most of the necessary context has been lost. Most football fans know the gist: It wasn't until late in his college career that people began to form a picture of how good he would be. That included the Wolverines' coaches, who insisted that he compete with (Drew) Henson for much of the two years they spent together, and NFL front offices, who allowed Brady to slip to the 199th pick.
But if you look at only the bones of the story, you miss the heart of it. You don't recollect Brady in 1998, after that 38--28 loss to Syracuse—a struggling quarterback for an 0--2 team, hanging on to his job by a frayed thread. Many of Michigan's staunchest fans thought he should be benched. Friends today say the lack of support bothered Brady intensely.
But Brady was stuck. Early in the previous season, after (Michigan Head Coach Lloyd) Carr had chosen Brian Griese as the starter—a move that would pay off with the school's first national title in 49 years—Brady told the coach he might transfer. Carr asked Brady what his father thought, and Brady said his dad would support whatever he did.
Carr did not beg him to stay. Instead, he told Brady to stop harping on how many reps he got or whether the coaches liked him. "He said, 'You know, Tommy, you've gotta worry about yourself,' " Brady would recall of his conversation with Carr. "You've gotta go out and worry about the way you play. Not the way the guys ahead of you are playing, not the way your running back is playing and not the way your receiver ran the route."
Carr didn't promise Brady anything. In fact, the only promise to come out of the meeting was from Brady: "I'm gonna prove to you that I'm a great quarterback."
"That was a recommitment to the marriage," Tom Sr. says. In the younger Brady's mind, he had forfeited the right to complain.
Still, there would be, a year later, the issue of Henson.
"Drew Henson was special," says Temple offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, a former Michigan quarterback, a longtime quarterbacks coach and one of Brady's best friends. "He was a freak of nature in my opinion. He had remarkable talent. Unbelievable talent."
Greg Harden, a longtime employee of the football program who advises and counsels Michigan players, says Henson was like Superman, Brady like Batman. Batman doesn't have any superpowers, but as Harden says, "Batman believes he can whip Superman's ass."
Brady's resolve stiffened. He went to Schembechler Hall, the team's football facility, almost every night to watch extra film. He soaked up everything: schemes, opposing players' tendencies, the minds of Michigan's defensive coaches. Slowly, a different quarterback emerged. Brady recognized defenses before the ball was snapped. He knew which receivers would be open and, in what would become his hallmark, became unshakable in the pocket, able to maintain both his concentration and his accuracy when he was about to get hit. On the bus after games Brady could go through every incompletion in order and tell his teammates what went awry: wrong route, wrong read, bad throw, missed block. He had not yet watched film.
After that 0--2 start, Brady rallied Michigan to eight straight wins. But Carr mostly remembers a 31--16 loss to Ohio State in the regular-season finale. Brady was sacked seven times and drilled on several others. Yet he completed 31 of 56 passes, and Carr realized that with the biggest, fastest Buckeyes homing in on him, Brady never looked down.
And still, Superman lurked over Batman's shoulder.
Before the 1999 season opener, Carr made a decision: Brady would start; Henson would play the second quarter; at halftime the coaches would pick which one would finish the game. While this must have irritated Brady (who declined, through the Patriots, to talk to SI for this story), he couldn't complain to his teammates, who had voted him captain. He couldn't complain to his parents, who had let him make his own decisions—including the one to stay at Michigan—and expected him to live with them. He could only compete.
Brady earned the second-half nod in four of the first five games, and Michigan won all five. Asked about the unusual platoon system, he endorsed it: "It's working great for us."
He may not have realized it, but Brady was turning Carr into a believer. The coach had primarily valued arm strength and athleticism in his passers—"If you went to a coaching clinic where coaches are talking about quarterback play, you didn't hear about accuracy," he told SI—but Griese and then Brady convinced him of the importance of throwing precisely to a target. And concerns about Brady's arm strength were largely misguided. Wolverines tight end Aaron Shea says that because Brady put the proper touch on his passes, he rarely threw as hard as he could.
In Michigan's sixth game, at Michigan State, the quarterback platoon fell apart. Carr chose Henson for the second half, and the offense stalled. The coach switched back to Brady, who led a spirited comeback; it fell short but was another indication of who he would become. Brady had always been impressive running the two-minute drills at the end of practice. Now he was executing when it counted.
The Wolverines lost their next game, to Illinois, when the defense blew a 20-point second-half lead. But Carr had seen enough. Brady was his quarterback.
In November, Brady threw three interceptions against Penn State as Michigan fell behind 27--17 in the fourth quarter. He was also sacked six times, and receiver David Terrell remembers coming back to the huddle and saying to his quarterback, " 'Damn, bro!' ... He had a bloody face." Brady responded, "DT, just do your job." Brady did his, leading the Wolverines to a 31--27 win. He told reporters afterward, in his high-pitched voice, "I knew we weren't going to lose this game."
At the team banquet in December, Brady cracked that his parents had graduated from "the University of Northwest Airlines" after traveling to almost every game for five years. But Tom Sr. and his wife, Galynn, had a policy: "We shut our mouths." They had never attended practice or called Carr. Their son had chosen Michigan twice—once as a high school senior, and again when he thought about transferring before his junior season. Tom Sr. says, "He had to own it."
After leading the Wolverines to a 9--2 record, Brady finished his college career against Southeastern Conference champion Alabama in the Orange Bowl. As the team gathered for Christmas Eve dinner in Miami, Brady announced, "I'm gonna have dinner with the young pups tonight." He sat with the freshmen, who were away from their families for the holidays for the first time. A week later Brady completed 34 of 46 passes for 369 yards and four touchdowns to beat Alabama 35--34. The next morning, as Carr met with reporters at the team hotel, Brady walked into the room, grabbed something off a breakfast buffet, waved and walked out without saying a word. He was 22 years old and sure of where he was headed.
The Brady everybody sees today grew from the Brady nobody believed in at Michigan. In Ann Arbor he developed his steel faith in his ability, and a capacity to ignore detractors. He learned that fan adulation was too elusive to chase; he focused instead on winning over his teammates.
The San Mateo, Calif., kid became one of the best cold-weather quarterbacks ever. Many college stars must adjust to the harsh NFL ecosystem, but after fighting for his job for two years at Michigan, Brady was ready. The battle with Henson no longer defines Brady's career, but it helped define who he is.
"He always believes there is someone behind him that is going to take his job," Loeffler says. "He is 34 years old and approaches the game like he just got drafted in the sixth round."
Tom Brady is a perfect example of adversity revealing a person's character - every challenge that has come his way has been vanquished, and he seems to revel in the opportunity to prove doubters, critics and rivals wrong. People like Brady make teams, families and organizations complete, and pave the way for continued success.