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Tom Brady emerges from shadows of offseason; Brian Cushing stigma

The disgrace of two former New Jersey heroes and one from LSU headlined the week -- and yes, I believe any award or postseason honor, including rookie of the year, should be stripped if a player tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance, as apparently is the case with defensive rookie of the year Brian Cushing of the Houston Texans.But I'm not leading with bad news. I'm leading with Tom Brady breaking his offseason silence to discuss his bi-coastal life, hopes for his team, a charity he is very bullish on and how much his world has spun in the past few years.

"Life changes,'' he said from California Saturday morning -- at a very dad-like time of 8 a.m. Pacific -- while watching his sons. "You've got to be able to change with it.''

Brady tries to disappear in the offseason, which is difficult given his own star power and that of his wife, model Gisele Bundchen. He's bi-coastal now, living part-time in the Boston area and in Los Angeles, and we don't see him much other than through the prying eyes of the paparazzi. But he surfaced Saturday to talk for a half-hour because he wanted to promote a passion of his -- the 11th annual Audi Best Buddies Challenge: Hyannis Port, a flag-football game (he'll be quarterbacking) at Harvard on June 4 and a bike ride from Boston to Cape Cod the next day.

Best Buddies is a Massachusetts-based nonprofit, now with 1,500 chapters nationwide, founded to encourage friendship and create employment opportunities for mentally handicapped people. The group helps to mainstream those with intellectual and developmental disabilities while helping them develop friendships that are often rare in their lives. Brady got involved from friendships with agent Brad Blank, who lived in his Boston neighborhood, and the group's founder, Anthony Shriver.

"I first did the ride nine years ago,'' Brady said. "I rode 40 miles with my sisters, and it was a great family event. I really liked the premise -- trying to build friendships for those less fortunate than we are. That was the premise, the importance of friendship. I think of the value of my friends in my life, and that's something some of these [mentally challenged] people don't have, based on something that was out of their control when they were born. It's just unfair. And this group does so much for them that I just wanted to do my part.''

This year his part will be the football game at Harvard and riding the next day, hoping to encourage people to donate to the cause. Brady is halfway toward his goal of getting supporters to donate $100,000 to Best Buddies through Team TB12 and hopes, obviously, to surpass his goal. To learn about the organization, and for ticket information for the Friday night flag football game, go to www.bestbuddies.org. I've gotten to know Brad Blank well over the years, and rarely do we have a conversation that doesn't include his passion for this organization. I wish them the best.

PHOTO GALLERY: A GLIMPSE INTO TOM BRADY'S OFFSEASON

***

The Brady football headlines:

• He will be back in Foxboro this morning to resume work in the Patriots' offseason program. But he's not been a regular in the program thus far. Brady used to win awards for his attendance and fervor in the offseason program, but he said he has spent two weeks in the program since it began in mid-March. File this under the "life changes'' category. The son he had with Bridget Moynahan, Jack, turns 3 in August. Benjamin Brady, his son with Bundchen, is 5 months old. Brady sounds like he'll be as much of a full-time dad as he can be while shuttling between Los Angeles and Boston.

• He said he's healthy and able to work out harder this offseason than last, when he was recovering from knee surgery and a subsequent staph infection to the knee. "This is the best I've felt in a long, long time,'' he said. "Last year I was ready for the season, but this year I'm not doing rehab; I'm just getting ready as normal for the season.''

• He said he's been throwing "quite often'' on the West Coast to a rehabbing Wes Welker, recovering from knee and rotator-cuff surgeries. He made no predictions about when Welker would be ready to play, and was unspecific about how much Welker is doing now. But Welker is only three months removed from major surgery to his knee and shoulder, so it'd be a shock to see him early in the season. "He was an undrafted free-agent and has had to work for anything he's ever gotten,'' Brady said. "So don't put anything past him.''

• His solution to the Patriots' late-season slide, culminating in an embarrassing home playoff loss to Baltimore? "We've got to start listening more to coach [Bill] Belichick. We've got young kids who are good players. We've got the best football coach of all time. He's got the answers. We as a team have to take the teaching and the coaching we're being given.''

• He's not down over the team not adding a significant running back or wide receiver (other than the aging Torry Holt and third-round pick Taylor Price) to a team that needs an offensive boost with Welker's status in doubt. "I like [2009 injured draft pick] Brandon Tate a lot, and Julian Edelman was so effective for us last year, plus having [free-agent] David Patten back is going to help. The two tight ends we drafted [Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez], from what I hear, are really good players,'' he said.

The Patriots are in a weird spot. They have a team 90 percent of the owners (and most fan bases) in the league would die for. They won three of the last nine Super Bowls and still have the coach and quarterback who were the most important pieces in all three of those seasons. They won 58 games in the past five seasons; only one team in the league, Indianapolis, won more consistently in the regular-season over the same span. To average 11.6 wins a year ... that's failure? Of course not. But the bar has been set mile-high in Foxboro. The question around New England and around the league is the same, particularly with the Jets and Dolphins nipping at the Patriots' heels: Are the Patriots on their way up again, or on the way down?

"Our fans think just because we're wearing the same jerseys, we're the same team. And we're not,'' Brady said. "Teams change in this league every year, and ours is no exception. Last year was pretty disappointing in a lot of ways, obviously. Losing to Baltimore the way we lost in the playoffs, losing leads late, losing on the road. Every year is so different, and the way we approach this year will be extremely important. We need to see the toughness. We need to see the commitment. Can we take the coaching?''

Brady will hear a lot of questions about his commitment, now that he's spending so much time in Los Angeles. Hs goal in the offseason used to be to win the prized parking spot given to the most dedicated player in the offseason program. Now his family goals take precedence, and because his older son (he shares custody), lives in Los Angeles, he feels he has to be in southern California more. He made it clear he's not going to give short-shrift to either of his sons, and if he has to work on his own for a good part of the offseason, away from his teammates, so be it.

"It's a balancing act,'' he said. "I don't want the next 10 years to go by and to say I wasn't there for my sons. I wish I could be there [in Foxboro daily in the offseason] the way I was when I was 24, but life is different now. Things actually are much more simple than they've ever been. I used to spend every weekend running around with friends. Now I've got two great kids, and I love spending time with them. [Benjamin] is usually up at 6 in the morning, so that's when the day starts now.''

He said he's going to go back and forth through the offseason and will attend all the mandatory camps and as much of the offseason program as time allows. But he was honest about the fact he's not going to know his new mates as well as he used to know everyone in the locker room once training camp begins in late July.

"I'm not going to have the same relationship with the guys as if I was there every day,'' he said. "I hope they can understand. I've seen it handled different ways by a lot of guys on the team in the past, including some of the real leaders. I've seen Willie McGinest and Rodney Harrison when their family lives turned in different directions and they couldn't be in the offseason program every day. Ultimately, what it comes down to is this: We've all got to be ready to play.''

Just then he said, "Hold on,'' and said to his son Jack, "Want to go on the swing?''

Time for one more topic: the Jets ... the never-ending fortification of the Jets.

"They're always a team that gives us problems, and they've sure made a lot of changes this offseason," he said. "When your archrivals do as much as they've done, you've got to pay attention. They went to the conference championship game, they've got a great defense, they can run the ball as well as anyone, and they've got a great young quarterback who can make a lot of plays. Our whole division's improved. To win the division, we'll really have to earn it this year.''

As Brady knows, winning the division isn't enough in New England. It's easy to forget that Brady threw for his second-highest yardage total (4,398) and touchdown passes (28, tied with two other seasons) last year. No matter how much Brady's around this spring, I doubt we'll look back next January and say, "Yup. Brady missing big chunks of the offseason program doomed the Patriots.'' It'll be the effectiveness of those around him that determines the Patriots season -- and how good the team 190 miles to the southwest plays.

"I think what happened was in Tennessee they probably got a little too carried away with the Chris Johnson thing. The year before that we were 13-3 when I had 200 carries and we split the rock. Chris went to the Pro Bowl and we had the first-round bye, they did things different the next year and we struggled to make the playoffs. It is what it is.''-- LenDale White, the running back traded from Tennessee to Seattle on draft weekend, appearing to blame the Titans' 2009 slump on the emphasis placed on getting Chris Johnson a 2,000-yard rushing season, on Fox Sports Radio, via sportsradiointerviews.com.

"To me, anyone's got a chance to win the job right now. It's not just lip service.''-- Buffalo coach Chan Gailey, on the three-headed starting quarterback competition between Trent Edwards, Brian Brohm and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Seventh-round rookie Levi Brown from Troy has an outside shot to be competitive in the quarterback derby, but the competition is likely up to the three vets.

"On my family, I will go to the death and say he doesn't take steroids.''-- New Jersey personal trainer Joe DeFranco, to Tara Sullivan of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.), on Brian Cushing, the client he has trained since Cushing's junior year at Bergen Catholic High. Cushing, the NFL's defensive rookie of the year last season, was handed a four-game suspension Friday for violating the league's performance-enhancing drugs statute.

"I've passed every drug test out there and still have. I'm not that kind of guy.''-- Cushing, during a press conference a year ago.

You are that kind of guy now.

To all teams pondering adding JaMarcus Russell to the training-camp roster (and there will be one that does, because of his tremendous arm), ponder this:

In Russell's last 31 quarters as an Oakland starting quarterback, this guy with the tremendous arm threw one touchdown pass. That's a phenomenal run of badness, even worse than putting up only 55 points in his last seven starts as a Raider.

One of the reasons I've never been an Alex Barron fan -- only his accountant should be partisan to the former first-round tackle of the Rams who's about to be dealt to Dallas -- is his attention to detail, and his fervor to be great. It's just not there. This illustrates it best: 43 false-start penalties in five seasons. Ridiculous.

We hosted our nephew Adam, from England, and his girlfriend, Cristina, who lives in Spain, for the past week, and took them to see a few things in our region. We went to a minor-league baseball game in Manchester, N.H., the other night, in a lovely venue, MerchantsAuto.com Stadium, on the banks of the rushing Merrimack River, to see the New Hampshire Fisher Cats against the New Britain Rock Cats. (Couldn't believe they sell Leinenkugel's Sunset Wheat. Great selection.)

"Does every team in this league have to be some sort of cat?'' Adam wondered.

No, I said; the Eastern League has the Curve (Altoona), Senators (Harrisburg) and even Flying Squirrels (Richmond), but this is not the league with the Lake Monsters (Burlington, Vt.).

So on the 52-mile drive from Boston to Manchester, we passed into New Hampshire and noticed a sign mandating seat-belt use for all car passengers 18 and younger. "Live Free or Die.'' Adam thought that was a bit extreme. "It's like 'Live fast, die young.' ''

I wasn't aware New Hampshire required seat-belt use for youths, but not for adults. So I googled the whole thing back home and discovered how adamant citizenry had been in fighting seat-belt laws. Turns out New Hampshire is the only state that doesn't require residents to wear a seat belt, and it was the cause of some fiery local rhetoric last year when the legislature in the capital of Concord tried to pass such a law.

An editorial in the New Hampshire Union-Leader read: "If we passively accept Concord's authority to fine us for not clicking our seat belts -- no matter the circumstances -- then we have accepted the general premise that the state not only can, but must bully us for our own good. There will be no stopping the flood of laws that will come, all to protect us from ourselves.''

Not taking one side or the other here, but I wonder how many drivers have lived free and died while not wearing a seat belt there.

"Next career ... analyst, studio, speaking, preaching, foundation? What do you think? Unretire ... only kidding, not a chance!''--@kurt13warner, former Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, who retired in January and is pondering what to do with the rest of his life -- a life, apparently, that will not include any Brett Favrisms.

1. I think when I lived in New Jersey a few years ago, there were always whispers about how star high school linebacker Brian Cushing got so big and so strong so fast. And no matter how Cushing spins it in the wake of being suspended for four weeks for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance (Cushing denied to friend and workout pal Jay Glazer that what he tested positive for was a steroid), it doesn't matter. He'll have the scarlet letter on his chest for the rest of his career. It doesn't go away.

Cushing admitting that he appealed the positive test in February makes it virtually certain that he derived benefit from whatever illegal substance he took during his rookie season. And if this suspension is the result of a positive test at any point during the 2009 season, I'm in favor of stripping him of the defensive rookie of the year award and giving it to second-place finisher Jairus Byrd of Buffalo. These are awards lorded over by the Associated Press, not the NFL, so this is not an NFL decision. I plan to have more on this in my Tuesday column.

2. I think neither side should be expecting much -- and neither side is -- from the straight-up trade of Dallas linebacker Bobby Carpenter for St. Louis tackle Alex Barron. Carpenter does fit better as an outside 'backer next to James Laurinaitis in the Rams' 4-3 than he ever fit in the 3-4, but he had enough chances to make plays in Dallas that he's likely no more than a stopgap guy for St. Louis. Barron, a first-round pick by the Rams in 2005, has been a disappointment his entire pro career. His work ethic was never good. Maybe it's changing now that he's staring his football mortality in the face, but I doubt it.

3. I think one of the sad things about Lawrence Taylor is the rush by his supporters and attorneys to say he wouldn't have been in the wrong if the girl who visited him in the hotel the other night in New York was 19, as he thought she was. Right. It's perfectly normal for a 51-year-old married man to go to a hideaway hotel for a tryst with a teen.

4. I think, by the way, that you won't get anywhere with me when you say men like Taylor and O.J. Simpson, who have had post-career trouble with the law, should be removed from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It's not the Moral Pro Football Hall of Fame. Never has been and it shouldn't be.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame was created to honor the men who played the game for what they did in the game, not for what they did off the field or what they did when their careers ended -- good or bad. If we start removing people from the Hall after they've committed a crime, what crime is serious enough? DUI? Sexual assault? A double murder that a man is found not guilty of? (And believe me, I'm not trying to convince anyone Simpson is innocent of double murder -- just making the point that Simpson was not convicted of the crime, so in the eyes of the justice system, jaded eyes though they might be, he is not guilty.)

5. I think I got a kick out of watching the media make a big deal last week of the quote in this space on Brett Favre. The one of him telling a friend in the game after lastseason that he was 100 percent sure he wouldn't put on the pads again. I realize anytime Favre says anything it's going to be news. But I put the quote in the context it deserved -- very low in this column, with the perspective that Favre has changed his mind so often in the past 26 months about playing or not playing that it's not very important right now. All that matters is where Favre is in mid-August. Before that, we're all guessing.

6. I think the 49ers did right by rewarding a good player, leader and person, Patrick Willis, with two years left on his rookie contract. Of course, the five-year, $50-million extension isn't as good as he could have gotten had he played out his deal. But that's the tradeoff -- Willis gets $26 million guaranteed and the peace of mind to know if he suffers a serious injury, he's already hit it mostly big. "This is where I want to be,'' Willis told me the other day. "It's where I feel comfortable, and I see us doing everything we can to try to win now. Why think about playing anywhere else.''

That's the rub -- the Niners never would have let him walk anyway. If I'm him, I take the money now because you don't know what's around the corner, either in terms of health or in the financial structure of the league.

7. I think one of the reasons San Francisco did right by rewarding Willis is he's the perfect on-field representative of coach Mike Singletary. "I like how he coaches, and I agree with how he coaches,'' Willis said of Singletary. "Straight, old school, me versus you, go through me if you want to make the play. As a defense, we don't believe in tricking anyone, or running around people. I'm fortunate that coach Singletary got me at the beginning. He was able to mold me from the start of my NFL career.''

Singletary was the Niners' assistant head coach and linebackers coach when Willis was drafted in 2008, then became the interim head coach when Mike Nolan was fired in October 2008. It's not that Singletary tried to re-make Willis in his image; he didn't have to. But it's interesting to see that a young, aggressive, talented inside linebacker takes mentoring from a guy whose career was peaking the year Willis was born (1985). Singletary's not a guy Willis would have watched much on TV as a kid. I like that he trusts what Singletary says in his coaching, and even can kid him a little bit, which he did after watching some tape of his coach and seeing him run around an offensive lineman rather that run through him the way he now preaches. These two guys were made for each other.

8. I think the Saints, with the Vicodin lawsuit hanging over the franchise, did two good things in the last week. GM Mickey Loomis' signing of Darren Sharper (for the right money, I hear about a third of the franchise figure of $6 million for a safety) and the long-term signing of the best guard in football, Jahri Evans, were done at the right time and for the right pay.

9. I think I'm starting to get nervous. Next week is my column ranking the teams 1 to 32. I'm always so good at these things, like last year -- when I picked the Saints 24th entering the season and wrote: "This defense is not going to be good enough to win eight games.'' They had a nice little season, as you'll recall.

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. Dallas Braden. Who knew? (You too, Ubaldo Jimenez.)

b. Paul Konerko. Who figured?

c. Jonathan Broxton. Who kidnapped him?

d. This is what you're getting for your $17 million a year out of Josh Beckett, Sox fans: In his past six starts against the Yankees and Rays, the two best teams in the American League East, Beckett has one win, a 6.75 ERA and has allowed 52 baserunners in 36 innings.

e. The AL East is not trending the Red Sox's way. Boston has played Tampa Bay and the Yankees 10 times this year, all at Fenway Park, and won two. The Rays are 14-2 on the road. The Yankees are beat up and are 21-9. Not looking good for a competitive summer in New England.

f. Not to be all New England-centric this morning (guilty, as charged), but I've been neglectful in praising two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe photographer, writer and editor Stan Grossfeld, a unique talent in the business today. He takes his own photos and writes his stories about topics out of the mainstream (the recent Bernie Carbodrug-confession piece should win multiple awards), and they are absolute gems. Pleasure to read him regularly now.

g. Never figured the Red Wings would land with such a thud. San Jose must be really good.

h. I must admit I'm rooting for a Pittsburgh-Boston Eastern Conference final now. It would be fun to see hot Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask try to stop Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

i. After witnessing Rajon Rondo's phenomenal game Sunday in Boston -- the Celtics point guard led all players in points (28), rebounds (18) and assists (13) in his team's series-evening win over the Cavaliers -- I am reconsidering my distaste for the NBA. The smallest guy on the floor achieving that? Incredible.

j. Thanks to all who supported the Greater Boston Food Bank and the Matt Light Foundation in advance of the Tuesday New England Locker Room Luncheon (featuring Matt Light, Julian Edelman, Mike Reiss, me) to benefit both at Davio's. Followers of this column are as generous as people come.

k. Coffeenerdness: Had one of those Dark Roast Dunkin' Donuts iced coffees the other day. Not bad at all. Suitably dark.

l. I'm in the market for a good movie. Got any good ones?

m. RIP Ernie Harwell, a man who was as important to one state over the last half-century as any other broadcaster. Great voice, and a fine, fine man.

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