This story appears in the Jan. 23, 2017, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Every weekend Tom Brady plays another football game. Every weekend he throws more passes to more receivers. The weekends are laid end to end until they become full seasons, the seasons are stacked up until they span decades, and soon enough Brady has played more football and thrown more passes, at a higher level of success, than all but a very few men. Four years in high school, five years in college, 17 years in the NFL. At least 237 total victories. (The records from his first two years in high school are spotty.) Two college bowl game wins. Six AFC championships. Four Super Bowl rings, with another in his sights after last Saturday’s 34–16 divisional-round offing of the Texans in Foxborough. The end is a tiny dot on some distant horizon that only Brady, 39, can envision.
Since first pulling on the navy-colored helmet of the Junípero Serra High Padres as a backup QB on a winless freshman team in the fall of 1991, Brady has completed more than 6,600 passes to at least 120 receivers. He completed passes to teenage high school teammates who now have their own families, and to teammates at Michigan who are now coaches and entrepreneurs. He completed passes to Patriots teammates who became stars and others who scarcely played at all. He completed passes to a teammate who went to jail and was released (Reche Caldwell), and to another who went to jail and might never leave (Aaron Hernandez). He completed passes to receivers named Brown, Gray and White; he completed mostly long passes to Randy Moss and mostly short ones to Wes Welker.
This fall, despite missing the first four games of the season while serving his Deflategate suspension, Brady threw for 28 touchdowns, with only two interceptions. On Saturday he was put under intense pressure by Houston’s defense, tormented by Jadeveon Clowney; he completed fewer than half his pass attempts (18 of 38) and matched his season interception total. However, he also punished the Texans with six completions of more than 20 yards and two more TDs—a 13-yard swing pass to Dion Lewis in the first quarter and a sweet 19-yard parabola to James White in the corner of the end zone in the third, a dime dropped from the darkness. It was a moment’s splendor on an imperfect night, and deep into January, Brady and the Patriots play on. The quarterback is at the top of his sport.
To most of those pass catchers, Brady is greatness once touched, a friend writ large and the celebrity in their cellphone. “My whole life,” says Jabar Gaffney, who played in New England from 2006 through ’08 and caught 70 passes from Brady, “people are going to ask me, What was it like to play with Tom? It was everything—that’s what it was like.” He is the quarterback who made them better than their dreams, who made ordinary athletes good and good athletes wealthy. “He made me way better than I was,” says Welker, who caught 632 passes from Brady between ’07 and ’12, more than any other receiver in Brady’s career. He is the most memorable connection in most of their lives.
And they are a window into his world. It was at Serra High where Brady’s hypercompetitiveness first took root, where he first started banging helmets with teammates in celebration of big plays. It was at Michigan where he decided he would work from dawn until nighttime to improve himself. “Before he was the starter, we would all be walking off the field after practice and Tom is out there throwing balls into a trash can,” says Wolverines teammate Tai Streets. “We’d be like, Come on, man, practice is over. Wasn’t over for Tom. Work, work, work.” And it has been in New England, under coach Bill Belichick, that Brady has made excellence an assumption. “That franchise’s identity is winning,” says Austin Collie, who caught 11 passes from Brady in 2013. “That starts with Tom. They’ve created a whole culture that runs through one person.”
To his receivers, Brady is a coworker, a taskmaster, a friend. There is one of him and dozens of them. He is an international celebrity with a famous wife and vast resources, yet he unfailingly returns calls, texts and emails. Some pass catchers have remained close to Brady, and some have drifted. Few are forgotten.
Brady’s first tackle team was the freshman squad at Serra, a private Catholic high school in his hometown of San Mateo, Calif. One of the receivers on that team was John Kirby; neither he nor Brady started that year. “I remember the first pass I caught from Tommy,” says Kirby, 39. “It was in a preseason scrimmage against St. Ignatius, and we were getting our asses kicked. Tommy comes up to the line and gives me the eyebrows, like, I’m coming to you. Then he drops the pass right on me for a 60-yard touchdown.”
Brady improved steadily, and as a senior he was being recruited by Division I colleges. Kirby could see and feel the difference in his QB’s game. “Our senior year he threw me a 17-yard curl against Cardinal Newman,” Kirby says. “As I turned around, I could hear the ball coming. It was making a hissing sound. It was like a missile.” That 1994 Serra team won five games and lost five. Brady went to Ann Arbor; Kirby went first to City College of San Francisco and then to Hawaii, where he played briefly. The quarterback and the receiver stayed in touch, even as Brady became famous, talking and texting a few times a year.
Their relationship took on a deeper significance last summer when 20-year-old Calvin Riley, a Serra graduate and a former pitcher on the baseball team, was shot in the back and killed while playing Pokémon Go in a San Francisco park. Riley’s family had moved to the Bay Area from Lowell, Mass., five years earlier, and Riley had become close friends with Kirby while working as an assistant football coach and substitute teacher at Serra. Shortly after Riley’s death, Serra football coach Patrick Walsh texted Brady and explained the connection between Riley and Kirby; then Brady and Kirby talked. “I told Tommy about the family,” says Kirby, “and Tommy asked, ‘How about I write them a letter?’ ”
That letter arrived at Kirby’s house, and the old Padres receiver hand-delivered it to Calvin’s father, Sean, about 10 days after Calvin was murdered. Sean, 41, had grown up in Lowell, a former mill town northwest of Boston, then became a high school baseball coach there. In 2011 he brought a recruit to the Bay Area and took his wife and three children as well; when their return home was delayed by Hurricane Irene, they grew more and more enamored of the West Coast. After the storm passed, Sean and Calvin stayed, even living in a car for a few days, looking for an apartment while Calvin, a freshman, began attending Serra. The rest of the family joined them later. Calvin graduated from Serra in ’15 and last spring completed his first season on the mound at nearby San Joaquin Delta Junior College. Even after moving west, the Rileys remained avid fans of Boston sports teams—but most of all they cheered for the Patriots and their star quarterback. “My son loved Tom Brady,” Sean says. “I can’t say that enough.”
Riley did not know the letter was coming. Opening the envelope, he found two pages, handwritten. “It would have been easy to [just] send a card or an email,” he says. “It tells you what kind of human being he is.” (Brady was in training camp, having just lost his final Deflategate appeal, when he wrote it.) Riley declines to share the exact contents of the letter, but when asked whether it provided comfort, he says, “Of course—it celebrated the life of my kid. Tom talked about the brotherhood of Serra, what a special community it is. That letter, it meant so much.” Today the Riley family cheers harder than ever for the Patriots and their QB.
Two hours northeast of Serra High, in the small city of Elk Grove, Giovanni Toccagino Jr. works endless hours as the cook in his family’s Italian restaurant, Palermo. More than 20 years ago Toccagino was Tom Brady’s other primary receiver—“the better receiver,” says Kirby—on that 5–5 team. Unlike Kirby, Toccagino doesn’t have Brady’s cell number or email; in fact, he can’t recall speaking to his high school QB since the early 2000s, when Brady came home after his first Super Bowl win and the old teammates ran into each other at the gym. “I’m busy—I’ve got four beautiful kids, and I bust my ass in the family business,” Toccagino says, pots and pans crashing in the background. Also this: “Tom is so busy. And I don’t want to be that guy.”
Toccagino was 6' 3", 190 pounds and a three-year varsity starter at Serra; back then he went by Gianni. He then caught 37 passes for San Jose State as a true freshman, getting serious Division I run long before Brady did. But when his coach resigned, Toccagino found himself marginalized. And bitter. He transferred to San Diego State and never made an impact, then finished his career at D-III Menlo College in Atherton, Calif. “I was a good athlete, and I could get things done,” says Toccagino, 40. “But I wasn’t coachable; I didn’t want to work hard. Tom Brady was a good athlete who wanted to get better and be great.” In his mid-20s, Toccagino joined the family business that his father, Giovanni Sr., an Italian immigrant, started in 1991.
At first Toccagino resists telling Brady stories. He truly doesn’t want to be that guy. And there are dinners to cook. But slowly he warms to the topic. “I’ve got a scar on my chin from his fat butt,” says Toccagino, describing the time they collided on the basketball court diving for a loose ball. “Tommy always looked natural throwing a ball—and he was always unnatural running. Even worse back then.” He tells the story of a 95-yard touchdown pass, senior year, when Brady gave him that look at the line and then fired the ball immediately against soft coverage, letting Toccagino do the rest.
And then there was this: Four years ago, when Toccagino’s son, Damien, was six, he was assigned a first-grade project that involved writing a letter to a celebrity. Toccagino encouraged his son to write to Brady; when the letter was done, they mailed it to Brady’s parents in San Mateo. A few weeks later, a return letter arrived containing a note and some signed pictures. “If he lived down the street, I’m sure I would just roll over there and we would connect,” says Toccagino.
What does having played with Brady mean to him? “It puts a smile on my face when somebody asks about it,” he says. “And when I’m coaching my kids, I can tell them: I know this guy who shows that nothing is impossible.”
Among the freshmen arriving in Ann Arbor alongside Brady in the fall of 1995 was Aaron Shea, a tight end–fullback from Ottawa, Ill. Brady and Shea were redshirted as true freshmen, and both got spot duty over the next two years (including in ’97 when Brady backed up Brian Griese for the co–national champions). The two twentysomethings shared an apartment at 824 McKinley Avenue. “I lived in the basement, and he lived above me,” says Shea. “Five-thirty in the morning, you could hear the door open and close. That was Tom, going to run stadium stairs, even though the whole team was [scheduled to run] stairs at 2:30.”
The roommates finally shared the spotlight in 1998, the year Shea caught his first of five touchdown passes as a Wolverine, a 26-yard wheel route from Brady to start the scoring in a 27–0 romp over Penn State. “My five-year-old son could have caught that pass, it was laid in there so perfectly,” says Shea, 40. When that five-year-old, Kinzy, was born on May 31, 2011, Aaron (who played six years in the NFL and worked six years in the Browns’ front office) texted Brady and asked if he would be the boy’s godfather. Brady texted back, “It would be my honor.”
Brady’s first game after his suspension was in Cleveland, where the Sheas have settled. After slaying the Browns, Brady met Aaron in the stadium tunnel, along with Kinzy and his two sisters. They all shared a hug, and Aaron asked, “What are you doing with that jersey?” Brady said, “It’s yours, for the whole Shea family.”
Tai Streets, a three-sport star from Chicago, also arrived with Brady at Michigan, but he didn’t suffer the same wait to get on the field. Streets was a senior with 77 career receptions for eight touchdowns by the time Brady finally became the starter, in 1998, and that year he caught 67 more balls for 11 TDs. “We knew Tom was the real deal all along,” says Streets, 39, “but we had good guys ahead of him. He was precise. All you had to do was get open. He was emotional, too, man. He threw a touchdown pass to me against Penn State, and he came running up, trash-talking the defensive back with that high voice. It was pretty funny.”
Streets played six seasons in the NFL and caught 196 passes. For the last 15 years he’s run an AAU basketball program in Chicago, MeanStreets (whose alumni include Derrick Rose and Anthony Davis); he also coaches the varsity hoops team at Thornton Township High in the suburb of Harvey. In 2015, when the Colts hosted the Patriots in Week 6, Streets traveled three hours south and met Brady after the game. “I’m not texting with Tom all the time,” he says, “so it was cool to see him. Same old Tom, down to earth. Then they made him go get on the bus.”
One day this fall Marcus Knight returns a phone call out of the blue. “I’m sorry,” he says, “things are a little in turmoil right now.” Knight, 38, has been the receivers coach at Northern Michigan for the last five years, but in November the Wildcats parted ways with coach Chris Ostrowsky. Knight seems unlikely to be kept on the new staff. (“You got a job for me?” he asks, jokingly. “I’ll work my ass off.”) Knight caught 81 passes in 1998 and ’99, most of them from Brady, including the decisive TD in a 31–27 victory over Penn State the latter year. “Tom had a three-by-three-foot square to put that ball in,” says Knight, “and that’s exactly where he put it.” Knight (who wasn’t close with Brady) remembers that during their junior year, when Brady was the starter, coach Lloyd Carr would give freshman QB Drew Henson some series in games. “Tom won the job,” says Knight, “and then he had to keep winning it.”
Of all the big personalities in Brady’s Michigan huddles, none were bigger than David Terrell’s. A 6' 3", 215-pound receiver from Richmond, Terrell, a true freshman in Brady’s junior year, was assigned the number 1 jersey, reserved for Wolverines receivers who were expected to become stars. In their two seasons together Terrell caught 85 passes for nine TDs and displayed an ego to match the uniform digit. “Every single huddle, I’m telling Tom, ‘I’m open! Throw the ball to me!’ ” Terrell, 37, remembers. “But Tom was a tough motherf-----, and he had that California-Joe-Montana-smooth personality. He’d be like, ‘I gotcha, Dave. Chill. Next play.’ In college, everybody thinks they’re the s---; you’re in the moment. But I look back—it was awesome, man, because Tom’s personality just reverberated through the whole team.”
Terrell was selected with the eighth pick, by the Bears, in the 2001 draft but lasted only five seasons in the NFL and caught just 128 passes. In ’06 he was living in Southern California and arranged to bring his eight-year-old son, David Jr., to one of Brady’s off-season workouts in L.A., where the QB threw to the young boy. “[My son] made a one-handed catch,” says Terrell, who today co-owns a company that helps transform renters into home owners. This fall, David Jr., a senior, was the leading receiver at Loyola Academy in Chicago, which ranked No. 1 in Illinois and reached the Class 8A championship game. “I know this,” says the elder Terrell: “He loves Tom Brady, and he loves the Patriots.”
"I never saw another rookie quarterback like him...he just wanted to kick somebody's butt."
When Brady arrived in New England in 2000 as a sixth-round draft choice and the fourth man on a three-deep depth chart, receiver Troy Brown had already been playing for seven years with the incumbent, Drew Bledsoe; Kevin Faulk, a pass-catching back, had played a season with the starter. Those two would go on to haul in 632 of Brady’s NFL passes between them. But first they played while Brady watched.
“I never saw another rookie quarterback like him,” says Brown. “He was fourth on the depth chart, but when he got a rep, he would not hesitate to tell veteran receivers if they did something wrong. Typical Tom. He just wanted to kick somebody’s butt.”
“Skinny kid in the huddle,” says Faulk, “and he’s trying to be demanding. But that attitude helped him take over the team.”
In 17 NFL seasons Brady has thrown completions to 99 different pass catchers. Sixteen of those caught just a single pass from him, ranging from journeyman tight end Kellen Winslow to offensive linemen Joe Andruzzi and Logan Mankins. One of those single-pass catchers was running back Amos Zereoué, who in his seventh and final season, 2005, played three games for the Patriots. Zereoué’s Brady connection was a five-yard checkdown in a 28–20 mid-October loss in Denver—not that he remembers it. “I caught a pass from Tom?” the 40-year-old asks, genuinely unaware. “I did not realize that. Makes my day. I will tell the grandchildren someday.”
In 2002, Brady’s first full year as a starter, Deion Branch arrived as a second-round pick from Louisville. Brady almost immediately nicknamed the rookie Tito—“because we were like brothers, right from the beginning,” Branch explains. “Obviously, he’s Michael Jackson, so I was Tito.” As with all of Brady’s most favored Patriots receivers, Branch would often line up without an assigned route. “Tom would call 65 C Option X Q,” Branch says. “I would be the X, and Q meant that I had three possible routes based on the defense. We had to be on the same page.”
Often they were. In New England’s Super Bowl XXXIX win over the Eagles on Feb. 6, 2005, Branch grabbed 11 passes from Brady and was named MVP—and yet the former receiver’s memory drifts to an incompletion that evening that bounced off his foot when Brady tried to connect with him despite calling a screen pass (to a running back) in the huddle. Afterward, Brady “came off yelling, ‘Tito! Tito! I’m trying to get you the ball!’ ” says Branch.
When Brady won his 201st game on Dec. 4, passing Peyton Manning for the all-time victories mark, Branch texted his old QB, “It was an honor to have played some of those games with you.” Brady texted back, “It was an honor to play with you.”
Welker arrived through a trade with the Dolphins in 2007, along with Moss (trade) and Donté Stallworth (free agent), and that trio launched the Patriots to a 16–0 regular season. “What we played, it was almost like a controlled form of street ball,” says Welker, who four times caught 100 or more passes from Brady. “Tom would see what I was going to do by my body language. He just wanted me to be decisive. If you get wishy-washy, be ready to get mother-effed [by Brady] pretty good. But then the next day, in a meeting, he would use this soft voice: O.K., babe. On this one . . . He’s ultra-competitive, but he knows that the next day is not the time to yell.”
Welker, 35, and Brady remain close friends. The receiver (who hasn’t played since last January but who also hasn’t officially retired) visited Foxborough in September, during Brady’s suspension, and while he expected only to talk, Brady instead roped Welker into a throwing session. “It was like we never missed a beat,” says Welker. “It’s funny. I could see some changes in his motion. He’s more relaxed, using his whole body, almost like a golfer.”
Stallworth arrived from Philadelphia, by way of New Orleans. “One of my first practices, I dropped a ball in the end zone,” he recalls. “Tom put it on the numbers, didn’t lead me—but still, it was a drop, and Tom is all fuming. I’m thinking, Great, I pissed off Brady already. But he’s like, ‘F---! F---! F---! I didn’t lead you enough.’ I’ve played with some competitive people, like Ray Lewis. Brady is right up there.”
Early in that unbeaten season the Patriots visited the Cowboys, who at 5–0 also entered without a loss. In the fourth quarter Brady called a play in which one wideout was expected to read the coverage and run one of three possible routes. That player was supposed to be Moss, but Stallworth was in the game instead. And that was a problem. “We’re breaking the huddle, and Brady sees I’m in the game,” says Stallworth, 36. “We’ve both got this Oh, s--- look on our faces because I’ve never practiced this route. So Brady says, ‘Just go deep,’ and the play ends up being a 69-yard touchdown. We literally drew it up in the sand. The guy is amazing.”
On a cold weekday evening, Julian Edelman stands at the back of the Patriots’ locker room, a California boy preparing to face the chill in a giant, hooded parka. Edelman was a seventh-round pick by the Patriots in 2009 out of Kent State, where he was an option QB with quick feet and strong instincts. He caught 78 passes in his first four NFL seasons, 415 in the last four (including a team-high 98 in ’16) and now, as a top-tier receiver, is in year three of a four-year, $17 million contract. All of this, largely because of his relationship with Brady.
“He went out of his way to take me under his wing,” says Edelman, 30. “I was a nobody, and I just wanted to get better. Tom worked with me.” Now Edelman and Brady throw together frequently in Los Angeles during the off-season. “And it’s not just [the physical element],” says Edelman. “He taught me how to be a professional, how to treat people in the workplace.”
At the opposite end of the room, Chris Hogan sits in front of his locker. His route here was even more unusual than Edelman’s: Hogan chose lacrosse at Penn State over football at UConn or Rutgers; and when four years of lacrosse were finished, he played a season of football at Monmouth. He was cut by the 49ers, Giants and Dolphins before spending four years with the Bills and then signing with the Patriots last spring. This season he had 38 receptions and tied DeSean Jackson for the NFL lead with 17.9 yards per catch.
The man who takes the top off defenses for Brady recounts his first day in Foxborough, when he made a point of introducing himself to the QB. “He knew exactly who I was—he knew my name, he knew I was here, he knew about me,” says Hogan, 28. “Coming from where I did, the path I took, I was pretty blown away by that.”
Hogan tosses two gloves into his locker, grabs a pair of street sneakers and sits down. He’s in the club now, shocked to stand on the other side of the velvet rope. “I mean, think about that,” he says. “Tom Brady.”