BROWERVILLE, Minnesota — When Jim Nantz mentioned Tom Brady’s personal connection to Browerville, Minn., in the aftermath of the Patriots AFC championship win, Scott Vedbraaten sat up straight in his chair. Vedbraaten, superintendent of Browerville School District thought, Oh God, what did we just get into?
Nine blocks away, Browerville mayor Bob Heid let out a startled Ope! (a sound commonly made by upper Midwesterners to express surprise) when he heard his town (population: 750) mentioned on the national CBS broadcast.
A couple miles from Mayor Heid’s downtown home, Paul Johnson paced in front of his television in his No. 12 Patriots jersey. His cheers echoed off the tin walls of the large shed he’s made into a man cave. That was his cousin up there on the victor’s platform, talking about the meaning of coming back to Minnesota for the Super Bowl. Brady’s mom, Galynn, grew up on a dairy farm in Browerville. Though Tom and his three older sisters were raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, they visited their relatives, the Johnsons, on the farm in Browerville every summer as kids.
Most locals agree that Browerville has never seen this much media attention. Local stations and national outlets inundated the no-stoplight town in the days following Nantz’ reveal, making for a busy week for Vedbraaten, Heid and the entire Johnson family. ESPN the Magazine, The New York Times, The L.A. Times, and NBC are among those who’ve made the 130-some-mile drive northwest of the Twin Cities. “We’ve been watching Tommy for 18 years,” Paul Johnson says. “We were under the radar. Once he brought up Browerville, [we heard from media] the next day.”
The temps are in the single digits on this Tuesday morning, and a Fargo TV station is in town to do a story on all the media coverage of Brady and Browerville. The town’s main eatery, simply named The Cafe, is nearly empty. The early morning rush is over, and a lone customer sits at the counter signing her bill. Todd County’s paper, the Independent News Herald sits on the counter face up. The cover story? Browerville gets shout-out from Tom Brady.
Across the street at Browerville Liquor, the town’s only bar, owner Angie Benning serves a sole patron, who’s clad in a large flannel jacket and boots. Browerville Liquor is your typical Northwoods-style establishment, decorated with Ducks Unlimited paraphernalia, neon bar signs and a menu flaunting a fish fry.
Just outside of town, Paul shows yet another media member around his heated steel shed where he scales fish, displays hunting trophies and watches every one of his cousin’s games. It’s a shrine to all things hunting, fishing and New England Patriots. There are nine deer, one elk, one caribou (all shot on the property), myriad fish and two Patriots Super Bowl banners mounted to the walls. A corner of the shed is devoted to “Tommy,” with a giant fathead likeness on the wall and Patriots Super Bowl memorabilia on display, along with pictures of the Johnson family’s visits to Gillette Stadium. Paul, 50, is known as “Pickle” around town, a name he earned from selling pickles door-to-door as a teenager. Nearly everyone in Browerville has a one-word nickname.
The Johnson family farm is a short drive from downtown. Hang a left after you pass the Clarissa airport and the fields belonging to Todd County Turkey Inc. Galynn’s brother Allen Johnson lives in the small white farmhouse that once belonged to his parents. He doesn’t farm the land anymore, but rents out the pastures. Allen moved in to take care of Brady’s grandfather, Gordon Johnson, before Gordon died in 2016. Brady last visited Browerville in August 2016 to give a reading at the funeral.
Allen, 64, wears a Patriots hat and sweatshirt. A doormat with New England’s logo lies outside the front door. His black lab, Coco, bounds toward cars that pull in the snow-covered gravel drive, eager to show visitors the giant stick she’s just picked up. When Tom and the family visited, they would stay for two weeks at a time in the farmhouse with Grandma and Grandpa Johnson. Gordon was a dairy farmer and part-time barber, and Bernice was a part-time hairdresser. There’s a large silo, a white barn and a few rusty Cenex grain bins in the field facing the house.
“It was a lot of work growing up here,” Allen says. “From baling hay to feeding and milking the cows.”
Brady and his sisters often joined their cousins and grandpa to milk the cows in the morning when they visited. Paul jokes that when Tommy would miss squeezing the milk into the bucket, Gordon would say, Hey, that’s money you’re squirting around.
Though Tommy might not have been the best milker, he and his sisters never shied away from farm life. “Those kids weren’t afraid of nothing,” Paul says. “We always teased them about being city kids since we grew up on a farm, but they weren’t afraid of nothing.”
Allen, nicknamed “Swede,” remembers how difficult it was to get Brady off the water. “We couldn’t get him off the lake one summer, fishing,” Allen says. “We had caught a bunch of sunfish and it started to pour, just pour, and we couldn’t get him off of the lake.”
During his media availability in Minneapolis this week, Brady reminisced on his favorite Minnesota memories, including the time he first tried chewing tobacco. During the car ride back to the farm from a family fishing trip, Brady asked his uncles to try some of their Beech-nut tobacco. “[My uncles] said, ‘Look, if we give [tobacco] to you, then you can’t spit it out until you get home,’” Brady said. “And it was like a 30-minute ride back my grandpa’s farm. So of course they give it to me, and within five minutes, I’m outside the car throwing up all over the place.”
“That’s true,” Paul laughs. “I think even [Brady’s older sister] Nancy tried a pinch.”
After winning his fifth Super Bowl last season, Brady shared an emotional moment with his mom on the field. Galynn was diagnosed with breast cancer in the summer of 2016, and the Super Bowl in Houston was the first game she was able to attend that season after five months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. She finished up treatment two weeks before the Patriots comeback victory.
Back home in Browerville, “We were crying,” says Paul, who starts to tear up at the mention of Galynn and her fight with cancer. “That was Galynn’s first game back after battling cancer, and to pull off a win like that, that is historical, but it’s almost miraculous. To me, I call it a miracle.” A cancer survivor himself, he supported his sister with advice from his own experience. “I told her, well, you can’t finish until you start,” he says. “She is very positive and happy that is over with now.”
Galynn, who was sometimes called “Dumplin’” around town, is a popular woman in Browerville. Before she moved to California for a job as a flight attendant with TWA, she was voted homecoming queen at Browerville High as a junior in 1961. A quick scan of the 1962 Tiger’s Roar yearbook shows that she was the secretary of the dance band, a football and basketball cheerleader, and senior class secretary-treasurer. She also acted in the senior play and led “Our Prayer For World Peace” at the 1962 graduation ceremony.
“She was so social, a friend to everyone, and everybody liked her,” says Mayor Heid, who was two years behind Galynn in school.
There is one large picture hung up on Allen’s fridge. It’s a photo of Gordon, sitting on the couch inside the farmhouse and bundled under a fleece Patriots blanket. He’s wearing a black Patriots hat, and his arms are raised, frozen in a moment of cheering. Gordon’s huge hands are extended towards the ceiling, and Allen speculates that might be why Tommy can throw so well—perhaps he inherited Gordon’s big mitts?
Allen, a former quarterback and three-sport D-III college athlete himself, says competitiveness is a Johnson family trait. “Tommy and I are laid back, but if you get any of the Johnsons out on the field, we are competitors.”
“It’s always fun to joke around with [Tom Sr.] about where the athleticism came from,” Paul says.
In a town where the population has never exceeded 800, certain large families become local institutions. The Mays, the Hoelschers, the Johnsons. “There are Johnsons all over Browerville,” says Allen.
He isn’t kidding. When the 12 o’clock news plays on the TV screens at Browerville Liquor, another cousin appears. Kim Johnson delivers the news as an anchor for WCCO, the Twin Cities’ local CBS affiliate.
Brady’s second cousins Craig and Chris Johnson are fifth- and sixth-grade teachers and coaches for Browerville varsity and junior high football teams. “The whole town is football-oriented,” says Craig, nicknamed “Swede No. 2.” Unfortunately, showing Patriots film isn’t too helpful for simplified youth football offenses, but they like to use Tommy’s story as a kind of motivation. “We run our offenses a little bit differently,” Craig says with a laugh. “His story proves that a little blonde-headed kid from nowhere could turn out to be a star like he is, on a good team—on a great team.”
Whenever Brady visits Browerville next, he might be wise to bring his own food if he wants to stick with his strict TB12 diet—anathema to traditional Minnesotan cuisine. “We like to catch fish, fry them and then drink beer with it,” Craig says with a laugh, “And he could not eat that.”
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On Super Bowl Sunday, it’s Browerville that will be breaking with routine. The Cafe closes at 2 p.m. daily and is never open on Sundays, but for the Super Bowl, owner Trish Betsinger makes an exception to host a private potluck dinner in the restaurant because her house is too small to accommodate all her Browerville friends. Craig and Chris Johnson will bring a few dishes to go with Betsinger’s BBQ riblets and cookie bars. Mayor Heid and Superintendent Verbraaten will also stop by to watch the game on the two small TVs mounted on the wood-paneled walls. Allen usually watches at the farmhouse because he doesn’t like any interruptions, but his year he and Paul will likely be headed to Minneapolis to watch the game live.
The BrowervilleJohnsons and their neighbors have enjoyed every minute of watching Tommy quarterback the Patriots for the last 18 years, but they can’t help but look to the future. “It’s going to be hard once he retires,” Paul says. “I don’t know what we are going to do. Fish more?”
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