- Just how old is the Patriots’ quarterback? At Super Bowl LIII, he'll be cheered on by a handful of former teammates aged 53 and older. What do some of these guys remember from their time playing with Brady?
Maybe it was one of those early training camp practices, or maybe it was later on during that first season—these things tend to run together after so many years—but Lee Johnson remembers looking up during a Patriots workout to see an absolute wobbler of a pass limping through the sky.
The punter turned to kicker Adam Vinatieri and gave him that look like what the heck was that? before tracing the ball back to its origins—the right arm of a rookie quarterback named Tom Brady.
“It was so ugly, just some awful play,” Johnson said. “I remember saying ‘Oh my gosh, what did I just witness?’ And if I would have based what I thought about Tom Brady on that one play—could you imagine?”
Brady was a nice enough guy who used to prod Johnson with questions about his college roommate, Steve Young. Johnson, Brady and Drew Bledsoe all sat in a cluster of lockers together, and they talked about how the great ones just seemed to get it done. Young dealt with crippling anxiety. Johnson always found himself motivated by an intense fear of failure. Everyone had something, and yet, they did what they were supposed to do.
“He was just this little kid from Michigan, you know? Khaki pants and a funky haircut. Almost a little bit unkempt,” Johnson said. “Just a kid trying to figure it all out.”
Eighteen years later, we can say that Brady has figured it all out. He is the gravitational force around which his team has orbited for nearly two decades. Over an incredibly long NFL career, he’s built and fortified a legacy due in part to his ability to master his own mind and defy the common expectations that come with aging.
It’s a knowledge you only accumulate with experience, which makes the 41-year-old Brady ancient-Greek-philosopher old by NFL standards. How old, exactly? As he prepares to face the Rams in the NFL’s 53rd Super Bowl this Sunday, he’ll be cheered on by more than a handful of former teammates who are 53 years of age and older. Put another way, you could compose roughly half of a starting lineup of players who once shared the field with Brady, who are also almost a decade older than the league’s current oldest player (Vinatieri, 46).
Hearing from Brady’s oldest teammates provides a rare window into just how far he’s come, and maybe why he was plucked from obscurity in the first place. As the sporting world prepares to witness him place a stranglehold on the record books that may never be broken, it’s worth remembering that nearly twenty years ago, he was like many of us beginning our first job, trying to make sense of life.
“What I saw in Tom, you know, as a rookie and a first-year guy, was so different from what you see now in terms of his competitive nature,” Johnson, who turned 57 just after Thanksgiving, said. “That was a lesson to me like, man, what you see on the outside, how a guy walks around and carries himself, you can be totally misled as to what’s inside that dude. It’s mind-boggling to me how much of a leader he’s become versus what I saw of this guy, some late-round draft choice out of Michigan.”
He always brought the Dunkin’ and kolache, so really, how bad can someone like that be?
“He was the perfect rookie,” said Henry Thomas, who’s now 53. “When it was time to get the donuts, there was no gripe, no grumbling.”
Thomas, a two-time Pro Bowler who played with the Patriots from 1997 to 2000, rounding out a career that began in ’87, said that it was almost always Dunkin’ because “especially in the Boston area, that’s it. You can die [talking trash] about Dunkin’ Donuts.”
Brady’s job for the time being was emulating the opposing quarterback in practice, and Thomas never saw anyone take the job more seriously than Brady. On Mondays during the week, he asked questions—lots of questions. And that impressed Thomas most about Brady. Brady would pester them about intricacies in the other passer he could copy. Minutiae that, to another rookie at the time, would seem superfluous, or below them.
“He took the time to do that,” Thomas said. “He did most of that work for us. He’d talk with the coaches and I’m pretty sure he did the film work on his own. By the time we started practice on Wednesday, he was doing things we saw on film.”
While it seemed like a minor niche at the time, it provides a clue as to how Brady likely came into favor with Bill Belichick and a team that was built largely on egalitarian principles. Belichick’s first year as the Patriots’ head coach in 2000 was largely driven by those who showed they were willing to swim in the same direction as him. Thomas said Belichick would test his players to find out quickly who was interested in doing things the way he wanted them done. On Thursdays, Belichick would assign parts of the weekly game plan to different starters—for example, Thomas and another defensive linemen would get third down, three yards and less—and force them to give presentations to the team about the tendencies they saw the opponent display on film.
Like Brady, whose weekly exam was mirroring another quarterback, they were seemingly menial tasks that Belichick expected done to a near-obsessive degree.
Before do your job, it was who wants this job?
“I would always get mad at him for throwing me offsides,” Thomas said, laughing about the way Brady's obsession translated to daily workouts. “I’m like, ‘it’s practice, damnit!’
The hard feelings never lingered into the locker room, though. Nothing that a good donut couldn’t solve.
It was Feb. 4, 2004 and Brian Kinchen was in a duck boat sandwiched near a few of his fellow special teamers when Brady walked by and pointed at him.
“Hey! BK, what’s happening?”
Kinchen looked around like, is he serious? He had been with the team for a total of four games as a replacement long snapper, but here was the Super Bowl MVP seeking him out, making him feel like a lifelong friend on the day the Patriots inched closer to becoming a dynasty.
“He just cares so much about every individual there,” Kinchen, who turned 53 just before the 2018 season, said. “He’s the epitome of the team player. And I’m just sitting there like I’ve been here for four football games and this guy knows who I am. I’m the least important guy on the team and he took the time to just acknowledge me. Say hello.”
“I don’t know if I’d ever had a conversation with him after the time he said hello to me the day I signed.”
Even though Kinchen was 38 at the time and Brady was 26, Kinchen learned a lot during that short window about the difference between motivation and inspiration. It’s why he doesn’t hesitate to place so much of the Patriots’ success on the shoulders of the quarterback. While acknowledging the proper deference to Belichick, Kinchen said that any coach’s motivation probably only lasts a series into the game. But a player who is inspirational can carry them through the remaining four quarters.
“It wasn’t words,” Kinchen said. “So many people think leadership is speaking and talking. It’s not. It’s like being a good father. A good father isn’t someone who tells you what to do all the time, it’s someone who demonstrates and lives that out in front of their child.
“I don’t know that Tom ever got up and spoke to us ever. I just know the way he worked and showed up. He never missed a beat.”
Kinchen caught him at a different time, just as the scraggly kid from Michigan was becoming something else; an amalgam of all the things he’d learned and seen over his first few years in the NFL.
That’s often how the league’s greatest players are created. Piece by piece, they borrow from the older, more successful ones around them to become something memorable. But what about a player that teaches the older guys something they didn’t know about believing in someone, taking the little things seriously or never forgetting to keep your teammates close?
“I don’t think we’ll ever see something like that again,” Kinchen said.
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