Simple twist of fate facilitated Brady’s remarkable rise
New England Patriots’ star quarterback goes head to head with Denver Broncos’ Peyton Manning in what is being billed as the definitive contest between the pair
Tom Brady of the New England Patriots shakes hands with Andrew Luck (L) of the Indianapolis Colts after their AFC Divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The New England Patriots won 43-22. Photograph: Elsa/Getty Images
On September 23 2001, with the United States still in a general fugue state and the grey aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers, the New England Patriots played the New York Jets in a football game which is sometimes referred to as having changed the course of the sport. It was an unremarkable game except for the incident in which New England’s quarterback Drew Bledsoe suffered an uncompromising side-on tackle from linebacker Mo Lewis as he attempted to run the ball into touch.
As it turned out, Bledsoe suffered serious internal bleeding and his condition was grave. But his injury gave a reserve and little-heralded quarterback named Tom Brady a chance to step under the bright lights. Bledsoe had just signed a ten-year contract worth $100 million yet he never resumed his role as starting quarterback and a year later found himself playing for Buffalo.
America is still in its midwinter grip and tomorrow night’s duel between Brady and Denver Broncos’ venerable quarterback Peyton Manning will be the prime time viewing across the nation. All sports demand great rivalries and in its bid to set the context for what will be the 15th meeting between the two veteran stars, the NFL didn’t shy away. Jack Nicklaus and Arnie Palmer; Martina Navratilova and Chris Everett; Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi; Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Bill Walton all took turns to talk about their perception of what a rivalry represents before anticipating what has being billed as the definitive contest between the pair.
The seamless rise of Tom Brady is one of the great stories of modern sport. Statistics place him among the all-time quarterbacks, one of the most glamorous and specialist roles in American football. It is impossible not to have some regard for the sheer poise and the nerveless disposition required to spend your life throwing precise passes while somehow suspending the fact that all about you men are swarming and desperate to bring you down and earn a coveted sack. And to hurt you.
Troy Aikman, the Dallas quarterback, once spoke about driving around the city unable to remember where he lived after suffering one of several concussions.
American football is an embattled sport, with the NFL having reached a $700 million settlement with former players who took a class action against the league for the neurological traumas they suffered in later years. But its popularity is unquestionable and tomorrow night’s game will return either Brady or Manning to the Superbowl in New York.
Whenever I see Brady now, I always think of Drew Bledsoe, whose career trajectory was deflected after that grim collision in 2001. I lived in Boston when Bledsoe played his first year with the Patriots in 1994. He had driven across country in the same battered car that had served him as a college student to sign a $7 million dollar contract with the Patriots as the number one draft choice.
His first few games were unpromising. But then, around mid-autumn, he began to assert himself and the Patriots went on a run that brought to the NFL play-offs for the first time in eight years. It was strange to see a city gradually become enthralled by one individual but Bledsoe was the talk of the town that year. Even though the Patriots failed to close in on an NFL championship, he was generally regarded as a sainted figure in a turbulent organisation when he was clattered by Mo Lewis.
The most interesting fact about Tom Brady is that when the Patriots drafted him in 2000, he was the 199th player chosen. He was practically an irrelevance. Manning, in contrast, the son of Hall of Famer quarterback Archie Manning, caused a minor scandal by choosing to play college football at Tennessee rather than his father’s alma mater, Ole Miss, and by the time he was selected by the Indianapolis Colts as the number one draft, he had been garlanded with every collegiate trophy imaginable – except the Heisman trophy.
Tom Brady assaulted the senses of American football with his brilliance as he led the Patriots to five AFC titles and three Superbowl titles in five appearances.
He is often referred to as the greatest steal in draft lottery history. And Bledsoe’s misfortune is sometimes crassly referred to as the moment the Patriots’ luck turned for the better. Bledsoe always carried himself with exceptional grace and when he returned to health in that 2001 season, he accepted his role as second string to Brady without any public qualms.
In fact, he returned in the AFC championship game when Brady got injured to throw a touchdown pass as the Patriots edged past the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“There is very little loyalty left in the NFL anymore,” Bledsoe said years later but that was his most overtly critical comment. It’s not as if he was finished: he went on to enjoy successful years with Buffalo and reunited with Bill Parcells at Dallas, where he finished his career.
But his disappearance from his starting role with the Patriots was so sudden one thinks of him as a kind of ghost figure whose identity had been robbed. Bledsoe loyalists wore his shirt to Foxboro even after he had been traded. Much as Patriots fans enjoyed the rush of success under Brady, some felt guilt that Bledsoe had all but been flung over a cliff as the organisation sought to clear a path for Brady. The what -if debates are endlessly entertaining if pointless – if Bledsoe had not been injured, would the Patriots have won in 2001 anyhow, was it only a matter of when Brady’s brilliance unveiled itself etc.
If Brady’s emergence shows anything, it is that talent scouts and agents and coaches sometimes fail to notice the qualities that can’t be coached: temperament and the relentless appetite for self-improvement. Already, Brady sits only with John Elway in having brought a team to five Superbowl Sundays. If the Patriots win tomorrow, he will be the first player in NFL to return six times. And Brady’s rivalry is not so much with Peyton Manning as the entire Manning clan: the two Superbowl games Brady lost were absolute thrillers in 2007 and 2011 to the New York Giants, led by Eli Manning, Peyton’s younger brother. At 37, the older Manning is entering the grand-old-man phase of his sporting life. At 36. Tom Brady is getting there. It goes by quick. Ask Drew Bledsoe.
When Brady reflected on his magical debut season, he recalled a crucial moment against the Rams when the game was tied at 17-17. New England had possession and Brady’s orders were to protect the ball at all costs. Bledsoe was loitering in the background as reserves do and he overheard the advice. “F*** that,” he told Brady. “Go out there and sling it.”
And Brady hasn’t stopped.