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Tom Brady: From seventh string to five Super Bowl rings

Feb 10, 2017

New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady just won a record fifth Super Bowl Sunday night. He’s now being called the greatest of all time. But you wouldn’t have guessed that 25 years ago, when Brady had to fight for playing time on his high school junior varsity, a team that had not scored a touchdown all year.

Three years later, he was the varsity’s starting quarterback. To get attention, he sent out his tapes, and earned a scholarship to Michigan. When he arrived in Ann Arbor, he found himself buried at seventh-string. His third season, it looked like he might finally get the job to himself, but had to battle a freshman phenom named Drew Henson for the job.

During Autograph Day that year, before Henson had even played a down, he stood under the goal posts, signing for a line of fans that stretched out to mid-field. Brady, meanwhile, stood in the tunnel, with no one asking him to sign anything.

During one game, the fans were booing Brady, and cheering for Henson.

When the season started, the two quarterbacks split time. “That meant if Tom made a mistake, he’d get pulled —and it got to him,” his old friend Jay Flannelly told me. During one game, the fans were booing Brady, and cheering for Henson.

The next year, Brady’s senior season, the two were still splitting time, but each time Henson dug a hole for Michigan, Brady would get them out of it, leading comeback victories against Notre Dame, Penn State, Ohio State, and Alabama in the Orange Bowl.

Brady did all this with no outbursts, and no ego. He lived in an apartment building with a single washer and dryer in the basement. When another student had left a load of laundry in the dryer too long, and went down to get it, he expected to see his clothes in a pile. Instead, he saw Tom Brady standing at the dryer folding his t-shirts, and leaving them in a neat stack. An entitled jock, he was not.

Despite Brady’s stellar senior year, NFL scouts thought he was too skinny and too slow. In the 2000 draft, Brady expected to go in the second or third round, then watched six quarterbacks get picked before him. When New England finally took Brady in the sixth round, with the 199th pick overall, Brady felt humiliated.

I once congratulated Patriots owner Robert Kraft for picking Brady, when nobody else did.

"Don't give us too much credit. Don't forget Antwan Harris."

Kraft said, “Don’t give us too much credit. Don’t forget Antwan Harris.” I said, “Who’s Antwan Harris?” He said, “The guy we picked before Tom Brady.”

Harris started a total of two games in the NFL. And no, you haven’t heard of him, either.

Brady started his first season as the fourth-string quarterback. He sat in the stands, watching starter Drew Bledsoe. But Brady worked his way up to second-string. When Bledsoe went down the next year, Brady led the Patriots to their first-ever Super Bowl title.

Brady has since led the Patriots to six more Super Bowls, winning four more. But Sunday’s was the best, when he brought the Patriots back from 25-points down to win in overtime. Along the way, he set just about every record that he hadn’t set before. Good luck to the next guy.

Now, almost everybody is calling Brady the “Greatest of All Time.” He doesn’t like it, but that’s a problem the former back-up just might have to live with.

John U. Bacon  is the author of four New York Times bestsellers, including his most recent book, "Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football," which is now out in paperback. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.