Come fly with me, the brassy billionaire said to America's newest football star, and soon the two were traversing the friendly skies in a customized Boeing 727, swapping stories, chowing down on sandwiches and preparing to mingle with 51 of the hottest women in the land. This was the usual plane of existence for the aircraft's owner, a real estate magnate and notorious babe magnet, but the wide-eyed quarterback was having the ride of his life. He sank into the Italian leather couch, stared dumbstruck at paintings that looked as if they might be on loan from the Louvre and thought, My God, how did I get here?
So it was that Tom Brady, the 24-year-old quarterback of the New England Patriots, found himself sitting in Donald Trump's private jet last month as it flew from New York City to Gary, Ind., site of Miss USA 2002. There Brady donned a tux by Calvin Klein; traded giggles with The Price Is Right bombshell Nikki Ziering, a fellow judge; and was besieged with requests from contestants' mothers imploring him to consider dating their lovely daughters. Amid all the obvious talent—and the requisite assemblage of former players (including host Deion Sanders) and playas (judge Jermaine Jackson)—it was the tall guy with the cleft chin and the amiable grin who shone brightest at the postpageant reception.
As insane as it would have seemed a year earlier, when he couldn't even convince the skeptics at a health club near San Francisco that he played in the NFL, Brady created Gary's biggest buzz since Professor Harold Hill and his 76 trombones. "The kid has great self-confidence and an unbelievable personality, and he's got the maturity of a much older man," Trump said later. "Let me tell you, if one thing stands out about Tom Brady, it's that he loves those women. And, guess what? They love him too."
Right now it seems that everybody—men, women, children, corporations, living legends—wants a piece of Touchdown Tommy. Two months after propelling himself to stardom by leading his team to a stunning 20-17 victory over the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, Brady, that game's Most Valuable Player, is still livin' it up like Ja Rule.
In the aftermath of his triumphant performance in New Orleans, Brady jetted off to Disney World, returned to Boston for the team's victory parade (during which some women felt compelled to flash him, 25� weather be damned) and high-tailed it to Hawaii to play in the Pro Bowl. Before he knew what had hit him, Brady was playing an impromptu round of golf in Kauai with John Elway; hangin' with Barry Bonds and Willie Mays at the San Francisco Giants' spring training complex in Scottsdale, Ariz.; trading mock punches with Muhammad Ali at a charity event in Phoenix; and blowing off Vanity Fair's exclusive Academy Awards party because he felt he would be so hopelessly out of his element.
"One thing I've realized is that for every thing you turn down, there's something else right around the corner that's really cool," Brady said recently over breakfast in his hometown of San Mateo, Calif., about 15 miles south of San Francisco. "These last few weeks have been a whirlwind, and I'm trying to learn as I go along. I think I'm a pretty good quarterback, but there's all this other stuff that goes along with being a very recognizable person, and I suck at it. This is my new reality, I guess, and it's knocking me down."
It appears that fame is doing what neither the Rams nor the AFC's best teams nor the looming presence of longtime New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe could do last season: rattle Brady, a former fourth-stringer who in just his second year in the NFL stirred a tired team with his brash enthusiasm and preternatural poise. It's the latter quality that scored him his backstage pass into Trumpville. Americans have a thing for quarterbacks, especially the ones (Unitas, Staubach, Montana, Elway) who stare down long odds with time ticking down and rally their teams to victory.
Brady is a long, long way from being mentioned with those all-time greats, but already we have seen glimpses of his ability to respond in the clutch. In the Patriots' epic overtime playoff victory over the Oakland Raiders in January, a game played during a field-blanketing nor'easter, Brady proved to be the coolest guy in the snow since Franz Klammer at the '76 Olympics. In New Orleans two weeks later, after a St. Louis rally had hundreds of millions of viewers preparing for the first overtime in Super Bowl history, Brady needed little more than a minute to move his team 53 yards for Adam Vinatieri's 48-yard field goal on the last play of the game.
"The great thing about Tom is that no matter what he went through, it didn't seem like he allowed the pressure to bother him," says Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, Brady's immediate predecessor as the NFL's out-of-nowhere sensation. "A lot of guys might have reacted to the big stage of the Super Bowl by trying to force plays, but he just relaxed. Right now he seems like a kid in a candy store."
Warner, a former supermarket stock boy and Arena League mainstay, has sustained his excellence after achieving sudden stardom in 1999, and Brady is obsessed with doing the same. "Why do some guys have one great year and then play so badly the next?" Brady asks. "Well, now I think I know why—because there are so many things that can take you away from what you need to do to focus on your job. My biggest fear is to end up being a one-hit wonder."