"We kind of laughed about it," says Riley, now Oregon State's coach. "We found our history together kind of funny."
By now the story of Brady's apprenticeship is well-worn. At Michigan, first there were Scott Dreisbach and Brian Griese, and then there was Drew Henson, a two-sport star who stepped in line ahead of Brady when, by all rights, the quarterback job should have been his. Michigan coach Lloyd Carr decided to split the job between Brady and Henson. "I don't think either one of them was happy with it," Carr recalls. "Tom, as a captain and a fifth-year senior, clearly, it was tougher on him."
This was a point at which Brady could have gone nuclear and taken the team down with him. He was being denied a job he had every right to believe he'd earned. "There's no question," says Mike DeBord, Michigan's recruiting coordinator, "he could've blown up the team." Instead, he hunkered down and eventually won the starting job back from Henson.
When the Patriots took him in the sixth round of the 2000 draft, there was another Drew in his way. New England had committed to Drew Bledsoe for the long term, but Brady's ability to spread the ball around, to move in the pocket and to move the chains pushed him up the depth chart until New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis sheared a blood vessel in Bledsoe's chest with an explosive hit in the second game of the season, and Brady took over the job he has never given up.
Perhaps the iconic moment of that season came at the very end of it, after the Patriots' Super Bowl win over the heavily favored the Rams. Brady, transported by what the team had done, at what he had done, grabbed Bledsoe in a ferocious embrace, but Bledsoe's face was such a poignant mask of rueful perplexity that the two men seemed to be touching each other from different emotional dimensions. There was an arrival and a departure contained in that moment. Brady quickly turned away from the awkward embrace and put both hands on his head and smiled, his happiness reaching out to all the dark and distant corners of the Superdome, enveloping all his teammates, even the one who had to be left behind.
ADAM VINATIERI is not one of the metaphors, but no player has benefited more from Tom Brady's generosity, nor has anyone-other than Brady himself-played a bigger role in Brady's success. It was Vinatieri's kicks that provided the winning margin in all three Super Bowls. And it is Brady's command of the final moments of a game that may one day enable Vinatieri to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Just this season, Vinatieri has won games in the waning moments against both Pittsburgh and Atlanta after Brady moved the offense to get him into position. There has not been a relationship so mutually beneficial to a kicker and a quarterback since the last time George Blanda practiced alone.
These two men are defined-together-by their first two Super Bowls. On both occasions Brady led a drive that gave Vinatieri a chance to win the game with a field goal, thereby making it possible for Vinatieri to build a reputation as the greatest clutch kicker in the history of the NFL. Brady's r�sum�, of course, would be considerably less gaudy if Vinatieri had shanked those kicks. That reciprocity is where true generosity flowers. Those moments were forged in the grind of practice, when everyone goes off and plays only pieces of the game. All those deep out-patterns, thrown over and over again after practice on Wednesday so that they will be able to keep the clock alive on a cold Sunday. The fake scoreboard running down the way the real one will, one day, in Pittsburgh or Atlanta, in Indianapolis or Foxborough, when the night begins to fall and the kicking team jogs onto the field one last time.
"He always gives us a shot," Vinatieri says.
Great careers are formed by such moments, and such intimate intertwinings of teammates and identities. The arc of Brady's career was shaped by his own hands, but also by offensive tackles and weakside linebackers, and a placekicker too.
The very best among us, like Brady, instinctively see the Platonic arc of it, and where it must lead. He has always known that solitary practice is only worth it if it leads to something that can be shared, with teammates, first, and then with the world, on the biggest stages, in the loudest arenas. "The perfect game's got to be for the highest stakes," Brady says, "and it's got to come down to the end. You don't remember the ones you win 35-12. You remember the ones you win 38-35, the dogfights. Those are the ones that are memorable. Who wants everything to come easily?"