SI Vault
January 09, 2012
Before he became the premier postseason performer of his generation, the Patriots icon was a middling college quarterback who invited skepticism, even scorn, from fans and his coaches. That was all—and that was everything
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January 09, 2012

Tom Brady As You Forgot Him

Before he became the premier postseason performer of his generation, the Patriots icon was a middling college quarterback who invited skepticism, even scorn, from fans and his coaches. That was all—and that was everything

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The roar could mean only one thing: Tom Brady was no longer their quarterback.

On the afternoon of Sept. 12, 1998, the 111,012 fans at Michigan Stadium did not know what you know now. Even his closest friends dared not imagine that Brady, a skinny, slow, fourth-year junior, was destined for an NFL career that would include three Super Bowl victories and two MVP awards. Michigan fans just knew that their team was trailing Donovan McNabb and Syracuse in the second quarter 17--0, and that Brady was heading to the bench, replaced by freshman Drew Henson.

In the stands Brady's sisters, Maureen, Julie and Nancy, cried, more in anger than sadness. In the huddle Henson was uncomfortable. He hadn't done anything; his team was in a huge hole; and he was being welcomed as a hero. It was Henson, not Brady, who was considered a once-in-a-lifetime athlete. At Brighton High, 20 minutes north of Ann Arbor, Henson had set national records for home runs (70), grand slams (10) and RBIs (290), all while bringing 93-mph heat on the mound. He had also thrown 52 touchdown passes in three seasons. USA Today named him first-team All-America—as a punter.

Henson's father, Dan, a longtime college football coach, tilted the playing field so every ball rolled toward Drew. The Hensons deftly played college football programs against major league teams to maximize their leverage, and it worked. The Yankees had drafted Drew in the third round and given him $2 million to be a part-time minor league third baseman. Meanwhile Dan told recruiters that if they wanted Drew, they could not sign a quarterback in the class ahead of him, and Michigan coach Lloyd Carr obliged. When the 6'4", 210-pound Drew started practicing with the Wolverines, Carr told the media that "without question, he's the most talented quarterback that I've been around."

Brady, by contrast, looked like an ordinary Big Ten QB—average arm strength, limited mobility. He was a California kid who cranked the heat in his Ann Arbor apartment so high all winter that friends didn't even want to walk inside. He had been trapped in depth-chart hell for three years and nearly transferred before attrition finally provided him a chance. In his battle with Brady, Henson appeared to have every advantage. And that is why Brady would succeed.

The story of Tom Brady's college career has been retold and refined so often that most of the necessary context has been lost. Most football fans know the gist: It wasn't until late in his college career that people began to form a picture of how good he would be. That included the Wolverines' coaches, who insisted that he compete with Henson for much of the two years they spent together, and NFL front offices, who allowed Brady to slip to the 199th pick.

His son's time at Ann Arbor still irks Tom Brady Sr. "It's a pretty sore spot, to be honest with you," the elder Brady told SI. "He wasn't treated very kindly by the head coach." Even Carr admits, "He had some really difficult challenges because of the position that I put him in."

But if you look at only the bones of the story, you miss the heart of it. You don't recollect Brady in 1998, after that 38--28 loss to Syracuse—a struggling quarterback for an 0--2 team, hanging on to his job by a frayed thread. Many of Michigan's staunchest fans thought he should be benched. Friends today say the lack of support bothered Brady intensely.

But Brady was stuck. Early in the previous season, after Carr had chosen Brian Griese as the starter—a move that would pay off with the school's first national title in 49 years—Brady told the coach he might transfer. Carr asked Brady what his father thought, and Brady said his dad would support whatever he did.

Carr did not beg him to stay. Instead, he told Brady to stop harping on how many reps he got or whether the coaches liked him. "He said, 'You know, Tommy, you've gotta worry about yourself,' " Brady would recall of his conversation with Carr. "You've gotta go out and worry about the way you play. Not the way the guys ahead of you are playing, not the way your running back is playing and not the way your receiver ran the route."

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