Editor’s note: On Oct. 12, ESPN senior writer Seth Wickersham’s book, “It’s Better To Be Feared,” will be published. This condensed excerpt is from the chapters documenting the bumpy ride New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had to the top — and the man who believed in him from day one but never got to coach him.
NOBODY SAW GREATNESS walking onto the field. Nothing about the quarterback projected an aura of anything other than ordinariness. The quarterback had a generic name — Tom Brady — and wore a classic quarterback number: 12. His body seemed both lanky and soft, the frame of a thin man who had been ordered to gain weight and had done so by banging weights and eating junk food. A helmet and shoulder pads somehow made him look less imposing, exposing his build rather than amplifying it. He was 24 years old on October 14, 2001, and his team, the New England Patriots, trailed the San Diego Chargers, 26-19, with a little more than two minutes left. He was in the huddle. It was the type of moment that defined quarterback careers and that he used to define himself. If he failed, he might not get another chance. No — wouldn’t deserve another chance, as if he would have committed a mortal sin punishable by lifetime banishment.
Two head coaches stood on opposing sidelines, both in their late 40s, both defensive-minded, both with fates tied to the young quarterback. One of them was Bill Belichick, 49 years old, in his second season in New England, author of one winning season in a total of six years as a head coach of the Cleveland Browns and then the Patriots. The other was Mike Riley, 48 years old, in his second season with San Diego. Belichick was invested in Brady. He had drafted him and liked his leadership and decision-making, but he was only playing Brady because the team’s starting quarterback had nearly died in an on-field collision three Sundays prior. Riley was even more invested in Brady, even if the quarterback was on the other team. He knew more about what Brady was capable of than anyone. He had known Brady personally for eight years, and from the start, saw something special in him — not that he would be a legend, exactly, but enough to perceive that he possessed qualities exclusive to the most gifted in his profession. He didn’t know what Brady would become; nobody did. But Riley understood that, in that moment, with the game on the line and Brady at the line of scrimmage, he was in trouble.
MIKE RILEY HAD known it right away, back in 1993. This Brady kid, he was — in coach parlance — special.
Riley was in his first year as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at the University of Southern California, and he recognized a little of himself in Brady. Riley, the son of an Oregon State coach, had been a quarterback at Corvallis High. He was thin and over-looked and called “Frog” by kids at school — until he threw a ball, and his entire identity changed. As a senior in 1971, Riley led Corvallis High to state championships in football and baseball. He was offered scholarships to most of the schools in the Pacific-8 as a quarterback, but he wanted to test himself on a bigger stage. He sent a tape of his highlights to the University of Alabama, hoping to catch the eye of legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, who had coached Joe Namath. When Riley arrived in Tuscaloosa, he learned the limits of his own talent: Bryant moved him to defensive back. Riley knew that being a great quarterback required more than a great arm. You needed an innate command of self and skill amid chaos, a quality invisible to most and barely discernible to trained eyes. He spent the rest of his life trying to identify it, trusting his own eyes and experience rather than statistics.
One day in the fall of Brady’s junior year, Riley visited Junipero Serra High in San Mateo, California, and watched him throw. He always looked first at a quarterback’s motion. Was it easy? Was it clean? Was it consistently over the top, or situational, taking different angles as necessary or due to sloppiness? How did the ball come out of a quarterback’s hand? Brady had a smooth arm — “a loose arm,” Riley later said. The 16-year-old threw a tight spiral, most of the time. His feet were heavy, but Riley didn’t care; in fact, he saw it as a virtue. Brady couldn’t escape the pocket. He couldn’t outrun anybody. So, rather than allowing his eyes to drop to the pass rush closing in on him — the telltale sign of fear in a quarterback — he would keep his vision fixed downfield, willing to hold the ball until the last possible second, allowing his receivers to get open. His mechanics didn’t crumble under pressure; if anything, they sharpened. His teammates, most of whom were not exceptionally talented, responded well to him. Brady and receiver John Kirby had developed their own sign language. When Brady tugged slightly on his facemask, Kirby ran deep. And Riley noted not just that Brady loved the game, but how: on Sundays, he hosted film sessions with Kirby, dissecting plays as Galynn served sandwiches. Brady was handsome and disarmingly polite, yet he possessed this astounding drive that, no matter how many times the high school junior was described as “competitive,” didn’t do it justice.
Riley believed Brady was a natural. Best of all, no one else was looking at him — at least not yet. Riley recruited Brady by recruiting the Brady family. He liked Tommy and his parents, and they liked him, especially Tom Sr., who, even after all of the success of the Brady daughters, was pleasantly surprised to see major schools recruiting his son. Tommy had told his parents that he would be a Division I quarterback, and they had nodded along, hiding their skepticism. It wasn’t their role to end their son’s dream, Tom Sr. later said, it was their role to support him, and that support was going to involve some work. Serra head coach Tom MacKenzie told Tom Sr. that his son had a “Division I arm,” but that his lower body was “not close to Division I,” and he implored Brady to improve his quickness and agility.
“He can’t wait until his senior season to become a Division I candidate,” MacKenzie told Tom Sr.
The one area where Brady excelled was throwing the ball, and if something went wrong — if guys dropped passes, or if he missed a read or, God forbid, a throw — he couldn’t handle it, just as he couldn’t handle a missed putt as a child. Later, in his own words, he was a “whiner,” quick to blame everyone and everything except himself. He sometimes committed the quarterbacking sin of holding the ball too long, neglecting the easy pass in favor of the deep throw — “You have a love affair with your arm,” MacKenzie would tell him — but most of all, he suffered from the impatience of the gifted. During one windy day, Brady was leading a seven-on-seven passing drill and his receivers were drop-ping balls, struggling to judge them in the swirling air. Brady dialed up more power to cut through the wind. It didn’t work; his receivers simply weren’t good enough to adjust. After practice, Brady was fuming, complaining to MacKenzie, when the coach cut him off.
“You need to be more patient,” MacKenzie said.
It wasn’t what Brady wanted to hear. Few people ever did anything great by being patient. How was this his fault?
MacKenzie took a deep breath.
“Look around at everybody else on this field. You know what? There’s a very good chance that in ten years from now, everybody else on this field will no longer be playing. You’re still going to be playing. You need to understand that you are one of a kind.”
Nobody had ever spoken to Brady in those terms before, in the language of potential and promise extending perhaps even beyond a college career. MacKenzie saw in Brady what Brady saw in himself — that he could do this, play football, professionally. But nobody except Riley saw Brady play in person during Brady’s senior year in 1994. Though many schools recruited Brady, his options narrowed as Signing Day neared. The choice was between USC and Michigan — and it turned out not to be a choice at all.
One winter weekend, Riley flew north to see the Bradys and arrived at their house, a place he had been many times before, including just a few weeks earlier. Riley was friendly, but looked ashen. He had bad news. A few days earlier, head coach John Robinson had told Riley that the Trojans had landed a commitment from a quarterback out of the Chicago suburbs named Quincy Woods. “We don’t have room for Brady,” Robinson said.
Riley almost “fell over,” he recalled. He thought it was a mistake — Woods would leave the team after four seasons — and worse, he had to deliver the news and “felt a responsibility to make sure the Bradys understood face to face.” And so, Riley flew to San Francisco and, in the home he’d had so many warm conversations in, told the family that USC, after a year and a half of dialogue, wouldn’t be offering Brady a scholarship after all.
The Bradys took the news with grace — they knew it wasn’t Riley’s call — but it hurt.
TOM BRADY’S WHITE T-shirt read QB1. It was February 2000, and Riley was walking through the NFL’s annual scouting combine in Indianapolis when he saw a familiar face. Riley was now the head coach of the San Diego Chargers; like all players at the combine, Brady was an anonymous prospect going through football’s version of boot camp, having been given a T-shirt and gray jump-suit, identified not by name but by number, as if he were a product coming off an assembly line. The 2000 quarterback class was not considered special. Brady was eager to dispel all doubts around him at the combine — until he learned, like every prospect does, that the combine has very little to do with football. He posed for scouts shirtless, wearing only shorts, facing the camera and then from the side, as in a mug shot. The photo of his unimpressive build — if one could call it a build — would become legendary and serve as motivation for Brady to transform himself into something closer to statuesque. Years later, when Brady first graced the cover of Men’s Health, Tom Sr. deadpanned that his son was the magazine’s first cover boy to wear a shirt. Brady threw well at the combine, although neither his arm strength nor his accuracy jumped out.
Still, Riley still saw Brady as exceptional, five years later. He had followed Brady’s career from the West Coast. In 1997, after four stellar years running USC’s offense, Riley was hired by Oregon State as its head coach, then jumped to the Chargers, an organization in a tailspin since it picked Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf in 1998. Brady had watched Leaf up close in the Rose Bowl that year, when Brady was a backup and Leaf was a superstar who nearly pulled off an upset of the undefeated Michigan Wolverines. But after two years in the NFL, the former second-overall draft pick was a toxic mix of incompetence and entitlement. The Chargers wanted to draft a developmental quarterback in the mid-to-late rounds. Riley thought he might finally get his man.
When Riley saw Brady at the combine, the two men picked up right where they left off, both occupying familiar roles: Riley the believer, Brady desperate to be believed in.
“I missed you once,” Riley told Brady. “I won’t miss on you again.”
A FEW WEEKS later, at the Chargers’ facility — the practice fields were nestled against a bluff, and rumor had it that opposing teams, especially Al Davis’s Raiders, would secretly videotape practices from above — everyone was drafting and coaching for their jobs. Bobby Beathard, the general manager, was a future Hall of Fame executive who had won Super Bowls with the Washington Redskins in the 1980s, but was now humbled by the Leaf debacle. Beathard gave the coaching staff a list of ten mid-to-late-round quarterbacks to evaluate. Brady was one of them. Beathard knew that Riley wanted Brady. Riley, though, wanted his scouting report to be scouted. He worried that he loved Brady so much — as a person, as a quarterback, as a vessel of redemption — that bias had crept into his analysis. He sent quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson to Ann Arbor to research Brady.
“Talk to everyone,” Riley told him.
Johnson flew to Detroit and drove the half hour to Ann Arbor, winding his way through streets lined with frat houses and apartments whose yards were littered with beer bottles and bicycles before arriving at Michigan Stadium, a redbrick temple rising out of the flat land. He attended Michigan’s pro day, where scouts ran prospects from the school through a series of mostly perfunctory tests that teams somehow considered predictive and therefore valuable. Brady weighed in at 195 pounds and was “slow as s—,” the quarterback later said, in his speed tests. But then Johnson made the rounds of the football building, visiting assistant coaches and strength coaches and even secretaries, trying to bridge the gap between the quarterback Riley loved and the afterthought Johnson had just witnessed up close.
Brady had committed to Michigan as part of what would be seen, in retrospect, as one of the greatest recruiting classes in college football history, with a Heisman Trophy winner in defensive back Charles Woodson and five future NFL players in addition to Woodson and Brady. But before Brady set foot on campus, most of the coaches who had championed him were gone. Michigan had recruited Brady to be the fourth or fifth quarterback on the depth chart; when he arrived, he was seventh. He tried not to get discouraged, and on his first day of practice, after watching the other quarterbacks throw, Brady thought, Man, I’m better than these guys! He wasn’t, but he didn’t care. His self-belief was already in place.
All athletes, especially great ones — especially those with impossible expectations for themselves — swing between extreme confidence and extreme insecurity in a way unfathomable to fans. By 1997, Brady felt he was out of options. It was as if the world was conspiring to keep him off the field. He suffered an emergency bout of acute appendicitis that caused him to lose 20 pounds and left him devouring 18-inch meatball subs from Subway to try to gain it back. Kit Cartwright, the quarterback coach who had recruited Brady, took a job as passing game coordinator at Indiana University, leaving Brady entirely bereft of champions. Brady was becoming the worst version of himself, whining and pouting. He needed a plan — needed someone who could do for his mind what his former personal quarterback coach, Tom Martinez, had once done for his arm. The person he found ended up changing his life, as Martinez had.
Many years later, in 2007, when Brady’s legend was already secure but still not close to finished, and when his future wife was many magnitudes more famous than any athlete except Michael Jordan, there was a celebration of the tenth anniversary of Michigan’s 1997 national championship team at an Ann Arbor steakhouse. Among those players and coaches who attended was a thin man named Greg Harden, who worked in the athletic department as a counselor. Harden is friendly, but direct, with a hard face around soft eyes, and he stopped at Brady’s table to catch up. Brady looked up. He smiled. He turned to his wife, to introduce her, but before he could say anything, her eyes widened and warmed.
“Oh,” she said. “I know who this is.”
AS A FRESHMAN, Brady had been assigned to Harden, just in case he ever needed an ear. Harden had graduated from Michigan with honors at age 28 and worked in a local rehab center. Bo Schembechler, Michigan’s legendary football coach, hired him in 1986 to work with athletes. Harden’s title was director of counseling, and he mentored the likes of Jalen Rose of the Fab Five and Desmond Howard, who had won the Heisman Trophy and, in January of 1997, been named Super Bowl MVP as a kick returner for the Green Bay Packers — in that game, they beat the New England Patriots, led by Bill Parcells, assistant head coach Bill Belichick, and quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Harden had a phrase in his office, unmissable to all who entered: “Control the controllables.” Harden always tried to be present at practice, in the weight room, and in meetings, so players would feel comfortable visiting him. He hadn’t talked much to Brady. He had found Brady “pleasant,” albeit too skinny and pretty to be a Big Ten quarterback. But he could tell something was wrong. He seemed discouraged, out of his element.
“Hey, if you ever wanna talk,” Harden told him one day, “I’m available to you.”
A few weeks later, Brady entered Harden’s office. If Brady wasn’t depressed, Harden thought, he was close.
“I need help,” Brady said.
He took a seat in Harden’s office. Harden had a routine with new clients: let them whine for a bit, and then he would develop a plan of action. Brady whined, all right, but when he said, “I’m never going to get my chance. They’re giving me only three reps,” Harden seized on the comment.
“Three reps?” Harden replied. “Three reps is a heck of a lot better than zero reps. I want you to do the best you can with those three reps they give you, Tommy. If you do anything less, then shame on you. Now, go out and do those three reps well.”
Brady was quiet.
“Tom, whether you play or never play — and there’s a possibility you never play” — Harden paused, letting the words hang for maximum effect — “but you certainly won’t play if you don’t change your mind and attitude. I’m not in a position to get you a starting job. If nobody else believes in your ass, you’ve gotta believe.”
F—, Brady thought. More of that. “Let’s go,” he replied. Brady began visiting Harden weekly, trying to get his mind right.
Sometimes, Harden listened and was spare with words; at other times, he yelled at Brady, trying to break his funk. At one point, Harden told him, “You say you’re the guy. I see no evidence of that. If you’re the guy, show me. Show everybody.”
Harden had a way of turning negatives into positives, which “jump-started my own competitiveness,” Brady later said.
Brady’s mindset improved, but his situation did not. He saw himself buried on the depth chart and looked for an escape hatch back home to Cal. Brady met with head coach Lloyd Carr, who had been hired after Brady committed to Michigan, to tell him he was considering a transfer. Brady explained that where he was and where he wanted to be were two different places.
“You have the potential to be a very good player,” Carr replied. “You need to go out there and compete and worry about the things you can control, and not worry about the things you can’t.” Carr reminded Brady that he had chosen Michigan for a reason. He could have gone to Cal and played earlier; he chose Michigan to test his own limits and to compete with the best.
Brady told Carr he would think over it that night. At a staff meeting, Carr thought Brady’s mind was made up.
“Tom’s going to leave.”
That night, Brady spoke to Harden. Brady reiterated what both men knew: he was considering a transfer; Michigan wasn’t the place for him. Maybe Brady expected Harden to react differently than Carr, with more empathy, or even more tough love. But Harden wasn’t angry, or even sad. He thought the entire episode was funny.
“Who gives a f— if you leave?” Harden said. “You ain’t done s— anyway. You want to leave? Go ‘head.”
Brady had no response. Harden was right. Carr later would be cast as a foil of sorts, the primary example of a failure to recognize untapped greatness. But Carr didn’t miss the real Tom Brady, because the real Tom Brady had yet to be formed. Brady didn’t want to be remembered as a player who couldn’t cut it, and the next day, he surprised Carr by telling him he was staying — and added a shot across the bow: “Coach, I’m not going to leave, and I’m going to prove to you that I’m the best quarterback.”
By the fall of 1997, Brady had taken his three reps and methodically turned them into more. But by 1998, he had a new problem. Drew Henson was designed to be Brady’s own personal hell, a local Michigan superstar and archetype of everything that a quarterback should be. It was clear that Carr was invested in Henson in a way that he was not with Brady. When Carr announced Brady as the starter in 1998, he added a caveat that Henson — “the most talented quarterback I’ve been around” — would play, too.
If the entire situation seemed ridiculous, Brady never complained to his parents. Once he had decided to stay at Michigan, “he owned it,” his father later said. “And it was for him to work his way out of it.” So, he worked: training before and after class, pathologically driven to play and to prove himself. He practiced a footwork drill in which he dragged his plant foot on throws so intensely that he ripped the nail off of his big toe. One bad rep, one awful practice — God forbid, one bad game — might cost him his career. Fear became hardwired into him and never went away. “Deep scars,” Brady said. He was processing so much anger — and, with Harden’s help, trying to channel it into something useful — that his parents learned to avoid bringing up his central purpose in his young life. “We wouldn’t talk about football with him on the phone,” Tom Sr. said. “He didn’t know if football was worth it for him.”
Before his first career start, on September 5, 1998, at Notre Dame, Brady was nervous. He visited Harden. As Brady tried to sort through his anxiety, Harden cut him off.
“Let’s assume that I came from another planet,” Harden said. “Could you explain football to me?”
“Yeah,” Brady said. “What’s the game?” Harden said.
Brady explained football in the most basic terms, of having a certain number of downs to outscore the opponent.
“How many downs?”
“What’s the field? Can you draw the field?”
Brady got up and stood at a whiteboard, sketching the dimensions of a field.
“Ten-yard increments?” Harden said.
“Is it like that at every stadium?”
“See where I’m going?”
“I got it,” Brady said.
IT WAS A simple game, the same one Brady had played well enough to land at Michigan. But he felt as though he was on a clock, as if his job inevitably would be yanked away. Under Brady, the defending-champion Wolverines dropped their first two games in 1998, including at Notre Dame, but rebounded to finish 10-3, capping the year with a blowout of Arkansas in the Citrus Bowl. He completed 61.9 percent of his passes, with 14 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. It all left Carr to wonder if the team could do better. Brady knew. Harden knew, too. He would watch Brady closely during games, and he noticed that the quarterback had a habit of desperately looking to the sideline, not for the next play call, but for approval from the coaches that never came.
“Why are you doing that?” Harden said. “You the starting quarterback or not? They chose you. You got chosen because you’re the best of the bunch.”
“You’re absolutely right,” Brady said, badly needing to be convinced.
Harden told Brady to study confident leaders. Brady looked first to 49ers great Joe Montana, watching tape of him, noticing how he always seemed relaxed, regardless of situation or circumstance. But more than that, Brady started to study everything football, from the assignments for every offensive player on each snap to the nuances of defenses. That was the thing about Brady: if you told him to do something to help him improve, he did it. “Coachable,” Harden later said. But Carr wanted to see what Henson could do, and so he devised a plan: Brady would start and play the first quarter, then Henson would come in during the second quarter. Carr would decide at halftime who would finish the game. The football world loves quarterback controversies, and despite the wishes of quarterbacks coach Stan Parrish, who believed that Brady should start, Carr was inviting Michigan fans and the public to watch one play out. Brady had spent years training himself to thrive without much margin for error. At a point in his career when, as an upperclassman and returning starter, the margins should have been expanding, they were smaller than ever.
THERE ARE DIFFERENT kinds of boos in sports, and Brady has experienced them all. One is from a home crowd toward the opposing team. Brady loved those. Another is from a home crowd toward its own team, kicking it in the ass to play better. Brady felt those were always deserved. But, as a fifth-year senior in 1999, Brady encountered the rarest of boos: from a home crowd, directed at nobody other than him. In the first game, against Notre Dame, Brady started, then sat. When Henson jogged onto the field in the second quarter, the crowd cheered. Wearing a headset, Brady stared down for a moment, perhaps the only sign of anger he allowed himself. But when Brady was inserted back into the lineup in the third quarter, some of the crowd booed, a scattered but unmistakable sound.
But Brady pulled off what he had been known for in high school and what would become his trademark at Michigan and beyond: he led his team to a comeback. After a last-minute 26-22 victory, the press asked him about the boos. “I think we’re way beyond that,” Brady said. But was he? Could he ever be? Looking back, Brady harbored no ill will toward Carr. He tried to be grateful to the coach for delivering what would be the ordering principle of his life: no snap could be taken for granted. It was a foundational concept in the NFL — and of Bill Belichick’s Patriots above all. Brady later realized he was soft when he arrived at Michigan, and that it was there that “I really learned to compete. I really learned to grow up.” And he really learned football. He would help offensive coordinator Mike DeBord develop the game plan on his off days, knowing that no matter how complimentary the coaches were — “Not every player could be a coach,” DeBord later said. “He could. He can process a lot of football quickly” — Carr refused to guarantee that Brady would finish the next game.
By now, even Harden, for all his tough love, was openly rooting for Brady. They met Friday afternoons before Saturday games, and Brady would let down his guard. He would vent, rage, recover, and plot a path forward. He was stuck in a cruel psychological loop: he fretted that he would play tentatively, scared of losing his job, but also worried that Carr would bench him for playing tentatively and scared. Brady couldn’t allow it to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, so Harden had to shock him out of his spiral.
“This is your team!” he yelled. “Start acting like it!”
The rotation with Henson continued through the next six games. Against unbeaten Michigan State, Henson started the second half, threw an interception, and was benched with Michigan trailing, 27-10. Brady led the team to three touchdowns on three straight possessions in a 34-31 loss. He hoped Carr would end the rotation, but he didn’t, believing that the next game would be the one where Henson would unlock his potential. But then Michigan lost to Illinois. Brady was completing 65 percent of his passes, ten percentage points higher than Henson. It was absurd. Carr defended the rotation — Michigan had won most of the time with it — but the staff noticed that Brady, the skinny California kid, was physically tougher than Henson. Brady never flinched in the pocket. Carr called Brady into the office to tell him that the rotation was over.
With five games left in his fifth year, Tom Brady could finally to look to the sideline not for approval, not to see if Henson was putting on his helmet, but to learn the next play call.
CARR LATER SAID said that Bobby Grier of the New England Patriots was the only scout from an NFL team to call him about Brady. But that wasn’t exactly true. Mike Johnson, the Chargers’ quarterback coach, spent hours with Carr and quarterbacks coach Stan Parrish. Everyone said the same thing: Carr had put Brady in a tough spot, and he could have torn the team apart, but instead he handled it with maturity and grace. Brady wasn’t always perfect, but in critical moments, he had a sort of ruthless efficiency, a knack for throwing to the open receiver — or throwing open a receiver — to the point that a win felt inevitable. Five of Michigan’s ten victories in 1999 were Brady-led comebacks. Johnson loved what he saw, especially from a projected late-round pick. “Every time he played in a big game, he played big,” Johnson recalled.
Johnson interviewed one of the secretaries in the football office, and she raved about Brady’s kindness. He met with strength coaches and trainers, who painted a portrait of a leader in the weight room. He even met with one of Brady’s professors. Finally, Johnson sat down with Brady himself. They had met years earlier, in the USC locker room, when Tommy and his father were on his official visit to Mike Riley’s Trojans before the offer evaporated. After the Bradys left, Riley told Johnson, “I really like this quarterback from San Mateo.” The teenager Johnson met in 1994 was now an impressive young man who “had the ability to make you believe,” Johnson later said.
Johnson returned to San Diego and typed up a two-page report on Brady. In draft meetings with general manager Bobby Beathard and the scouts, Johnson presented and testified on Brady’s behalf, to a room of closed minds.
“Mike,” Beathard said, “you’ve done a lot of research on him and all you’ve talked about are the intangibles. But we don’t know if he’s going to be that good.”
It was that line of thinking that later haunted NFL evaluators, proof that Beathard had learned nothing from the Leaf disaster. Here was a tall, accurate, smart, winning quarterback, available in the middle rounds — virtually free — and Beathard refused to budge. Johnson knew that he held limited sway, but he was still taken aback. Why didn’t Beathard see what the coaches saw?
“His intangibles are off the charts,” Johnson argued.
“They don’t lie,” Riley added. “And no matter what, he did throw for  yards against Alabama in the Orange Bowl.”
THERE’S AN UNWRITTEN rule among NFL general managers: you give the coach his quarterback. The rest of the roster is yours, but with the most important position, the coach gets to choose. And so, on April 16, 2000, early in the sixth round of the draft, Riley took it as a good sign when Beathard stopped by his office. The first of the Chargers’ three sixth-round picks, number 184 overall, was coming up in the next hour.
“Who do you want to draft?” Beathard asked.
“Tom Brady,” Riley replied.
“Okay,” Beathard said.
Finally. Riley had closed the deal.
FIVE-HUNDRED-SOME miles up the coast, the Bradys were on Portola Drive, huddled around the television. Brady had hoped to go in the second round, but expected to go in the third. Those rounds had come and gone. Brady was running out of ways to distract himself. He had attended a San Francisco Giants game the first day of the draft, coming home to word that Chad Pennington had gone to the New York Jets with the 18th pick. In the third round, Giovanni Carmazzi of Hofstra went to the 49ers and Chris Redman of Louisville went to the Baltimore Ravens. The Carmazzi pick hurt. Brady had thrown for the 49ers when the team held a workout for San Francisco-area prospects and thought he had made a good impression, especially in front of team president Bill Walsh, nicknamed “The Genius,” a three-time Super Bowl champion who had revolutionized offensive football and was instrumental in the drafting of four future Hall of Famers. Of all the talent evaluators in the league, Walsh should have been able to recognize Brady’s subtle gifts. Instead, he gravitated toward Carmazzi, who would never play a down in the NFL. Nobody — not even undisputed legends, not even the man who had drafted and coached Joe Montana, to whom Brady would be compared perhaps more frequently than anyone else, and who traded for Steve Young — hit on every quarterback. Or came close, for that matter.
Brady was in the living room with his family, anxiously watching the draft. At Pick No. 184 the Chargers seemed like a lifeline. But, before the pick, Beathard rewatched 20 minutes of Brady’s film. He decided that two quarterbacks, Florida A&M’s Ja’Juan Seider and Stanford’s Todd Husak, were good enough that the team could hold off on selecting one. He walked down to Riley’s office.
“We made a different decision,” Beathard said.
That decision was a linebacker from Virginia named Shannon Taylor, who would start all of two games in a four-year career. Riley knew another chance had slipped away. He would later suggest that a piece of him died in that moment. By the end of the day, Tom Brady was a New England Patriot.
TWO YEARS LATER, Brady was in his third start after Drew Bledsoe nearly died in a collision with Mo Lewis of the New York Jets, against Riley’s San Diego Chargers, entering the huddle with his first fan’s team up seven. On third and ten with 1:24 left, Brady lined up in the shotgun. A rusher closed in from his back side and reached around Brady, swiping at the ball and hitting the quarterback’s elbow. Brady drifted up the pocket and away from him, eyes focused downfield, and lofted a pass over the middle to receiver Troy Brown, fitting it between three defenders for 16 yards. It was a first down, and it was the first glimpse of an essential quality for quarterbacks: magic. Brady could not only deliver in clutch situations, but he had that sixth sense that told him when and how to dance away from the rush.
With 40 seconds left, Brady faked a run left and rolled right. Tight end Jermaine Wiggins had slipped free, and Brady dropped a pass over two defensive backs for a game-tying touchdown.
The Chargers went three and out to start overtime. Brady took over. On first down, the Chargers crowded the line of scrimmage, showing a blitz up the middle. Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis had anticipated this particular blitz. On each snap, Brady had two plays to choose from, then a separate set of audibles. Weis spent all week preparing Brady to recognize this look and to exploit it by checking to a deep throw. From the sideline, Weis saw the Chargers preparing that specific blitz and thought there was “no chance in hell” that Brady would recognize it, in his third game, after already playing 60 minutes of football that day. But Brady saw it. He switched to a protection scheme called “81 Max” and, with three Chargers in his face, threw down the sideline to receiver David Patten, who likely would have caught the ball had he not been interfered with by cornerback Alex Molden. It was a 37-yard penalty.
Riley was dispirited and out of answers against a force only he had seen coming. Two plays later, on third and five, the Chargers again blitzed Brady and again reached him, sandwiching him in the pocket, low from behind and high from the front. But before he was brought down, he managed to send a perfect pass to running back Kevin Faulk, who had flared out of the backfield. Faulk ran for nine yards and a first down, putting the Patriots in field goal range. Adam Vinatieri eventually kicked the game-winning field goal from 44 yards. It was not only a Patriots win; it was a Brady win. He had hit 33 of 54 passes for 364 yards and two touchdowns. Riley walked off the field in what would be his last season as an NFL head coach, wondering what might have been, how his life — many lives — would have gone if he could have collected his prize. The Patriots, though: they had a feeling they had won the lottery. After the game, Belichick told the press, “I can’t say enough about Tom Brady.” That night, Weis told his wife, Maura, “We got something special here.”
Years later, as a former coach and occasional corporate speaker, Eric Mangini showed video of three plays from the Chargers game — a defensive stop on third and one, a long punt return by Troy Brown, and the Brady touchdown pass — and referred to them as “the start of our avalanche.”