Two Drives, Three Faces
The instructor was not optimistic. He was looking at a roomful of knuckleheads.
There were a couple of hockey players, and there were four or five baseball players—always the worst, a sense of entitlement on them as thick as pine tar on a bat. There were a handful of football players. There even were ten unsuspecting students unaffiliated with any of the university’s teams. This was a composition class at the University of Michigan, but it was stratifying by attitude into an unruly homeroom from some god-awful high school in the land of Beavis and Butt-head.
The instructor wasn’t theorizing from the faculty lounge, sherry and contempt dripping from his lips. Eight years earlier, he’d been one of them, a scholarship offensive lineman, a grunt in the service of Big Blue, a cog in an athletic combine that had entertained more than 40 million people since the first Wolverine team went 1–0–1 in 1879. He’d sat in classes like this. He had bullied the teachers. He had blown off the reading. He’d been a dumb jock. Looking back, he thought himself a thug.
Elwood Reid was a football apostate. He’d come to Michigan from the same high school in Cleveland that produced Elvis Grbac, a quarterback who’d thrown for 6,480 yards at Michigan and had helped win the 1993 Rose Bowl over Washington before moving on to a career in the NFL. Reid arrived in Ann Arbor bursting with words and ideas, and they’d proven to be stronger in him than the pull of a sport that seemed to have little use for either one. A sport that had left him, as he put it in a magazine piece years after leaving Michigan, “with this clear-cut of a body.”
Ultimately, Reid would turn his years at Michigan into a novel, If I Don’t Six. It was a roman for which no clef was necessary. Its hero, named Elwood Riley, is a freshman offensive lineman at Michigan with a jones for Marcus Aurelius. His gradual disillusionment with football is the story’s arc.
“They don’t show the bumps and bruises on television,” the fictional Elwood Reid says at one point, “or the long practices, cortisone needles as big as tenpenny nails, the yelling, and hours of boring film meetings where you watch the same play a dozen times until the coach feels that when you go home and close your eyeballs, the play’s going to be running on the back of your eyelids.”
So Reid knew what he was looking at in his classroom full of knuckleheads. He was looking at a kind of fun-house mirror in time, where the years bent and showed him the reflection of the person football had tried to make of him. The person he’d never be.
Reid noticed the skinny quarterback right off. He didn’t dress the way the other jocks did—a style that could generously be described as workout casual. The quarterback was polite. He was sincere. “He’d read the material that I didn’t give a shit about in that class when I took it,” Reid recalls.
What was even more interesting to Reid was the reaction of the other jocks in the class. He’d seen the really heartbreaking ones—the ones who established their own territory through a kind of armored ignorance. Not only did they not do the reading, but they were also conspicuously proud that they hadn’t, and openly contemptuous of anyone who had. “They make fun of you,” Reid muses. “That’s the way they cull you from the herd.”
The quarterback was different. He spoke differently. He even brought his books to class. Reid figured that the knuckleheads would eat him alive. He thought, at best, the quarterback would get himself a reputation around Ann Arbor as a kind of dropback Eddie Haskell. At worst, he’d get his ass kicked, literally and figuratively, for the rest of his college career.
For good and ill, football is a great leveler. In no other sport is the balance between personal achievement and collective accomplishment so exquisitely delicate. In no other sport is the conflict between the two so consistently volatile. In football, it’s a dangerous business to stand out in the wrong way.
To Reid’s surprise, even the most disruptive guys in the class did more than leave the quarterback alone. They seemed to look up to him. In fact, they seemed to look up to him more because he wasn’t following their lead. “The pull of the pack is to act a certain way,” Reid says. “And he wouldn’t do it. He took things seriously, and he was very gracious, so I figured, here was a guy who was going to go through the [football] program and then go find a life for himself.
“I said to myself, look at this guy. I’m going to help this guy. I want to open his eyes. So I made sure he read all the essays. I was a little harder on him than I was on the other guys. I told him to pay attention in class, because that’s the thing that I didn’t do.”
Five years later, in 2002, the skinny quarterback led the New England Patriots to a shocking win in the Super Bowl over the St. Louis Rams. Two years later, he did it again, this time over the Carolina Panthers. The next year, he did it a third time, defeating the Philadelphia Eagles. He became football’s biggest star. He became celebrated for his ability to stand out at the top of his profession while maintaining an almost fundamentalist belief in being a teammate.
It was very strange to see played out on a vast stage the same thing that had happened in that classroom full of knuckleheads, thought Elwood Reid. It was very strange to see what had become of the kid who always brought his books to class and who never was given any shit about it, even from the people who—whether they knew it or not—already were dedicating their lives to giving shit to people about things like that. Because there was something about him that connected. Because there was something about this Brady character that was real.
“I remember that class,” Tom Brady said, leaning against a fence one summer’s day, as the New England Patriots rounded into the last weeks of training camp before the 2005 season. They had won two consecutive Super Bowls and were preparing to try to win their third, securing the team’s place even more firmly as one of the greatest in the history of the National Football League, and Brady even more firmly in the ranks of the league’s greatest quarterbacks.
Over the previous four years, Brady had been the Patriots’ starting quarterback, and, in two of the three Super Bowls that they’d won, he’d been the Most Valuable Player. In that time, the team won twenty-one consecutive regular-season games, an NFL record. This success was all the more remarkable given the history of the Patriots, once so lost and bedraggled a franchise that they were forced to play a home game in Birmingham, Alabama, because no stadium around Boston would have them.
Now, though, the team drew thousands of people just to watch it train at its facility outside Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, an otherwise sleepy little town south of Boston, just about on the upper bicep where Massachusetts flexes itself into Cape Cod. They showed up, in the height of the high summer, more than 52,000 of them a week, to watch football practice, which, on its most exciting day, can fairly be said to make the main reading room of the Boston Public Library look like Mardi Gras.
They showed up, and the young girls screamed for Tom Brady the same way the fifty-year-old men did, except the pitch was higher. On the field, the team moved through its drills, grouped by position and then all together. Whenever a player, or a group of players, made a mistake, he had to run a lap around the entire field. When the various miscreants passed a grassy knoll that rises behind one end zone of the practice field, the fans sprawled thickly on the grass gave the passing screwups a standing ovation. Nothing the New England Patriots did was wrong, not even the things that were, well, wrong.
Unlike basketball, where people scrimmage, or baseball’s spring training, which involves playing actual games, nobody who comes to football training camp actually sees anyone play a game of football. “When I was playing lacrosse in high school,” the New England head coach, Bill Belichick, once recalled, “I couldn’t wait for practice because I got to play lacrosse. Football practice isn’t like that.” Instead, football players train in crushing heat in order to perform in shattering cold. They toughen themselves for December in August. People come to training camp in order to see the players, not the game itself. It is a festival of individual attention before the season begins and the personalities of the players are subsumed by the team and by the grind.
Brady came over to the fence to discuss a book—this one, to be precise. Earlier this spring, he’d signed a six-year contract extension for $60 million. He’d hosted Saturday Night Live, where not only did he sing, but he also performed a skit in his underwear. He was dating a movie star. He was at the top of his profession. He was twenty-six years old.
He is a substantial presence, six-four and 225 pounds, almost 30 pounds heavier than when he sat in Elwood Reid’s class at Michigan. (On page 156 of the 2005 Michigan football media guide, there is a picture of Brady, cocking his arm to throw. He appears to be wearing his big brother’s jersey.) He favors the actor Matt Damon a little, but he has a Kirk Douglas cleft in his chin. More to the point, there is about him a genuine sense of the present. He has that gift for which the average politician would gladly sell the portion of his soul not yet sublet by lobbyists—the ability to make the person he is talking to feel as though the rest of the world has fallen away and there is only this one conversation happening anywhere. Asked a relatively simple question—“Do you mind having a book written about you?”—he didn’t fall into easy cliché. His answer was subtle, and just worldly enough to be interesting.
“To tell you the truth,” Brady said, “there’s only one real problem I have with this. I don’t know if I’m old enough for a book like this.”
It’s not a simple answer. It’s an answer with some thought—and, therefore, some substance—behind it. It’s an answer indicating that, despite his accomplishments, and despite all the extraneous celebrity sugar that’s come his way, he will not be completed on anyone’s terms but his own. In his answer, there’s a glimpse of something restless in Tom Brady, something visceral that resists summing up, something that insists on the primacy and integrity of an individual journey. But it is an interesting answer. In fact, it is just interesting enough to make sure that the project moves forward. It’s an answer that moves the chains.
Each chain is precisely ten yards long. There’s an upright at either end. There is also a third upright with numbers on it. The uprights are called the “sticks.” The officials who keep the uprights that are connected by a chain are called the “rod men.” The official who keeps the other upright, which is called the “down indicator box,” is called the “box man.” Across the field are auxiliary chains and sticks, and auxiliary rod men and box men, so that players can look at either sideline and determine the state of play.
When a football team makes a first down, one rod man plants his stick in the ground parallel to where the ball has been placed. The other rod man extends the chain to indicate to the team (and the spectators) how far they have to go to another first down. Once a team passes that second stick, it gains a first down and the chains move. The object of any offense is to keep the chains moving.
It’s within the movement of the chains that football finds its soul. It’s within the movement of the chains that football players see most clearly how they are bound together. When an offense is moving the chains, it keeps its defense off the field, rested and ready, while exhausting the defense of the other team. When an offense is moving the chains, its success is easily defined in calibrated achievements, ten yards at a time, one after another after another again. Each player gains confidence—in himself and in what comes to be seen as an inexorable whole. This confidence can become an almost physical force—something Newtonian, like gravity or inertia: “An offense in motion tends to stay in motion, except when acted upon by an equal or opposite force, which is usually a linebacker with blood in his eye.” In fact, an offense relentlessly moving the chains is often said to be going “downhill.” The constant progress shortens the game. “Time of possession” is one of the most beloved statistics among football coaches. Moving the chains bends time itself to a team’s will.
Tom Brady moves the chains. It’s the first thing the New England Patriots and their coaches saw in him, back in 2000, when he was a sixth-round draft pick—and a fourth-string quarterback—directing the scout team with players who hadn’t been around long enough yet to be considered castoffs. The scout team’s job is to simulate the offense of the upcoming opponent. However, after practice, Brady and the scout team would practice the New England offense. He led, and they went with him. “They’d go through the plays, and, if somebody got something wrong, he’d correct them,” recalls Belichick. “You could see them getting better. They moved on you.”
Almost two years later, in the Superdome in New Orleans, playing with the starters in the biggest game of his life, at the end of a very strange football season, Tom Brady moved all the chains, literally and figuratively, transforming the Patriots and changing his life. By the end of the day, he had produced a remarkable upset that had marked a beleaguered franchise with an entirely new identity, one that resonated deeply with a country still freshly wounded, and Brady instantly personified all the change he’d helped to engineer. Along with his team, he stepped into strange new territory.
In the early evening of February 2, 2002, the Patriots were sitting on their own 17-yard line, tied at 17–17 with the heavily favored St. Louis Rams with 1:21 left in regulation time. Their defense, which had smacked the velocity out of the Ram offense all evening, was literally on its last legs, having just surrendered a touchdown on which at least one pursuing New England defender simply collapsed as though the air had gone out of him.
The smart play was to let the clock run and take a chance on winning in overtime. In fact, John Madden was recommending that very thing on national television while Brady, Belichick, and the offensive coordinator, Charlie Weis, huddled on the sideline. “It was a ten-second conversation,” Weis recalls. “What we said is we would start the drive, and, if anything bad happened, we’d just run out the clock.”
Belichick and Weis agreed that the Patriots should try to win the game immediately—in part because of the exhausted state of their defense, but mainly because they knew that, even if he didn’t get the team a chance to win, Brady was not likely to make a mistake that would cost them the game.
The bare-bones play-by-play does not do justice to what happened next. Consider the play described as: “2-10 NE 41 (:29) T. Brady pass to T. Brown ran OB at SL 36 for 23 yards (D. McCleon, Little) Pass 14, Run 9.” Brady hit receiver Troy Brown with a pass that Brown carried twenty-three yards down to the St. Louis 36-yard line before being forced out of bounds.
What’s missing is the moment on the previous play that made this one possible. Brady read a blitz by a St. Louis linebacker and threw the ball away. (“T. Brady pass incomplete,” says the official record.) What’s missing is the fact that Brady noticed that St. Louis had rushed only three of their defensive linemen, dropping a defensive tackle into pass coverage, the way he’d seen them do it on all that film with which he’d seared his eyeballs over the previous week. What’s missing is how he bought enough time for Brown to “clear” the unwieldy defensive tackle and get free, how Brady took a tiny, instinctive step up in the pocket to avoid an onrushing lineman whom he felt more than he saw, enabling him to find Brown for the completion.
“There are a lot of little things that go into it,” says Bill Belichick, whose occasionally terse commentary can make the official play-by-play read like Finnegans Wake.
The movement is missing. There’s no sense of constant forward motion, or of the burgeoning confidence that was its primary accelerant. Two plays later, with seven seconds left, Brady “spiked” the ball, deliberately tossing it to the ground in order to stop the clock so that New England would have time to kick the winning field goal. In this situation, most quarterbacks simply slam the ball to the turf and walk off the field.
However, on this occasion, Brady bounced the ball gently, caught it, and handed it to the official. (“T. Brady pass incomplete” reads the play-by-play sheet again.) Up in the luxury suites, Robert Kraft, the owner of the Patriots and the man who had redeemed the franchise from its history as one of the greatest screwball comedy acts in the history of professional sports, was stunned by the coolness of the gesture. On the next play, Adam Vinatieri came on and won the game for New England with a 48-yard field goal.
Excerpted from Moving the Chains: Tom Brady and the Pursuit of Everything by Charles P. Pierce. Copyright © 2006 by Charles P. Pierce. Published in October 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.