I’ve loved sports, and been extremely competitive at them, my whole life. I may have picked up my first football at age five, but the path that got me to where I am today was never really straight or easy.
I was born and grew up in San Mateo, California, in the Bay Area, the youngest of four children and the only boy. Everyone always called me Tommy. We were a hardworking, sports-centric family with parents who put their kids before anything else. When I was young, my dad was self-employed and on the road a lot, building up his insurance business. He was out the door by seven in the morning and gone till six at night. My mom was in charge of the house, washing our clothes, cooking our meals, always keeping the domestic side of the family going. My dad was tired when he got home from work, but he never let that get in the way of our time together. He’d still be in his dress shirt when he drove me to the baseball field or the driving range, where the two of us would hit, or field ground balls, or practice throwing as the day grew dark. I loved those times with my dad, and on the drives back home, I remember that good feeling of I’m hitting the baseball better or I think I may be fielding better. (I still feel that way today, for example with my throwing mechanics; I’m still always improving and learning.) My parents were just as involved in my sisters’ lives and sports. My dad would coach their teams sometimes, with my mom serving as the team mom, getting pizza and sodas for all the players.
My parents also had four season tickets to the San Francisco 49ers games at Candlestick Park, ten rows from the top of the stadium on the southwest side—basically in the south end zone. On Sundays we all went to church in the morning, then made the forty-five-minute drive to Candlestick and the 49ers game, and when it was over, back at home my mom would start getting dinner ready while the rest of us gathered around to watch the game highlights on TV. Those four season tickets usually went to my dad and mom, one of my sisters, and me, since going to a game was always the high point of my weekend. I can’t say I have that vivid a memory of it, but on January 10, 1982, when I was four years old, I was at Candlestick Park during one of the greatest games in football history. On the final drive of the NFC Championship game, the 49ers were down by six points with fifty-one seconds left to play when Joe Montana, the 49ers quarterback, got around a three-man rush and threw the pass that became The Catch—a perfect ball that his receiver Dwight Clark leaped up to grab just inside the end zone. Everyone in the stadium jumped up. People were crying, including me—though, to be honest, I’d been crying during the whole first half, too, since I wanted a foam finger with 49ERS ARE #1 printed on it. (I think my dad finally bought me one at halftime just to shut me up!)
Clark’s touchdown tied the score, and when the kicker, Ray Wersching, made the extra point, the game ended with the 49ers winning 28–27. The Catch put an end to the Dallas Cowboys’ 1970s domination of the NFL and started a new era for the 49ers, who went on to win the Super Bowl that year against the Cincinnati Bengals. To be four years old and watching that game (with a foam finger) was, I have to say, pretty incredible.
It’s no surprise that, for a kid growing up in the Bay Area and loving football and sports in general as much as I did, Joe Montana was one of my earliest idols. That wasn’t so unusual; everyone loved Joe Montana. He was Joe Cool, after all. He had a knack for coming through in the clutch, the same way Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky always managed to make the winning play at the right time. By the age of ten, I remember playing outside on the street with my friend David Aguirre, drawing up simple football plays on a sheet of paper. Okay, you run to the fire hydrant. Now you break out. Then you go deep. We even made up our own plays, which we memorized. My favorite was called the Secret Weapon—You run up, you break out . . . and then you run back to the post! By the time I entered my freshman year at Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, my natural love for football had kicked in, and the summer after that I started attending football camp at the College of San Mateo, where I was a staple for the next four years. My size—by my senior year in high school I was 6’4″, 210 pounds—probably played a part in my ability to play as many different sports as I did, not just football but also basketball and baseball.
I was probably three or four years old, sporting a typical haircut my mom used to give me. I was always a happy boy, growing up in the Bay Area with three older sisters and great parents. Life was good. It still is.
Little League baseball was always a fun thing for me. I was eight years old, and I would wear my Royals uniform all day. If we had a game at three in the afternoon, I would put on that uniform at 7:00 a.m. It was the beginning of my playing team sports—the Royals were the first team I think I ever played on.
Despite my size, though, the thing I remember most about those days is how so many of the teammates I played alongside were just plain better than I was—faster, stronger, with superior natural physical abilities. I always felt I was being left behind. However, whatever I lacked in skills I tried to make up for with a work ethic I’m pretty sure I picked up from my family and environment. Early on, my family instilled in me a drive to always learn to do better, and discipline came pretty naturally to me, too. When I was in fifth grade, my oldest sister, Maureen, who was already a very good athlete, began getting seriously involved in high school sports. My dad would get up early to train alongside her at the local athletic club, and I tagged along with them every morning at 6:00 a.m. The club trainer was a guy named Glenn. One of the great things about Glenn was that he didn’t just hold Maureen accountable—he held me accountable, too. Thirty years later, I still remember Glenn saying, “I want you to do one hundred jumping jacks, twenty-five push-ups, and twenty-five sit-ups every morning. On the days you don’t come to the gym, I want you to do them at home. And when you’re all done with your workout, leave me a message on my answering machine.” For every message I left him, Glenn promised to pay me a dollar. For every day I didn’t leave Glenn a message, I would owe him five dollars. For whatever it’s worth, I ended up owing Glenn money. Discipline needs to be reinforced daily as well.
This same work ethic and discipline instilled in me by Glenn, and to a bigger extent by my family, inspired me from the start to seek out every last bit of extra help I could get from coaches, trainers, and basically anyone who pushed me to push myself to the next level. Football camp, for example, was where I met the great Tom Martinez, coach of the football program at the College of San Mateo, as well as the college’s women’s softball and basketball teams. From that point on, even after joining the New England Patriots, I always tracked Tom down for advice whenever something didn’t feel right, or if I had any questions about throwing mechanics. I can’t say how many pro quarterbacks my age, who’ve played as long as I have, would do this, but during every NFL off-season, up until his death in 2012, I called on Tom for his counsel. He’s a mentor I think about often. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another throwing mentor, Tom House, who has also taught me a tremendous amount over the past five years. I sought out Tom to help me continue to understand throwing technique—but he has taught me so much more, and I am very grateful. Like I said, in order to achieve goals, it takes a great support system. I’m so blessed to have just that.
Looking over the line of scrimmage before the snap of the ball during my senior season at Serra High School. We were playing Sacred Heart Cathedral, and we lost the game. I was crushed. It was an especially tough defeat for my family. My uncle was the principal at Sacred Heart, and my dad had made a bet with him that whichever side won would host Thanksgiving dinner that year. When I walked in that night, my uncle had a bunch of pictures from the game covering the walls!
Surrounded by my teammates, standing in the pocket during a typical Serra High School home game during my junior season. We won the game, I remember!
Me, flanked by two great friends and Michigan teammates, Pat Kratus (L), the Wolverines’ defensive lineman, and Jeff Potts (R), an offensive tackle. It was the end of my second year at Michigan, and I was still growing and developing as a player. We always had a blue-versus-white scrimmage to end the spring season, and the games got pretty muddy!
Michigan’s four quarterbacks in December 1997—a great bunch. That’s Brian Griese on the top left, Scott Dreisbach on the top right, and Jason Kapsner to my left. This was during my third year at Michigan, just before our team played in the Rose Bowl.
Throwing was one thing, but early in my career, I knew I needed to improve my strength, too. That’s why, when I was playing college football at the University of Michigan, I did extra weight lifting with the head strength coach there, Mike Gittleson, and when the New England Patriots drafted me, I found another strength coach in Mike Woicik. From the beginning of my athletic career, I also worked extremely hard at improving my footwork and my conditioning. Whatever I was told to do—jump rope, practice my quarterback techniques, etc.—I always did more. No matter what sport I was playing, I wanted to get better at it. I still do. John Wooden, the famous UCLA basketball coach, once defined success as “the peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best of which you are capable.” I believe any one of us can always do more, and better, if we work to develop the right mind-set. Competition is tough—and the further you go in athletics, the tougher both mentally and physically you need to become.
Still, the fact is, it took me a while to find my stride in sports at both an amateur and an elite level. Once I did, I wanted to make sure I did everything possible to perform at a peak level for as long as possible. Playing the way I am today, after seventeen seasons in the NFL, requires focus, discipline, and an openness to doing things differently, and that’s been true ever since the Patriots won our first Super Bowl in February 2002. If you’re going to achieve and sustain peak performance, you need that same focus, discipline, and openness.
As an athlete I was a late bloomer. I was a solid all-around athlete, but not an extraordinary one. Few watching me play high school football or baseball or basketball would ever have predicted I would someday end up in the pros.
But let me back up first to talk about how things began to take shape in my athletic career.
As an athlete, I was a late bloomer. I also wasn’t someone who put a lot of effort into school, though I was a B, B-plus student who did well in math, statistics, and finance. The thing is, I never really applied myself to academics, since reading books would have taken time away from my much greater passion and time commitment for sports. As far as those sports went, I was a solid all-around athlete, but not an extraordinary one. Few watching me play high school football or baseball or basketball would ever have predicted I would someday end up playing in the pros. My first year at Serra High School, I played freshman football, and we ended the season 0-8. The reality is that I never actually played—although I was the backup quarterback, I actually played more as a linebacker and tight end (which didn’t turn out very well, either). During my sophomore year, the freshman quarterback, Kevin Krystofiak, quit, so I tried out for JV football, which was basically a team made up of sophomores. We improved a little, but our record was still only 5-4. Not great, but I had so much fun, and I loved my coaches.
In my junior year, I made the varsity football team; we finished 6-4, and in my senior year, our record was 5-5. When I joined the varsity team—by that point I wasn’t playing basketball anymore—I was up doing 6:00 a.m. workouts most of the year, doing runs and rope drills and running over bags and up hills. But no matter how much work I put in, most of the time I still came in last place. The effort was always there, but better athletes were still running by me, jumping higher than I did, and testing better than I tested.
Still, if I hadn’t found my full identity and potential at football yet, I shined at baseball, which I played throughout high school as a catcher and left-handed hitter. In addition to playing football, I was on the varsity baseball team my junior and senior years, and the Montreal Expos picked me in the eighteenth round of the 1995 MLB draft. But by then I didn’t want to play baseball anymore. Ironically, the punishment it inflicted on my body, and my knees especially, was probably the biggest reason I ended up losing my love for the game. It was the pain I coped with day after day that led me to focus exclusively on football—though by that point, my love of the game had overtaken my love of baseball anyway.
In my senior year, my dad decided to put together some game-reel highlights to see if we could garner any football interest from colleges. Even though we weren’t a very good high school team, and I was extremely low on the scouting radar, I’d gone to a football combine at St. Mary’s College, where, for the first time ever, a few of the scouts watching just might have thought, Hey—maybe this guy can eventually be decent. My dad had videotaped a lot of my games, and the school had some footage as well, and in the fall of my senior year, when football season ended, we brought the best of what we had to a local editor in San Mateo, who spliced together some reels. We ended up making fifty or so VHS tapes (remember those?) of my playing highlights. I remember my dad and me flipping through a college book of Division I and II schools and asking, Should we send a tape to this place? What about that place? We sent packages to the dozens of colleges I was interested in, and that I thought I had a shot at getting into, and we got a few responses back. Army wrote something like, Thanks for sending us your tape, but it doesn’t look like your skill set fits our offense. (Well, they did run the triple option at the time. Funny, and true.) I would have loved to attend the University of Southern California, which recruited me, but the University of Michigan was interested enough to send a recruiter, Bill Harris, out West, and in April of that year Michigan offered me a scholarship, and USC didn’t.
Michigan was and still is, in my opinion, the best Division I school in the country, combining athletics and academics, and the three coaches who recruited me—Bill Harris, an assistant coach; Gary Moeller, the head coach; and Kit Cartwright, the quarterback coach—were all on board when I chose Michigan in the spring of 1995. They knew me, and they also knew my parents. But by the time I arrived in Ann Arbor, Coach Moeller had been let go, and Bill Harris had left Michigan to become defensive coordinator at Stanford—which meant that two of the three guys responsible for recruiting me, and who knew me and my family pretty well, were gone. It’s a dynamic that I’m sure happens in a lot of professions. The people who bring you in generally act as your mentors and champions and want you to do well, but when I first came to Michigan, there weren’t a lot of people invested in my success. No one was actively rooting against me—they just didn’t know me, and there were other players to think about. It was nobody’s fault; it was just the way it was. Looking back, it was a great, positive lesson at an early point in my career that made me more determined than ever, and I wouldn’t change anything about it.
Michigan recruited me as the fourth or fifth quarterback on the depth chart, which is a diagram showing where all the starting and backup players rank on the team in any given year. I was competing with another true freshman, DiAllo Johnson, who showed up at Michigan the same time I did. The starting QB for the Wolverines was Scott Dreisbach, who was a year older than I was. The second quarterback was Brian Griese, who was two years my senior and who later went on to play very well in the NFL, and in third place was Jason Carr, the son of the new Michigan football coach, Lloyd Carr. Four games into the season, the Wolverines were 4-0, when during one of our practices Scott Dreisbach dropped back to throw a pass, released the ball, and unluckily caught his thumb on another player’s helmet. It turned out that he needed thumb surgery and was out for the rest of the year. Everyone moved up one slot. Brian Griese started, Jason Carr was his backup, and I moved into the third position.
Brian Griese had a good season in 1995, but we didn’t finish the year very well. We beat Ohio State 31–23, I remember, but lost our bowl game 22–20 to Texas A&M. Then, when the 1996 season got under way, we lost Kit Cartwright, who became the offensive coordinator at Indiana. Everyone assumed Dreisbach would come back and start as our QB—Michigan hadn’t lost a game before Scott injured his thumb the season before, after all, and Jason Carr was gone, even though his dad, Lloyd, was still the head coach—but I still began competing to become the starting quarterback. It wasn’t going to happen. Everyone loved Scott, and I started to realize that he would play through his senior year, which meant I’d be sitting on the bench for the next three seasons. During a meeting with Coach Carr, I told him I wasn’t seeing many opportunities and that where I was and where I wanted to be were two different places. Coach Carr told me I had the potential to be a very good player and that I should just go out there and compete and worry about the things I could control, and not worry about the things I couldn’t. He reminded me that I’d chosen Michigan for a reason, which was true: Michigan was the best school for me. It was just disheartening not being able to play. What’s more, the prospects of starting looked daunting, as I was mentally and physically behind Scott.
As time went on and my frustrations grew, I was lucky to find—or be found by—our team’s sports psychologist, Greg Harden. Greg had been at Michigan for many years and counseled many of the university’s great athletes. One thing that impressed me was that Greg had also worked with Desmond Howard, one of the Wolverines’ previous superstars. Howard, a return specialist and wide receiver, won the Heisman Trophy in 1991 and later played for the Redskins and the Packers. One time Desmond came into Greg’s office and said, “Greg, I’m never getting the ball thrown to the right place. I’m always breaking my routes, the ball is all over the place, and I’m being forced to make all these diving catches.” Greg’s response was, “You know what, Desmond? That’s why you’re Desmond Howard. Desmond Howard can make all those diving, one-handed catches no one else can make. If the quarterback was on the money all day long, every single play, no one would have a chance to see what you can really do.” Those words have always stayed with me. And the lesson was, when things don’t go your way—or, rather, what you don’t think of as your way—there can be a variety of opportunities that may not be obvious in the moment but that through hard work, preparation, and persistence can present themselves over time and make you better.
Every day during practice I was competing as hard as I could, because I knew that if I didn’t, there was no guarantee anyone would ever allow me to see any game time. I thought: If I don’t treat practice like a game, there’s no way the coaches will let me play in an actual game.
“I’m never going to get my chance,” I used to tell Greg. “They’re giving me only three reps” (meaning practice snaps). Greg would say, “Three reps? 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 that they give you, Tommy. If you do anything less, then shame on you. Now go out and do those three reps well.” His words further jump-started my own competitiveness. They empowered me, actually—now I had a plan. I would leave Greg’s office and go to practice and do those three reps well. A week later, the coaches gave me four reps. Then five. Then six. As time went on, I was getting the majority of the reps. Every day during practice I was competing as hard as I could, because I knew that if I didn’t, there was no guarantee anyone would ever allow me to see any game time. I thought: If I don’t treat practice like a game, there’s no way the coaches will let me play in an actual game. So I’m always going to treat practice like a game. It’s a rule I still live by today.
My second year at Michigan, Scott Dreisbach was our starting QB, and as the season went on, I competed with Brian Griese for the second position. After a few weeks, Brian had slowly but surely beaten me out. Overall, we didn’t have a great year, and late in the season against Penn State, the coach pulled Dreisbach from the game and put Griese in. Long story short, Griese finished the rest of the season, and we ended up beating Ohio State 13–9, though unfortunately we lost our bowl game again, 17–14, to Alabama. By now the coaches were more neutral about Dreisbach. Griese was doing a solid job, but no one was really standing out, which is why when the 1997 season started, there was something of a free-for-all quarterback competition. It was never nasty, and there were never any bad feelings—all the QBs had good relationships with one another—plus I’ve never believed that entitlement has any place in team sports. If another guy is more capable of doing the job, it’s his right to play. By that point, I was competing for playing time with Brian Griese, Scott Dreisbach, and a new guy, Jason Kapsner, a highly recruited player out of Minnesota. In the end Coach Carr chose Brian, who was by then a fifth-year senior, as starting QB, and Brian deserved that spot. I became the second quarterback, beating out Scott, who ended up third or fourth on the depth chart alongside Jason. That year, 1997, we were undefeated, and it was a magical season, with Brian playing great and us winning every game and finishing off with a Rose Bowl victory over Washington State. Brian taught me a lot about drive and determination. Nothing was going to get in his way, and I was lucky to be able to watch him play. Looking back, I can see that he was a man on a mission, and he taught me what mental toughness really is.