Tom Brady Avoids the Blitz

The blitz is on, and it's a fierce one. They're coming from every angle, desperate for a piece of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, eager to knock him off balance. That's why those blocking for him are doing everything possible to keep him on his feet and in control, because they know that while this blitz has nothing to do with charging linebackers, it could put a whupping on their man like he's never felt.

It's been coming at Brady pretty much nonstop since that moment on February 3 when the football sailed through the uprights in New Orleans and the Patriots were Super Bowl champs. Brady's pursuers include a relentless swarm of promoters, sponsors, reporters, and — assuming you believe the gossip columns — a parade of willing women. And it's not just the locals. New York magazine reported Brady was spotted in Boston “bumping and grinding on the dance floor” with sexy pop diva Mariah Carey. People followed up a February profile of Brady by putting him on its annual list of the “50 Most Beautiful People” in May, disclosing such indispensable essentials as the limited bathroom time he had growing up with three sisters and his preferred brands of lip balm and cologne.

Even Sports Illustrated got into the act. Maybe it's because SI's new managing editor, Terry McDonell, recently came over from People rival Us Weekly. Whatever the reason, the sports weekly's April 15 cover story on Brady — hyped with a bare-chested cover photo of Brady as “the Natural” and the subtitle “A Whirlwind Off-Season for the New Prince of the NFL” — had more to do with Brady's enviable romantic prospects than it did with football. In it, we learned that most of his teammates' girlfriends and wives — not to mention his head coach's 17-year-old daughter — have open crushes on Brady. That women, lots of them, were flashing Brady and flinging him their phone numbers throughout the Patriots wintry victory parade through Boston. That real estate mogul Donald Trump flew Brady to Gary, Indiana, in his private jet to help judge the Miss USA contest. (“If one thing stands out about Tom Brady,” quoth The Donald, hammering home the obvious, “it's that he loves those women. And guess what? They love him, too.”)

“If he continues his rise on the field,” gushed SI senior writer Michael Silver, “Brady will have a chance to become the 21st century's answer to Joe Namath.”

Maybe so — but not in the way that Silver implies. If Brady is a sign of the times, it's because fun nowadays is considered best taken in moderation. This year's glamour-boy quarterback is, it turns out, work-obsessed. It may make him seem a little dull in some circles, but first things come first with Tom Brady. “We're from two totally different backgrounds,” notes fellow Pro Bowler and gossip-column fodder Lawyer Milloy, “but share the same kind of mentality: We both don't like to lose.”

At first glance, the Namath-Brady comparison seems apt. Namath, back in January 1969, bragged about how his underdog New York Jets would beat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III — and then went out and did it. Namath, who was 25 at the time, became the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Brady, who turns 25 this month, now holds that title after upsetting the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. And Namath, like Brady, was a young, good-looking bachelor, oozing self-confidence and wildly popular with the ladies.

But let's not start fitting Brady just yet for those flashy fur coats and pantyhose commercials that accompanied Namath's rise to the top. Namath was already a star before his Super Bowl win, signed out of Alabama to a then-unheard-of $427,000 contract in 1965; in 1967, he was the first pro quarterback to throw for more than 4,000 yards in a single season. Brady didn't win the starting job at Michigan until his junior year, then found himself sharing it as a senior. A sixth-round draft choice, Brady spent 14 of 16 games on the inactive list his rookie year. It wasn't until Drew Bledsoe landed in the hospital after taking a hit in game two last year that Brady was thrust into the starting job. And the $389,000 Brady is set to earn in the third and final year of his original contract is chump change these days for a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback.

The off-the-field differences between Brady and Namath are even more obvious. Broadway Joe kept a much-publicized bachelor pad on Manhattan's East Side and spent the off-season following his Super Bowl win feuding with league officials over his partial ownership of a New York nightspot called Bachelors III. Brady doesn't even live downtown. He shares a suburban condo with third-year defensive end David Nugent during the football season. Last month, they were preparing to move together from the Franklin condo they'd been living in to something similar in an undisclosed, closer-in suburb. Namath bragged to Playboy about his womanizing, claiming he used sex to help relax him the night before big games, including Super Bowl III. Brady broke off a six-month relationship with a pretty Boston publicist in May and griped about how “the whole bachelor issue can be distracting.” Namath famously liked “my Johnny Walker Red and my women blonde.” Brady . . . well, as Namath biographer Mark Kriegel has said, “Namath wouldn't be possible today. Guys are so worried about their image that they have none.”

And then there is this: Owing to a combination of injuries and off-the-field distractions, Namath never won another Super Bowl. Brady, remember, wasn't even born when Namath won his championship 33 years ago. His role model growing up in the 1980s in the San Francisco suburb of San Mateo was another strong-armed Joe with ice water in his veins. Joe Montana, like Namath, became the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl, taking that title from Namath in 1981. But unlike Namath, Montana went on to win three more of them. And that's what Brady wants.

“Why do some guys have one great year and then play so badly the next?” Brady asked in Sports Illustrated. “Well, now I think I know why — because there are so many things that can take you away from what you need to do to focus on your job. My biggest fear is to end up being a one-hit wonder.”

D-Day: June 6, the opening of the Patriots' three-day summer minicamp. The first time the entire team has practiced together since winning the Super Bowl. The defense wears blue, the offense white. Everyone, that is, but the three red-clad quarterbacks — Brady, backup Damon Huard, and third-string rookie Rohan Davey. A light, steady rain is falling as the team runs through two hours of morning drills on a grass practice field just outside the new $350 million CMGI Field. It's all noncontact, tightly regimented stuff, from calisthenics to plyometric drills to executing and defending against pass patterns. Brady spends most of the morning with the other quarterbacks, throwing and practicing handoffs.

A clump of reporters huddles under umbrellas at one end of the field, engaging in chitchat and barely watching the players. One overweight scribe, bored, makes a couple of lewd wisecracks about Brady's love life, drawing a few snickers. The journalists suffer the rain for about an hour, then most of them head inside to await head coach Bill Belichick's news conference and the hourlong “open locker room” to follow. No doubt about it: The things that help prevent a player — or a team — from becoming a one-shot wonder are pretty dull to watch or write about.

The excitement, such as it is, comes when the locker room doors open. A tight circle instantly forms around Brady's locker. The Patriots, Brady, and his agent have been refusing virtually all requests to interview him, saying they fear he will become overexposed and alienate his teammates. So for the seven TV cameramen and twice again as many reporters, this is their first real crack at him. “Look at that,” says one, Boston Globe columnist Jackie MacMullan, as she peers through the mob and spots Brady's empty chair. “He isn't even out here yet.”

People are so busy jostling for position that they don't even notice Brady when he finally glides up quietly behind them. Tall, lean, and muscular at 6-foot-4 and a shade over 220 pounds, he's wearing a gray T-shirt and a sweat-stained Red Sox cap. A large ice pack is taped to his right shoulder, and a smaller one to his right elbow. He taps the nearest reporter on the back, and the crowd swings around en masse and engulfs him, amoebalike. For the next 20 minutes, Brady is peppered with questions and politely answers all of them without saying much of anything.

Will Drew Bledsoe's departure reduce your motivation?

“Damon's there,” Brady replies. “I'm still competitive. If you've got to the point where you're complacent, there's somebody ready to take your job.”

At what point last year did you realize the team was destined for better things?

“The San Diego game,” he says, recalling the overtime win that improved the team's record to 2-3. “That's when I felt like we had a lot of heart.”

How'd you like all the attention during the off-season?

“That was quite a change. A lot of things that I used to do are harder for me to do. It's fun to be back at it.”

Do you feel more comfortable asserting yourself as a team leader this year?

He nods. “Last year [I was] still a new kid on the block.”

Do you feel old?

“Yeah, I do. I've been out there, and I know what to expect.”

Told that Coach Bill Belichick, in his post-morning session news conference, said he and offensive coordinator Charlie Weiss take the plays Brady prefers to run into account when they're choosing from three pass patterns, Brady laughs. “I used to get the third one,” he says. “I used to get leftovers.”

Where can the Patriots go from winning the Super Bowl?

“You can't go any higher than where we got. But you can try to go back there. I'm certainly feeling like I'm going to play better. We've got to go out there every week and prove we're still the team to beat.”

Anything you wish you had done over the summer break, but didn't?

“Seeing my parents more.”

What do you think of all this stuff about you in the gossip columns?

“I hear most of it and I'm like, 'What?' You don't let that stuff get in the way of your preparation. You've got to be yourself. This is not going to take away from who I am or what got me here.”

Not that Brady hasn't been having a good time since February. There were the usual perquisites of Super Bowl champs — trips to the White House and Disney World, joining 22 teammates in throwing out the first pitch at this year's Red Sox season opener, basking in the adulation of fans whenever he goes out in public, hobnobbing with fellow jocks including John Elway, Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, and Muhammad Ali.

Still, Brady's off-season has been tamer than you might think. Much of it was spent at the Franklin condo he shared with Nugent, and working out mornings with teammates in Foxboro. Nights spent at home when Brady is in town are downright staid. Nugent says he's an Internet junkie, using his computer to check out and for news from around the NFL, downloading music, and shopping. “We were laughing the other night,” Nugent says. “Every day we come home, it's the same deal. I sit on the couch, watch TV; he sits right behind me at the computer. He just looked at me and said, 'We've pretty much assumed the positions, haven't we?'”

Just how mundane can life get?

“Let me tell you a funny thing that happened,” says Nugent. “We had a high school girl stop by the house. Usually, I answer the door when we're both home, but I wasn't home this time, so he had to open the door. It was this high school girl, and she asked him if he would go to her prom with her.” Nugent laughs. “And I mean the guy seriously hates saying no to people. He couldn't say no to her face, so he's like, 'I'll let you know.' So she goes home, and obviously he had to call up the next day and, you know, tell her no. Actually, he had to talk to her parents, because they're the ones who answered the phone — he had to explain why he couldn't take her to the prom.”

Sometimes, of course, Brady lives it up a little. Nights spent downtown generally involve heading out to a good dinner with a group of teammates, and maybe a few drinks afterward at some upscale bar like Pravda or Whiskey Park. Nugent, Huard, Milloy, Larry Izzo, and Lonie Paxton are among the regular participants.

“Just a good place where you can get a nice steak and have a nice couple bottles of wine,” explains Izzo. “I'm not going to speak like I've spent a super amount of time with him. We've gone out a few times, and I've always had a good time. He's a good-looking guy, and he's really down to earth, very approachable. I think women in general recognize that, and that's why you see him getting a lot of attention in places like that. Usually he just wants to hang out, be one of the guys. It's not like he's a Don Juan. He just wants to enjoy the company of his teammates. And, occasionally, someone will come up and have a little chat, but most of the time he's just hangin'.”

“Just hangin'” isn't so simple anymore. Once the Brady bunch headed to the Newbury Street restaurant Ciao Bella. “That's where you really see the level of fame that he's reached,” says Izzo. “It was just nonstop people coming up to him every second, asking for autographs. You know, you see a guy in the locker room, and he's just one of the guys. Then you go out on the street and it's, like, rock star-type stuff.”

Not that Brady's notoriety bothers the others. “He's so modest,” says Nugent, “that I'll kid him about it, and he'll say, 'Nuge, it's just the position. If I was anybody else on the team, they wouldn't even care.'”

How about all those women Brady attracts — are there fringe benefits to hanging out with a chick magnet? Surely, he can't date all of them himself.

“Are guys getting scraps, you mean?” Izzo asks.

Well, yeah.

“I don't know,” Izzo says. “I can only speak for myself, and I'm taken — I've got a girlfriend. Ask Nugent. He's been in that type of scene a little bit more than I have.” Izzo ponders the notion a moment more. “Yeah, if you're Lonie Paxton or Dave Nugent, you're probably doin' pretty good.”

Nugent chuckles knowingly. “It only helps the social life.”

Brady himself apparently prefers to stay focused on football. Belichick and Brady's teammates are quick to praise the quarterback's work ethic. His typical day runs from early morning until noon or so, broken up into a couple hours of weight training and StairMaster first thing, followed by two more hours of watching game films and, after that, an hour or two of late-morning throwing.

“He works as seriously as anybody out here,” says Izzo. “He's here at seven in the morning throughout the off-season, with Damon Huard — throwing the ball, running. He works like he's a sixth-round draft pick out of Michigan still, not the Super Bowl MVP. And that's good. When you see a guy like that — a leader of your football team — doing all the hard stuff the hard way, you get a level of respect from everybody in the locker room.”

Studying the films becomes particularly intense during each summer's two weeks of quarterback school. “They were watching film five hours a day,” recalls Nugent. “I was like, 'What could you possibly be watching?' And he was like, 'When I line up on Sundays and I know why people are lined up against me for a certain reason, it's because of stuff I'm doing now.' I have a lot more respect for that position just from rooming with him. The stuff he has to learn, the huge books that he brings home and studies — it takes a really smart guy to play that position.”

Brady's brains and self-confidence have been evident from the get-go. That's not to say there aren't things about his game that could stand improvement. Belichick, in that news conference on the opening day of minicamp, cited at least three of them: his overall understanding of the team's offense, play-action faking, and throwing mechanics. But even a year ago, Brady's teammates realized he was ready to lead them if need be.

“I remember when Bledsoe was quarterback and Tom was running scout team, comments from Lawyer Milloy in our defensive room,” says Nugent. “He was like, 'Man, Tom's really getting a lot better from last year.' So I think there was confidence-building just from seeing Tom, how he practiced. We knew he was going to be all right when he got in there; we just didn't know how good he was going to end up being.”

At least one teammate predicts even bigger things from Brady. “He just hit the tip of the iceberg on how good he can really be,” says Izzo. “I mean, he still sees that there's a lot of things that he could do better. And that's why it seems like he was so eager to get back to work, to improve on his weaknesses, and just think of where he can go from here after having a great year, a Pro Bowl year. The sky's the limit, and I think he realizes that.”