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Published: August 29, 2012 at 4:30 p.m.

The greatest quarterback ever?

A three-time Super Bowl winner, Tom Brady enters the 2012 season seeking No. 4. The New England Patriots QB’s standing among the best to ever play is a hotly debated topic, but some believe he already tops the list

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Albert Breer

| NFL.com & NFL Network

Reporter

Tom Brady won’t forget the half-dozen quarterbacks he had to beat out at Michigan, or the uber-recruit, Drew Henson, he had to fight off to become one of most prolific passers in school history. He won’t let the memory dull of watching six more quarterbacks go in front of him in the 2000 NFL Draft.

And the New England Patriots superstar quarterback never loses sight of where it all started. As it turns out, his existence at Serra High, a parochial school in suburban San Francisco, was hardly perfect either.

“In high school, the thing they were always on Tommy about was his feet. He was too slow,” said John Kirby, one of Brady’s best friends, and favorite receivers, from Serra. “That was his

Despite starting just two years at Michigan and having to fight to keep the job, Brady left Ann Arbor with the second- and third-most prolific seasons in school history, the fourth-most career yards and fifth-most touchdown passes ever by a Wolverine.

thing to prove, that he could roll out, that he could run for a few yards. We gave him a hard time about it, but by the end, he always got the yards he needed to get. I thought he wound up being pretty good at it.”

Seventeen years after graduating from Serra, you’ll still hear Brady poking fun at his own foot speed. You’ll hear him quip about having to “make the team” and “win a job,” things he had to do at Michigan and in the NFL.

He’ll say those things with a smile on his face. But the ghosts are always chasing him. He doesn’t want to lose the memory of how he arrived.

“No,” Brady responded to NFL.com, when asked about letting those slights fade, “because you always have to have that lack of self-confidence that you need to build on.”

He’s Got The Super

Bowls and  The Stats

One reason why Tom Brady’s career stands out among the greats is its completeness. He has flourished in the two chief measurements of a quarterback's success: championships and statistical dominance. Here is a sampling of Brady’s across-the-board excellence:

Brady enters his 13th season as a pro with a résumé already unlike any quarterback who has played the professional game. Four quarterbacks have won multiple Super Bowl MVPs. Four have won three Super Bowls. Two have made five Super Bowl starts. Seven have won multiple regular-season MVPs. Seven have averaged 300 yards passing per game over a season. Seven have thrown 40 touchdown passes in a season.

But the kid from San Mateo is the only one to make every one of those lists. So will he wind up being the best ever? Maybe. But if he gets to that abstract mountaintop, it’ll be a result of a drive that wasn’t born of a desire to become a legend.

“It’s the fear of failure,” said Tom Brady Sr., his dad. “Isn’t that what drives all of them? It’s not the challenge of success, because those guys win and forget about it 10 minutes later. I remember [the Patriots] won 21 games in a row, and lost to Pittsburgh, and he said to me, ‘Geez, I don’t know if we’ll ever win another game.’ These guys’ self-confidence is an inch deep.”

The result of that narrow focus might well be the greatest career a quarterback has ever had.

But Brady won’t let himself think about that. Insecurity creeps back into the frame. The way he sees it, if he steps back to check himself out, that narrow margin of error he had when buried on the depth chart at Michigan or fighting for a roster spot in New England will come back into play. And he’s not going to risk it.

“I guess it’s because I feel the same way I’ve always felt, I feel like I have to come out here and earn a position like everyone else,” Brady said. “I try to be the best quarterback on this team, the best quarterback I can be. I don’t think about the future, the past. You know, I’ve been really blessed to be on a great team with great teammates and develop great relationships and win a lot of football games. And that never gets old.”

‘I get to go to work in sweats’

The risk for Brady, 35, is having football taken away. Most assume the end is in sight anyway. But if he has an exit strategy, he hasn’t told many people about it.

“He wants to keep playing,” said Aaron Shea, his tight end and close friend at Michigan, who now works as director of player engagement with the Browns. “When I had him out here for my son’s christening (Brady is the godfather), I asked him, ‘So how many more years do you wanna go?’ He said, ‘I wanna play 20 years (in the NFL).’ That’s just him. That’s the way he thinks.”

Winning his first title at 24, Brady’s NFL reputation has forever been that of a champion. His 25 career fourth-quarter comebacks and 35 game-winning drives back that up. But all this wasn’t born in the pros. “He’s really cold-hearted,” says his dad, Tom Sr. “When he was in college, people lost it, but Brent Musburger called him the ‘Comeback Kid.’ He did it time and again. It was his forte then. It is now. He’s very comfortable in that situation.”

Where so many players underestimate how difficult it will be to pull away from the game, Brady has no problem appreciating his surroundings.

That underscores one reason why, year after year, he’s been so good. It’s easier when you love it like he does.

“I talked to him earlier in the year about how long he wanted to play, and he said, ‘Dad, I never wanna work as hard as you work,’” Tom Sr. said. “He said, ‘I get to go to work in sweats, the Patriots feed me, I hang out with my friends, I get to exercise, and I play games. Why would I ever wanna do anything different?’ We’ve run into quarterbacks who say, ‘Geez, at 37, I knew I couldn’t do it anymore, that was it.’ But I’m telling you he feels the best he ever has.

“Frankly, I absolutely think he wants to play another six or seven or eight years, as long as he can perform or as long as Bill Belichick will have him. I don’t know that this story can be written yet; he may only be two-thirds of the way through his career.”

But the real proof exists in the meeting rooms and practice fields in sleepy Southeastern Massachusetts. It’s on display on those Sundays when he’s lighting up the scoreboard. It comes to life on the Mondays and Wednesdays and Fridays when very few are watching: He hardly looks like someone riding off into the sunset.

'He's definitely one of the most passionate people I've been around,' said Brian Hoyer, his backup in New England since 2009. 'It doesn't matter if it's an OTA or a playoff game: He's playing every play like it's his last. I give him a hard time about being old, but he seems like he's the same age as me (26). To be that way all the time, it's impressive. And he's so meticulous, to the point where it drives people crazy. He wants to know other people have it down the way he wants it.'

The reason why? Because if people know how he wants it, then he can make them better.

There are few quarterbacks who fit the term “field general” better than Brady. It’s apparent in how he lifts the game of those around him. But, as part of that, he also asks more of his teammates than most other signal-callers do. “He’s meticulous to the point where it drives you crazy,” said his backup, Brian Hoyer. “He wants to know other people have it down the way he wants it.”

‘He gets it out of everyone else’

Just like Brady’s had to will himself to be better, those around him say he’s always had a way of making his teammates more able than they otherwise would be.

He’s made average groups (the Patriots' 2006 offense) good enough to win when it matters. That is not by accident.

He hasn’t had a Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin, Marvin Harrison or Lynn Swann -- like Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, Peyton Manning and Terry Bradshaw respectively did -- which means he’s had to adjust. The one thing common is that those who’ve passed through Foxboro are better for being around No. 12.

“I was at this Allen Conference in Sun Valley, and someone asked me about him, and the best thing I could say is he’s a very unique person,” said Patriots owner Robert Kraft. “I’ve met a lot of players. I have a deep affection for a lot of players. But what stands out about him being a leader in a unique way is that everyone who plays with him, he makes them look better. He makes everyone look good. He’s a born leader, he’s so skillful. And I know part of that drive and energy is he had to work for it.”

Shea recounts a story from their senior year at Michigan, playing against archrival Ohio State with a BCS berth on the line. On one particular play, the Buckeyes blew a coverage and Shea came wide open. He came back to the huddle and told Brady about it. Twice.

Brady responded, “Hey, if you’re gonna be a little b---- about it, I’m not gonna throw it to you.” Shea laughs about it now, because it’s an example of the fire that the quarterback has, occasionally redirected in this kind of way, but most often transferrable to everyone else in the huddle.

“Tommy does such a good job of making you feel like you’re the best receiver, the best left tackle, the best tight end on the field,” Shea said. “He tells you he loves you. He makes you feel good about yourself. He expects a high level of play from himself, and more than any other player, he gets it out of everyone else. He’s got Bill, a tough-guy coach there. And then Tommy’s there to say, ‘Hey listen, we won’t drop that again.’ He brings out the best in everyone.”

It’s an understanding, Shea says, of everything around him, and what it’ll take to win. And that brings another story up. Brady, his ex-teammate says, would always be up for a game of HORSE, mostly because there was a 3-point bank shot he could hit every time. He knew he’d win with it. But then, Shea continues, if he was challenged to play 1-on-1, Brady would “always have an excuse” to duck out.

The implication here, Shea says, is that Brady knows what it takes to win. And he won’t put himself, or his team, in some other position of peril.

“He’s very, very analytical,” Tom Sr. said. “He has scoped everything out in his life, not just in football. He’s very thoughtful, deeply thoughtful, and he does absolutely nothing off the cuff. He tries to be totally prepared for everything.”

The glory Brady’s achieved is the result of a work ethic that those closest to him describe as maniacal. “We had summer practice back in high school, it wasn’t mandatory, and everyone had stuff going on, so you went when you could,” said Brady’s target at Serra High, John Kirby. “He was there every day, three or four hours a day. … Granted everything has to fall in place, but he already had the plan. And then, when his time came, he was ready.”

‘I gotta get a couple more’

That spills over to the guy that Brady is. Hoyer remembers being approached by Brady his rookie year, 2008, and Brady saying, “Hi, I’m Tom.” Hoyer said, “I was like, ‘No s---.’ But for as good a player as he is, you won’t find a better person.”

He’d been such a normal guy to Hoyer, in fact, that when Brady threw two touchdowns passes in the final 1:04 of the Patriots’ 2009 opener -- his first game back from ACL surgery -- to lead a furious comeback win, the backup had to remind himself who he was around.

“I remember driving home and thinking to myself, ‘Did that really happen?’” Hoyer said. “I was there, we were down 11 points with three minutes left. How did that happen?”

Around Brady, those close to him say, it’s easy to forget who he is, because of, well, who he is.

Shea jokes that these days he might have to wait a day for a phone call back, but his texts are always returned immediately. Kirby says he has a response within 20 minutes every time.

“Knowing Tom Brady, everything about him and the way he works, I don’t think he cares about (his legacy),” Kirby explained. “It’s about making his teammates better, it’s about the success of the team and the staff, it’s about doing everything he can to prepare. He’ll come through for the team. And I still see that today. I can still call or email, he responds right away. And I know it’s not always easy to be a big star. Honestly, I can’t say that, if the positions were switched, I’d be able to pull that off.”

Kirby, now the assistant AD at Serra, ran the annual “Fund a Dream” event earlier in the year, and Brady’s presence helped pull in over $800,000. His replica Serra jersey fetched $100,000. When another auction attendee said he’d donate $100K if someone would match the donation, Brady’s hand was the one that went up.

“You get what you give,” Kirby said. “I think it’s all the same for him, the way he works with community and the high school here, that’s the same way he works with his teammates.”

His legacy will wind up being directly linked to the final product of all this -- the individual wins, the late-game drives, the sustained success. But what he’d like to be remembered for, according to these guys, probably has more to do with the process than the result.

“I think he’d want to be known as always being there for the guys,” Shea said. “He’d hope that every one of his teammates knows he gave everything he had. No one knows how much he does -- the treatment, working on his arm strength, the film study. He’s one of the best teammates I’ve had. Eventually, he’ll walk away and he won’t tell himself he was the best. I’ve told him I think he’s the best of all time. He’ll always say, ‘I gotta get a couple more.’”

On and off the field, Brady has made it easy for owner Robert Kraft to position the quarterback as the face of the franchise. “We talk about a lot of things outside of football,” Kraft said. “I love the guy. He works hard, he associates with excellent people, and channels that attitude into his personal life.” When asked about Brady’s future with the team, with his contract up after 2014, Kraft replied: “I hope he’s here for the rest of his career. But that’s for he and his wife to decide.”

‘I think Tommy is better than Joe Montana’

Shea remembers talking to a 24-year-old Brady just after his first Super Bowl win, and Brady saying, to his stunned friend, that he was just thinking about “next year.” Shea reminded his buddy that he wasn’t talking to a member of the media. Brady wouldn’t relent.

Brady's dad relays a story after the Patriots' third Super Bowl win (and second in a row). His son mentioned to teammate Tedy Bruschi that no team had ever won three straight. Bruschi, according to Tom Sr., was thinking, 'My God, we just won the second one.'

And so, in talking about his legacy, it shouldn’t be any surprise how Brady responds when the idea of matching his boyhood idol, Joe Montana, with a record fourth Super Bowl win comes up.

“Well, I’d love to win four, just because I’ve already won three,” Brady said. “You love to win them, that’s why we’re playing. And we’ve had some opportunities and we haven’t really taken advantage of them. There’s disappointing parts of that.”

Then, he furthers the point by relaying a story of his own.

“You know, I was saying this morning to some of my teammates, it’s not about …” Brady said, pausing to recall the occasion. “I mean, sometimes, when you’re a young player, you don’t understand the magnitude of this year, because this is the only year, there’s nothing after this year. You don’t look down the road anymore as you become a veteran player through your experience, because this is the opportunity that you have. In college, when you’re a sophomore, you know you have three years left.

“In professional football, you have one year. And this is the year you’re worried about, and you’re trying to be the best player you can be, and you’re trying to develop some type of different skill so you can add that to a different part of the offense, and the game. That’s the challenge every year, to develop new ways to become a better player.”

But while Brady refuses to reflect, it’s not out of bounds for the rest of us to examine just what we’re watching now -- a player whose beaten path to stardom seems to have created the perfect circumstance for a rise to the very top of the all-time list of quarterbacks.

It’s easy to forget, too, that Montana wasn’t unlike Brady. A run-of-the-mill high school recruit rising to prominence at a storied program. An everyman draft pick paired with the perfect coach and ambitious ownership driven to redefine a once-snake-bitten franchise.

Those same 49ers were Kraft’s model when he bought the Patriots in 1994. He has since brought three championships to New England and given the sports-crazed region another superstar.

“I think that Tommy, with all due respect, is better than Joe Montana,” Kraft said. “I know that’s a leap, but I really think he might already be the best of all time. I watch how involved he is, how driven he is. He’s like Belichick, he’s into the details. And he’s got a skill that makes him so special, he can process all of it so quickly. … And then, he’s just got that quality. Certain people have that sincerity. He’s a very genuine guy. People can relate to him. People can trust him.”

Kraft paused, then said, “He’s like a fifth son to me. He’s special.”

Next month, Brady gets another shot at bolstering that legacy, backing up all those folks who say he’s already the greatest. All the while, his focus remains elsewhere.

When apprised of Kraft’s comments, the assertion that he has indeed passed his idol, Brady takes a moment to think. But winds up right back in that same place he always does, with nothing more on his mind than what’s in his sight now.

“Well, that’s my boss. And I love Mr. Kraft for a lot of reasons, and we have a great relationship, and a great friendship,” Brady said. “He’s been through a lot the last few years. There’d be nothing more exciting for all us players than to win for him, because it means a lot to him, and it means a lot to Coach Belichick. I think the great part about being around here is that the expectation is only to win, and there’s nothing else. It’s not about selling tickets or t-shirts. It’s to win football games.”

Brady’s done that, to be sure, winning more consistently in the regular season (78 percent of the time), and more period in the playoffs (16 times) than any other quarterback ever.

But in his mind, he’s still the slow kid on the high school team, the placeholder for the super-recruit on the college team, and the forgettable low-round pick on the pro team. He’s the kid who was confident enough to tell Shea in 2001, when he was fourth-string in New England, that he was planning to beat out Drew Bledsoe, yet insecure enough to never feel his job is totally secure.

So we can all wonder how Brady will add to that robust record, and to all the stats he’s compiled in what’s becoming a Montana-meets-Marino career.

But he’ll just worry about making the team first.

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