That's how long Tom Brady has been in the National Football League. And I've enjoyed the privilege of having a front-row seat for part of the ride.
It's surreal to look back at everything we accomplished together with the New England Patriots in the early 2000s -- and to see just how far Tom has come in his own career. I still remember the tall, lanky, sixth-round draft pick who took the reins from an injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001 and helped win the franchise's first championship in Super Bowl XXXVI. Now the guy has SIX rings, three MVP awards, 14 Pro Bowl selections, countless franchise and league records and a spot on the NFL's All-Time Team.
He NEVER speaks like someone ready to retire. Tom is a busy guy, no doubt, but I always cherish the times when we get together, often when he's out in Los Angeles or I am back in Boston. Our meet-ups generally follow the same pattern: initial discussions about family and what's new in our lives ... but eventually, we always turn to reminiscing about when the Patriots' run started and where it is now. I mean, who wouldn't want to talk about those years in the early 2000s, when we won three Super Bowls in four seasons? That was such an exciting time for everyone in the Patriots organization.
But the thing is, Tom never allows himself to really get into these conversations because his journey isn't over yet. I've never once heard him say, "Man, look what I've accomplished." When a player starts to do that, it's a sign that his career is almost over. Tom won't let himself get to that point. Even at 42, he's not ready to hang it up. It's evident every time I talk to him.
He's smart enough to move on before being pushed out. We've seen the Patriots part ways with many major contributors from the Bill Belichick era over the years. The franchise has traded away star players, including Bledsoe, Richard Seymour, Logan Mankins and Randy Moss. They also released star safety Lawyer Milloy days before the 2003 season and let one of the most clutch kickers of all time, Adam Vinatieri, walk as a free agent in '06.
Every player is replaceable in New England. It's the hardest part of the Patriot Way. It's been Robert Kraft and Belichick's philosophy for years, and it was just a matter of time before it was Tom's turn. But he stayed ahead of the curve by negotiating essentially a year-to-year deal that gave him leverage heading into this offseason.
A never-ending search for validation. The man just can't help himself. Even with everything he's accomplished, Tom is always searching for more. One more completed pass. One more win. One more Lombardi.
In the 2002 offseason, the Patriots traded Bledsoe to Buffalo, and I remember Tom working harder than ever to prove to everyone in the building that they weren't making the wrong choice by sending their $100 million quarterback to a division rival. And he followed through by winning two more Lombardis over the next three years.
He's kept that same approach over the years regardless of the challenge, and he finds a way to make every situation feel new no matter how many times Tom has been through it. It's always I gotta do this THIS time, or If I don't accomplish this, then it's a failure. True competitors fear failure and that's always been Tom. He constantly looks for an opportunity to prove he can get it done. No moment is too big or too small. And when you've done everything, like Tom has, but continue to be doubted, there's often a It doesn't matter what I do type of feeling. Kinda like, I've been here before and it STILL wasn't good enough.
Tom will have perhaps his greatest opportunity to earn validation in his 21st NFL season, one in which he'll be without the coach he's had for his entire NFL career. We've already heard the whispers in football circles: Can Brady win without Belichick? And I know Tom will look to silence his doubters in everything he does going forward. Playing outside of New England is just another challenge. With everything the GOAT has overcome, we'd be foolish to doubt him.