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John Niyo and Justin Rogers preview Super Bowl LIII and they take a look at the Lions heading into free agency and the draft. The Detroit News

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For those who knew him then, and those who know him now, the essence of Tom Brady has never changed.

Brady, the former Michigan quarterback and sixth-round NFL pick remarkably about to play in his ninth Super Bowl with the New England Patriots, never has wavered from the detail-oriented approach, tireless work ethic, and uber-competitiveness that characterized his college career. Those were the formative years developing him into the NFL player he would become.

“Hands down I don’t think there’s even a question he’s the best quarterback to ever play the game,” said Charles Woodson, who won the 1997 Heisman Trophy and helped lead Michigan to a national title that season.

Brady’s Super Bowl statistics are mind-boggling, not to mention that at 41 he’s still able to play at a high level in a young man’s game. He could win his sixth Super Bowl on Sunday when the Patriots face the Los Angeles Rams. Even Brady understands why his achievements blow people away.

“It is very uncharted territory, and I think when you’re in uncharted territory you’re trying to prove things to yourself, too,” Brady said this week from the Super Bowl preparations. “I’m very confident in my routine. I feel great this time of year. I’ve got nothing I’m dealing with, and part of it is being in a good place mentally and physically. The reality is I don’t think many people thought I would be playing like this, even though I had a great belief I would.”

No one could have imagined his playing career unfolding as it has when the California kid arrived at Michigan in 1995 and redshirted that season. After Brian Griese won the starting job in 1997 — and led the Wolverines to a national title — Brady, who believed he was deserving of being the starter, wrestled with transferring from Michigan. He was eager to prove himself as a starter somewhere he would be appreciated.

He stayed in Ann Arbor, though, singularly focused on earning the job that he took over in 1998, helping lead the Wolverines to a Big Ten title. The following year he dealt with a quarterback controversy that could have sidetracked him when nationally hyped Drew Henson arrived.

There are plenty of theories as to why Brady is who is he now, unflappable and confident as a leader who still, even with five Super Bowl rings and at 41, seems to be out to prove everyone wrong.

Some point to his decision to not transfer and persevere at Michigan in the thick of the quarterback competition. 

Others point to that 1999 season when, after being voted a captain, he shared the job with Henson before taking over as the full-time starter the final four games of the regular season. He led the Wolverines to a 35-34 overtime win over Alabama in the Orange Bowl after throwing for 369 yards and four touchdowns in his final college game.

Some say this is simply how Brady, who also has four Super Bowl MVP trophies, has always been wired.

“That’s who you are,” Henson said this week. “If he had gone to a different school there would be a different narrative about what makes him so competitive or what makes him tick. That’s just the way he is. Some of the experiences (at Michigan) just helped tighten that up. You develop that focus through the experiences we all have.”

Brady, 20-5 as a starter at Michigan, started the games in 1999 and Henson would take over in the second quarter. At halftime, the coaches would decide who would start the second half. By the final third of the season, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr designated Brady the full-time starter.

“We didn’t talk about it,” Henson said of the rotation. “You control what you can control. Nobody loved the situation, because it’s certainly not the way the position is supposed to be played. But that was the situation. I think there was a sense of relief when Lloyd said, ‘We’re going to go with Tom. Tom is going to play and try to win the Big Ten these last four games.’ Just for everyone, it clarified things and it was easier for that stretch run for everybody. We were all on the same page to go for it.”

‘Relentless, singular drive’  

For their part, the quarterbacks never had an issue with each other.

“There was never a conflict with us,” Henson said. “You always competed like you competed at every position. The one thing that Michigan always stressed was the team, the team, the team. Winning games is what you went there for. I know it was harder on Tom than it was on me. I was the young kid with all the hype, the local guy. Hell, he was voted captain that year and we weren’t sure who was going to be under center. He had a relentless, singular drive.

“I was aware at the time it was a lot harder on him. But you could just see it in his eyes he wasn’t going to give in. He wasn’t going to give in to what the fan base was saying. He wasn’t going to give an inch to anyone. I respected that. I learned from that. What I learned from Tom was about competing every day, whether it was film study, or in the weight room, and being a team leader.”

Brady and Scot Loeffler, a former UM quarterback who was a graduate assistant at that time and is now the Bowling Green head coach, became and remain close friends. The two would head out long after practices and work on Brady’s game, every aspect — mechanics, footwork, throwing, understanding and reading defenses.

“We had to play the game through extra work because he wasn’t getting all the reps he needed to play,” Loeffler said. “Charlie Weis told me that (Brady’s) first year (with the Patriots) he did the same thing. It was the identical procedure when he wasn’t the starter. All the practice time after practice he still does today. I went over and watched them practice (last season), and he’s the last to leave the practice field. He’s working on mobility things, speed things. He’s always trying to get the edge. He’s a machine.”

Woodson was in the same freshman class with Brady but is now retired. The nine-time Pro Bowl cornerback who won a Super Bowl with Green Bay knew Brady well at UM, and knows him now.

“Then, he was a kid. We were all kids,” Woodson said. “Everybody came to the University of Michigan fighting for a chance to play in the maize and blue and try our best to win a championship. Everybody wants to come in and make their mark. Everybody wants to be a starter. We came in and I was able to take off right away, but he had to wait.

“He was a guy who worked hard. He had a lot of confidence, a lot of energy. We had a lot of battles on the basketball court. You saw his intensity as a competitor and as an athlete on the basketball court. And he brought that same thing to the field. He was always focused on trying to get better. I know he wanted to lead that team to a championship once he got his shot. Ended up having to split time a little bit. He wasn’t too thrilled about that. I think all of those little things helped add to a chip on his shoulder until he got to a place where he could thrive in New England.

“Now he’s a star among the stars. Very humble in what he’s done but still has that competitive fire. He’s a champion over and over again. It’s impressive to see what he’s done throughout his career. To be back in the championship game, it’s remarkable.”

Still going strong

What has distinguished Brady as a pro is his leadership, which was also on full display at Michigan. Jon Jansen was a two-time captain for the Wolverines in 1997 and 1998. Griese understood that while Jansen was a captain, he still had to be a leader as the quarterback. The same was true for the dynamic between Jansen and Brady in 1998.

Jansen saw then from Brady what others see now — the extra hours working on his game long after practice and his never-say-quit approach on the field, not to mention his ability to command the huddle and lead.

“You’ll hear this a lot — he’s got the ‘it’ factor,” Jansen said. “Take this year: He doesn’t have a stud receiver, he’s not surrounded by immense talent, but he gets those guys to play and gets them to do exactly what he needs them to do.

“In the AFC championship game he could have said, ‘I don’t have a receiver to throw it to, I’m overwhelmed.’ You can look around the league, does Patrick Mahomes have more talent surrounding him? Yes. Does Jared Goff have more talent around him? Yes. Does Drew Brees have more talent around him? Absolutely. But Tom gets his guys to play excellent football when it matters most.”

Brady was able to get players to perform at their best in games at Michigan because his teammates saw in practice how much he sacrificed.

“I don’t think people give him enough credit,” said Terry Malone, then Michigan’s offensive line coach. “Everyone just says how hard a worker he is and that is true, but he was a very talented guy. He might not have been able to run the 40-yard dash, but everything looked to me like a pro quarterback when he was playing.

“An aspect of Tom Brady is his toughness. He’s as tough a guy — and we had a lot of tough guys back then on those teams — he was as tough a guy as we ever had on any of our Michigan teams. He played in a time when quarterbacks were not protected in spring practice, and we had a fabulous defense that would get after us every single day and they would knock Tom all over the place and he would keep getting up and keep throwing the ball and keep playing football.”

And he’s still playing. His former Michigan teammates don’t seem surprised, though.

“You can’t fake 41 years old,” Henson said, laughing. “I haven’t noticed any difference in his play from five years ago. They don’t throw the ball downfield as much, but that’s as much scheme and personnel as anything else.

“I will say this year and even last year he seems to be having more fun. You can tell. His quotes are less guarded and more honest. You see him smile more. It’s good to see. It’s well-deserved.”

Woodson was the best player in college football in 1997. Brady, he said, is the best NFL quarterback. Ever. Period.

“There’s no question,” Woodson said. “For a guy to be in the Super Bowl half his career — just think about that. That’s astounding. All of us, we always say one year to the next you never know when you’re going to get back to that game. He’s been there nine times. That’s incredible.”

angelique.chengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter. @chengelis

Super Bowl LIII

Patriots vs. Rams

Kickoff: 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta

Line: Patriots by 2.5

TV: CBS

 

 

 

 

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