Green: Brady has followed an unbelievable path

Jerry Green
Special to The Detroit News

Minneapolis — Halftime in Ann Arbor, 1998, and Michigan was struggling, behind, and in desperate need of a boost.

Lloyd Carr, the head coach, made his decision. He switched quarterbacks. He turned to the backup kid and stuck him into the lineup to replace Drew Henson, who had been awarded the commitment to play as Michigan’s heavily publicized starting quarterback.

The story is familiar, of course.

The backup quarterback rallied Michigan in the second half to an expected victory. And afterwards they brought the kid to meet the media.

This kid was all smiles. He engaged the ink-strained wretches with humor and charm.

Wow, who is this kid with all the charm and personality?

His name is Tom Brady.

And no poet nor artist with vivid creative imaginations could create the saga that followed over the next two decades.

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NFL draft day, the Brady family sat watching the proceedings on TV in California. The first round went by, then the second, then the third, fourth and fifth.

By then Tom Brady had left the living room in shocked disappointment. He later would admit to journalists that he had a good cry.

Into the sixth round, the teams made their selections. The New England Patriots had a compensatory pick. They deliberated and at last settled, reluctantly to spend the 199th pick of the 2000 draft on Tom Brady of Michigan.

Once again, Tom Brady — not quite unwanted — was a backup quarterback. He was No. 4 in a group topped by Drew Bledsoe.

But when the season started, he was No. 2, on the active roster. Perhaps Bill Belichick, the coach, saw something. Or perhaps, as a sixth-round draftee, was less expensive then the competition.

I think Belichick saw something.

But even Belichick, a certified genius of a football coach and superb judge of potential talent, could not have analyzed his gift of Tom Brady.

Bledsoe, previously a Super Bowl QB, was injured early in 2001 season. Brady was the emergency quarterback. He led the Patriots to Super Bowl XXXVI that season. At the very end of that Super Bowl, he engineered the victory for the Patriots over the St. Louis Rams.

And this was just the first chapter, I believe of one of the greatest sports stories of all-time. At least in my 61 years of covering these playthings as a sports journalist.

Two weeks ago, Tom Brady staged another comeback. On TV, he was viewed walking along the Patriots’ bench exhorting his teammates, encouraging then, ordering them to cancel out the Jacksonville Jaguars lead in the AFC championship game.

Then he went onto the field and did it — again — himself.

Tom Brady — the onetime No. 7 quarterback in pecking order on the Michigan depth chart — is now 40 years old. Forty is a grizzled age for pro football quarterbacks. But next Sunday, here in Minneapolis, he will be in his eighth Super Bowl. So far, he was won five of his previous seven.

No other athlete has had the stamina and the ability — and the strength of character — to play so long and so well in pro football. That is my observation.

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Here in the prelude to Super Bowl LII, numerous observers with superior knowledge about intricacies of football than mine, have declared Brady “The Greatest Quarterback of All-Time.”

I tend to dispute that declaration.

For sure, in my mind, he tops Terry Bradshaw, who won four Super Bowls with the Steelers. Bradshaw was fortunate enough to have Hall of Fame receivers in Lynn Swann and John Stallworth plus immortals Franco Harris and Joe Greene as teammates.

Brady has emulated his boyhood idol — once another overlooked draft choice — Joe Montana as a quarterback. Better than Montana? Maybe. Montana won four Super Bowls with the 49ers and was fortunate to have Jerry Rice, my choice as the best pass receiver ever.

Montana won a stirring Super Bowl with a late driver against the clock vs. the Bengals. Brady matched that drive — and more — against the fading clock in last season overtime classic Super Bowl LI vs. the Falcons.

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In that, Brady and the Patriots overcame a 25-point deficit to force the overtime before victory.

OK, I’m down here and I’m still deliberating.

I’ll agree: Brady is the best quarterback of the Super Bowl era, 1967 toward eternity.

But as a wishful-thinking kid, before there was ever a festive call the Super Bowl, there were pro quarterbacks who are ignored in all of the debates among the greatest-ever cliques.

Sid Luckman was a marvel for the Bears. He won a 73-0 game vs. the Redskins for a vintage NFL championship. Slingin’ Sammy Baugh had greatness as a passer for those Redskins.

Bart Starr, to me was wondrous, winning five NFL championships plus the first two Super Bowls when two pro leagues were sniping at each other in the 1960s.

In Detroit, during the long-ago championship run, the Lions had Bobby Layne. His rival was the amazing Otto Graham with the old Browns.

Norm Van Brocklin and Sonny Jurgensen were passing masters.

Tom Brady, a grizzled 40 years old, the greatest of all time.

A great debate.

And from era back to another and then back to the one before, being old fashioned, my choice remains John Unitas of the Baltimore Colts with his crewcut and his high-top cleats.

At least until Sunday.

Jerry Green, a retired sports writer, has covered every Super Bowl for The Detroit News.