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Finally, after 198 other players had been chosen, the Patriots drafted him in the sixth round.

Club owner Robert Kraft recalls the night he was leaving the old Foxboro Stadium when he saw “this skinny beanpole” carrying a pizza.

“He comes up and says, `Mr. Kraft, I’m Tom Brady.’ I said, `I know who you are, you’re our sixth-round draft choice from Michigan.’

“And he looked me right in the eye and he said, `and I’m the best decision this organization has ever made.’ “

Since then, Brady has completed 3,847 passes for 44,749 yards and 336 touchdowns, counting the postseason. He set an NFL record with 50 touchdown passes in 2007. This season, he threw for 5,235 yards, second most in league history.

All that from a guy who running back Kevin Faulk describes as “scrawny” when he saw Brady in the locker room as a rookie.

“That was a long time ago,” said Faulk, the only player who has been on the team longer than Brady. “The intensity clearly is still there. Leadership, it keeps improving every year.”

Whether he’s dealing with a veteran like the 35-year-old Faulk or a pair of spectacular 22-year-old tight ends like Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, the guiding hand is firm.

“It’s definitely a tough love relationship,” Gronkowski said. “Just coming in at first and everything, you’re just trying to learn.”

Brady absorbs game plans so thoroughly that he can be considered a coach on the field.

“He’s like an offensive coordinator out there,” wide receiver Julian Edelman said.

That makes the job of coach Bill Belichick’s staff a lot easier.

“He can direct our team as well as anticipate things that are going to happen on the other side of the ball. I think we all know how tough he is,” Belichick said. “He’s always there to compete and he competes at a very high level. I think he’s earned everybody’s respect and when he says something, we all listen.”

A veteran of 20 postseason games, Brady knows the importance of staying calm amid all the excitement.

He “keeps everything even keeled for everybody throughout the course of this playoff run,” said retired wide receiver Troy Brown, Brady’s teammate from 2000-07. “That’s really what he has to do as the head man out there on the football field.”

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