- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2004

HOUSTON — In a Super Bowl devoid of any real household names, Tom Brady parades around town like a rock star. Everyone wants a piece of the New England Patriots’ quarterback.

“Tom, can you do an interview with ‘Entertainment Tonight’?”

“Tom, can you come down to Washington for the State of the Union?”

“Tom, will you marry me?”

Don’t laugh. Brady is easily the most eligible bachelor in New England. He’s been known to find cards, cookies and (occasionally) women’s undergarments on the doorstep of his home, and he’s the object of so much affection that one Boston radio station regularly hands out tank tops reading “Mrs. Brady” as contest prizes.

All this at the ripe old age of 26, with less than three years as an NFL starting quarterback to his name. It’s a wonder Brady hasn’t let all the attention get the best of him.

“I think the one thing I have learned in the last couple of years is that you have to find time to keep your sanity,” he said. “You have to find time for yourself.”

Time alone is a rare thing for Brady these days. When he’s not quarterbacking the Patriots to their second Super Bowl in three years, he’s conducting interviews, accepting party invitations and showing up in first lady Laura Bush’s box at the president’s State of the Union address.

Brady’s still not sure exactly how that last one came about. Patriots owner Robert Kraft approached him the day before the AFC Championship against Indianapolis and asked if he was busy the following Tuesday.

“He said, ‘If you are not doing anything, and assuming we win the game, the president wants you down at the State of the Union,’” Brady recalled. “I said, ‘What are you talking about? Which president?’ He said, ‘Our president, George Bush.’ After that, I said, ‘Sure, I’ll go.’”

Brady says he has no particular political affiliation, but he didn’t have to think twice about accepting the invitation.

“It’s not something you turn down,” he said. “You don’t say, ‘Nah, I can’t go there.’ You go there to support the president and the country.”

Brady’s got plenty of supporters of his own around the country who are touting him as perhaps the NFL’s best quarterback. That may sound like a ludicrous statement considering that Peyton Manning and Steve McNair are the league’s co-MVPs, Brett Favre is a guaranteed first ballot Hall of Fame choice and plenty of others have far more physical tools.

But Brady has one important thing going for him, perhaps enough to catapult him to the top of the quarterback ranks: He flat-out wins games.

Since taking over for injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001, Brady has posted a 34-12 regular-season record. That’s a 73.9 percent winning percentage, by far the best among all active quarterbacks with at least 25 starts.

More amazing is Brady’s record when it really counts. He’s 25-4 in games after Nov.1, including 5-0 in the playoffs.

Ever humble, Brady takes little credit for his team’s success.

“It means I’m on one of the two top teams in the NFL — I’m the quarterback,” he said. “Those two guys, Steve McNair and Peyton, had magnificent years. For one reason or another, the teams didn’t get it done.”

Brady’s most important qualities, those who play with him say, are the intangible ones: leadership, poise under pressure, the ability to lead a team from behind.

“You know, he’s got it. He’s got the charisma and the fatal charm, but he is a great leader, too,” linebacker Ted Johnson said. “He gets it done at work, and that’s the main thing: He comes to work.”

That Brady has accomplished all this after a relatively pedestrian college career at Michigan makes his story all the more remarkable.

He spent two years on the bench in Ann Arbor while Brian Griese was busy leading the Wolverines to a national championship. Even after he finally ascended to the first team as a junior, Brady wound up splitting playing time with blue chip prospect Drew Henson.

Drafted by the Patriots in the sixth round (199th overall), Brady was an afterthought, a lanky quarterback who probably would hold a clipboard his whole career while Bledsoe led New England to glory.

Who knew he’d wind up directing one of the most famous drives in Super Bowl history (setting up Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning field goal against St. Louis two years ago) and becoming at 24 the youngest winning quarterback in Super Bowl history?

“Who really cares [when he was drafted]?” New England safety Rodney Harrison said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a first-round draft pick. This guy has intangibles. He has the heart, the determination. He’s tough, he’s gritty and he wants to win. Look at the road he took. It doesn’t matter that he wasn’t a first-rounder. … It’s about what you have inside. You can’t judge a person’s heart.”

For his winning record and his intangible qualities, Brady has often drawn comparisons to Joe Montana (his boyhood idol), though Brady is quick to shoot that one down.

“That is crazy,” he said. “He was the best quarterback in the history of the NFL.”

Of course, if the Patriots beat Carolina on Sunday, Brady will have done something no NFL quarterback — Montana included — has ever done: win two Super Bowls by age 26.

One can only imagine how much more Brady’s celebrity status would rise should he accomplish such a feat. He’s already made a vow to stay out of the hotel lobby this week, for fear of being mobbed by fans and autograph seekers.

It’s made for a frustrating week in Houston, one Brady can’t wait to end — provided it’s with the right outcome.

“You get pulled in a lot of different directions, and you’re not really sure where you have to be or who you have to see,” he said. “I’ll have a lot more fun on Sunday after the game if we win, I’ll tell you that.”

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