When Tom Brady entered the NFL in 2000, he was little more than an afterthought. His selection on draft day came without any fanfare, and EA Sports did not even bother to give him a name in its Madden NFL video game that year.
It appeared Brady was no different from most of the other sixth-round draft picks through the years. Maybe he would make the New England Patriots’ roster, maybe he would become a serviceable backup to starter Drew Bledsoe.
22 years later, Brady retires as the greatest player the sport has ever seen. What happened in between was arguably the most stunning transformation in sports history.
Brady, the skinny California kid who was running a 5.28-second 40-yard dash at the combine, rose from obscurity to lead the Patriots to six Super Bowl wins and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to another. Along the way, he set dozens of NFL records — some of which will probably be broken one day, but others might very well stand the test of time.
His achievements speak for themselves. His seven Super Bowl rings, for example, or the fact that he basically had three separate Hall of Fame careers.
Brady’s biggest accomplishment, however, might have been his unmatched ability to beat the odds. Again. And again. And again.
It all started in his rookie year. Despite Drew Bledsoe just having signed a massive 10-year contract extension and two other quarterbacks being ahead of him on the depth chart, Brady was able to make the Patriots’ roster. Head coach Bill Belichick later called it a “wasted roster spot for the 2000 season” but he still held onto the young QB out of fear that he would lose him on the waiver wire.
What followed has been told seemingly a million times. Brady entered 2001 as the backup to Bledsoe, and took over when the veteran suffered internal bleeding after a vicious hit against the New York Jets.
Brady held onto the starting gig even with Bledsoe returning to full strength, leading New England to the playoffs and an improbable championship run. He helped beat Oakland and Pittsburgh, and despite being a 14-point underdog in Super Bowl XXXVI led his team to its first ever championship by upsetting the heavily favored St. Louis Rams.
At that point, it became clear that Brady was here to stay. He added two more Super Bowls to cap off the 2003 and 2004 seasons, helped New England to the first and last 16-0 season, and by the spring of 2014 was already in the conversation as the greatest quarterback of all time.
That season, everything changed.
The Patriots decided to draft Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round, with Belichick acknowledging Brady’s age — he was 36 at the time — as a factor in the team’s decision making. The Patriots’ head coach was correct to be skeptical about his QB’s long-term outlook; few passers have ever played consistent football into their late 30s or early 40s.
Father Time was lurking over Brady’s shoulder, but he never wavered. Quite the opposite: Brady just kept beating the odds.
The 2014 season started with the Patriots going 2-2, losing a blowout in Kansas City in Week 4 that prompted questions about a potential change at the quarterback position. Belichick stuck with Brady, and he repaid the trust big time: he led New England to another Super Bowl appearance, trying to win that fourth ring that had eluded him for the last 10 years.
Super Bowl XLIX was unlike any other. Not only did the Patriots have to go up against the best defense of its era — Seattle’s famous “Legion of Boom” — they also were dealing with cheating allegations stemming from unsubstantiated rumors.
Brady did not care. He led his troops to a 28-24 come-from-behind victory, erasing the largest deficit in Super Bowl history up to that point to do so.
Two years later, he did it again. With a four-game suspension fueling a revenge tour at age 39, Brady’s Patriots fell behind 28-3 to the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. The writing appeared to be on the wall: the dynasty was finally over, Brady’s best was behind him.
Brady tore down that wall. The Patriots won 34-28 in overtime, earning him his fifth ring — breaking a tie with childhood hero Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw for most ever among starting quarterbacks. The odds of that happening seemed nonexistent just 20 minutes of game time earlier: the Falcons had a 99.7 percent chance of winning that game.
In true Brady fashion, however, he kept defying the probabilities and the statistics. He also kept redefining what success at the quarterback position meant.
Brady went on to add two more rings. He played well into his 40s. He became the oldest Super Bowl MVP, only starting quarterback to win a title in both the AFC and NFC, and set every regular season and playoff passing record.
He also never reached that famed cliff, even ahead of his retirement.
Brady’s final season was more proof of that. It did not end with a Super Bowl — the Buccaneers were eliminated on divisional round weekend — but it was one of the finest of his career nonetheless. Playing at an MVP-caliber level until the age of 44 is unheard of, yet it seemed like nothing out of the norm for Brady.
Well, for that Brady.
The Brady of 2000, the one drafted behind six other quarterbacks, appeared to face a major uphill climb to even become an NFL starter one day. Brady conquered that climb, and every other that came his way until he stood alone on a mountaintop few ever thought could be reached.
The air is thin up there, rarefied even. The cliffs are steep. Yet, Brady never fell over or tumbled. He just kept standing up there, untouched.
The odds be damned.