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Maya Brady is Tom Brady’s niece; that isn’t why the UCLA star has riveted college sports

“Regardless of her last name, she’s a great player on her own,” UCLA’s Delanie Wisz said.
UCLA's Maya Brady during an NCAA softball game on Friday, February 7, 2020 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/John McCoy)
UCLA's Maya Brady during an NCAA softball game on Friday, February 7, 2020 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/John McCoy) [ JOHN MCCOY | AP ]
Published Apr. 29
Updated Apr. 29

Before she faced Maya Brady in the close-knit California softball circuit, Delanie Wisz knew plenty about the talented prospect. Brady was going to UCLA, where she committed as a freshman at Oaks Christian. She was also Tom Brady’s niece. She must be really good, Wisz thought to herself before playing Brady in high school.

Brady proved her future UCLA teammate right on a single play, bare-handing a high chopper to shortstop and gunning the runner out at first in a feat that is fresh in Wisz’s mind even years later. It showed Wisz who Maya Brady was.

“Regardless of her last name, she’s a great player on her own,” the UCLA infielder said.

Brady has embraced her famous last name and is starting to cast her own shadow alongside her famous uncle. Maya is not just “Tom Brady’s niece.” Try calling her Softball America freshman of the year, UCLA’s power-hitting left-hander or a do-it-all defensive spark plug. All apply to the budding star.

When the redshirt freshman came to UCLA as one of the top recruits in her class, Brady told UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez of her simple goal in Westwood: I want people to know who I am.

We’re only starting to learn.

“She’s the future of UCLA softball,” Inouye-Perez said.

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Maya’s uncle has been a topic of whispered conversations since she was about 10. Parents made the connection and teammates asked questions. Maya never minded talking about it. She loves her family.

She didn’t realize how big of a deal it was until high school, when she won the starting shortstop job at Oaks Christian as a freshman.

Articles written about her achievements featured headlines that opened with “Tom Brady’s niece Maya Brady.” Her relationship to the NFL star always came before her own name.

The first grandchild of Galynn and Tom Brady Sr., Maya is the oldest of many young Bradys entering into the sports realm who will inevitably feel the shadow of her famous uncle. She doesn’t feel pressure to perform to keep up the family name, although she has no problem doing it.

Maya, whose mother, Maureen, is the oldest of four Brady siblings, has eight home runs this season, the second-most for No. 2 UCLA, with 24 RBIs and a .319 average. The redshirt freshman was named Pac-12 player and freshman of the week on March 23 after launching three opposite-field homers for eight RBI in a four-game sweep against Arizona State and securing a diving catch in center field.

It was an overdue Pac-12 debut for the former No. 2 recruit in the country whose first attempt at a freshman season was derailed because of the pandemic. She was off to a great start last season, carving out a starting role and leading the then-No. 1-ranked Bruins in home runs before the remainder of the season was canceled.

With Maya patrolling the outfield and launching home runs, this year’s Bruins (28-3, 10-2 Pac-12) are in position to defend their 2019 national championship.

One of the biggest stars in sports for the last two decades, Tom likely enjoys watching and talking about someone else for a change, Maureen said. Uncle Tommy attended a game at Easton Stadium last year.

“She is [an] amazing young woman. Competitive. Tough. Poised. Smart. Clutch,” Tom said of Maya in a text message to The Los Angeles Times.

Even when fans couldn’t attend games at the beginning of the season, Tom, who Maya said was “more of a father figure” than uncle, was watching his niece compete. He celebrated her first home run of the year by claiming on Twitter Maya is the most dominant athlete of the family “by far!”

The elite group includes a seven-time Super Bowl champion and two-time World Series champion Kevin Youkilis. The former Red Sox infielder is married to Julie Brady, the youngest of the Brady sisters and a former soccer player at St. Mary’s. Nancy Brady also starred in softball and Maureen was an All-American pitcher at Fresno State.

Maureen ranks ninth in Fresno State history with 80 wins. The scrappy right-hander led the Bulldogs to the Women’s College World Series in 1992 and 1994.

Maureen signed Maya up for softball around 4 years old. Considering her genetic embarrassment of riches, it’s no surprise Maya starred in several sports growing up. She was a soccer star and Tom claims she can drive a ball on the golf course 300 yards. But it seems right that she picked the sport her mother played.

All the attention that her uncle gets outshines the relationship most dear to Maya. Her mom is her best friend, the epitome of a strong, independent woman.

Maureen raised Maya and her younger sister Hannah, 13, as a single mother working as a nurse. The family of three snaked through Southern California together while chauffeuring Maya to travel ball practice in Orange County. Even with Maya in Westwood, Maureen is still hitting the road for Hannah, a volleyball player.

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The close-knit Brady family lives all over the country but tries to unite once a year for a family vacation. A familiar storyline plays out every time.

Put enough Bradys in a room together with a ball, inevitably a young cousin suggests playing a game. Any sport is on the table. Boys versus girls always.

Things are friendly until one team starts winning. Then the tears start. Accusations of cheating begin. From a secluded lodge in Montana, the family is firing missiles at one another on a dodgeball court like it’s a nationally televised championship event. Nothing more than bragging rights are at risk, but to the Bradys, that’s more than enough.

“You could talk about the Brady family as much as you’d like, but the one thing that is always going to be the same with Maya and her whole family is they will compete,” said Mike Stith, who coached Maya’s travel ball team.

Competition is the only way the Bradys know. Galynn is the chief instigator, a protective mother who screams at the television during football games. Maureen and Maya say Tom Sr. cheats at card games. Growing up, the family split up into two cars coming home from church, two kids and a parent per car, and raced to see which group could make it home first. Even now, Maureen says, if they’re all walking together, one Brady may just take off to race to an elevator.

Maya’s lifetime of family Olympics seemed to set her up perfectly for UCLA, where being a Bruin, just like being a Brady, is to be competitive. It’s not easy being part of the program with 13 national titles — the most for any program in the sport — but Maya fits right in among Olympians and All-Americans.

Maya arrived as an immediate replacement for Bubba Nickles and Rachel Garcia, who were training with Team USA for the Olympics last year. Maya started in Nickles’ center-field position and hit cleanup in Garcia’s spot in the lineup, where she led the team with seven home runs and tied for first with 28 RBIs in the pandemic-shortened season.

With Garcia and Nickles back in Westwood this year, the competition for playing time is even tougher. Instead of fretting about diminished opportunities, Maya called playing with the stars “an honor because they’re such amazing players.”

Brady is using to playing on a stacked roster. The OC Batbusters were so packed that Maya, a shortstop who was the No. 2 recruit in the country in her 2019 recruiting class, was bumped to second base on her under-18 team because Tiare Jennings, currently a freshman at Oklahoma, played shortstop. Jennings was the 2019-20 Gatorade player of the year in California.

The middle infielders became fast friends, competing in practice every day.

“She made me better,” Jennings said. “She definitely made me who I am today.”

If members of the Brady family naturally carry a competitive gene, then Batbusters nurtured it in Maya. She joined the elite travel ball organization that sends dozens of prospects a year to Division I teams at about 10 years old. Founded in 1979, the Batbusters run on a culture of accountability, Stith said.

Practices are as fast and as intense as any game as players fight to retain starting positions with Division I talent sitting on the bench. For Maya, that meant competing not just with her natural athleticism, but with her mind to fight for improvement.

“As blessed as she is, her intuition was always to ask questions,” Stith said. “Her competitiveness came out in her always gathering knowledge.”

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The ear-splitting crack echoing from Easton Stadium can mean only one thing. Maya Brady is up to bat.

Just a redshirt freshman, Maya, 19, can hit the ball farther than any of UCLA’s players, except maybe Garcia. The team’s star pitcher is 24 years old.

When Maya takes practice swings, teammates like junior Briana Perez stand in the outfield to shag fly balls but instead just admire the shots as they fly over the fence. After a particularly hard shot, stunned teammates ask her how she did it. Maya just smiles.

“She’s one of the most humble talented players and I don’t think she’s realized that yet, to be honest,” Perez said. “I’m kind of like in awe of her every day at practice.”

Although Maya is a cut-throat competitor on the field, teammates cherish her more for her goofy personality than her long home runs. She talks trash during practice — a sign of her growing comfort around her teammates — but follows each team competition with a hug and a high-five. Brady is a glue player who brings “unmatched energy at practice every single day,” Perez said.

For teams in contention for the national title, having players like Maya who are just as talented on the field as they are in the dugout make all the difference.

“You’re at UCLA, Arizona, these types of places, you expect to win,” Stith said. “So what’s going to differentiate you from the other team? Oftentimes, it’s that character of your team and that’s what Maya’s specialty is.”

Considering her uncle’s place among the NFL’s pantheon of winners, it’s no surprise Maya said her ultimate goal at UCLA is to win a national championship. At least one, she adds.

“I don’t really care about personal accomplishments that much,” Maya said. “I’d much rather win than be considered an All-American.”

Someone like Maya — so talented with such a successful family — may be expected to have an ego, but it’s the opposite, Inouye-Perez said. Maya proves her humility in practice every day when she is accepts any position on defense. The lifelong infielder has played every outfield position for the Bruins this year.

Although outfield is a new world for Maya , she doesn’t feel out of place. The basics of the game still apply: run, catch and throw. She’s fine-tuning her technique under the guidance of assistant coach Kirk Walker.

Yes, she’s a Brady, but she’s still learning.

A left-hander in the batter’s box but a natural right-hander, Maya tends to pull the ball when she swings because the top hand — her off, left hand — hasn’t built up the strength to control the bat consistently. Inouye-Perez can’t even imagine the sound that will come from the bat once that happens.

Perhaps the only louder sound will be the cheers echoing from the UCLA dugout as Maya rounds the bases to meet her teammates at home plate.

Times staff writer Sam Farmer contributed to this report.

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