Of all the predictions in all the stories that the Tampa Bay Times has published over the years, few turned out to be as wrong as the first sentence in the first profile the newspaper ever wrote about Tom Brady.
“Years after Saturday’s Orange Bowl is over,” Darrell Fry wrote on Dec. 31, 1999, “it’s likely few people will be talking about Michigan quarterback Tom Brady.”
In fairness, Brady’s Hall of Fame career was impossible to predict when the now-Bucs quarterback made his first appearance in Tampa, as a redshirt freshman. That was Jan. 1, 1997, when his Wolverines played Alabama in the Outback Bowl at then-Houlihan’s Stadium.
Brady was a footnote in that game. He was a backup to senior Brian Griese — later also a Bucs quarterback (2004-05 and 2008) — and didn’t appear (or at least record a statistic) in Michigan’s 17-14 loss. The story of the game was Gene Stallings, who coached the Crimson Tide to the 1992 national title, being carried off the field to celebrate his retirement.
When Fry wrote his profile three years later, Brady was more established heading into Michigan’s rematch against Alabama in the Orange Bowl. He had finally taken the starting job ahead of sophomore Drew Henson.
But, as Fry wrote, Brady’s numbers “don’t stack up” among the all-time greats at Michigan, which still holds true. Seven Wolverines have thrown for more career yards, and nine have passed for more touchdowns.
The traits, however, that make Brady one of the best quarterbacks the game has ever seen were present at Michigan and well-stated in Fry’s profile.
“Tom is very consistent, and he is not an up-and-down type of guy, either as a performer or as a person,” Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr said then. “He’s just a very tough individual.”
Carr referenced Brady’s mental toughness earlier in the season, after his quarterback threw three interceptions at Penn State but rallied the Michigan from a two-touchdown hole to a 31-27 triumph.
“Tom Brady has the one quality that I feel is very underrated by some people,” Carr said at the time. “A quarterback obviously has to have some skills, but without toughness, you cannot be a great quarterback. And Brady is extremely tough. He did not play his best game at Penn State, but he still had the mental toughness to go in and do away with all the negative things that happened.”
Even then, Brady understood the pressure and expectations that come with being a high-profile performer at a high-profile position for a high-profile team.
“As a fifth-year senior and as a captain, there’s a lot of people looking at you, so you’ve got to be in the right place and doing the right things,” Brady said at the time. “And you want to make sure you perform as well as you can so that everyone else looks at you and uses you as an example of how to play.”
In the two decades since, Brady has become one of the most-respected quarterbacks in NFL history and an example coaches use across all levels of the game. A day after the Times story ran, Brady showed a glimpse of what was to come.
He helped Michigan come back from a pair of 14-point deficits to beat Alabama 35-34 in overtime in the final game of his not-quite-storied college career.
And 20 years later, we’re still talking about it.