TAMPA ― Before all the glitz, there was a lot of grit. No matter how many Super Bowl rings he wins, Tom Brady will always see himself as the 199th pick of the 2000 draft who kept beating the odds to become the greatest NFL quarterback of all time.
On a quiet Sunday morning in Ann Arbor after a Michigan football game, he had breakfast with his parents and made a prediction.
“One day, I’m going to be a household name,” he said. He meant it as a joke. But fast forward 23 years, and Brady is exactly that: a household name.
His story may be familiar after 10 Super Bowl appearances and seven world championships. At 44, he is still at the top of his game and one of the favorites to win the league’s Most Valuable Player award this season.
But what is so striking about Brady is how he took advantage of every break along the way. That’s what stands out in Man in the Arena, a multi-part docuseries about Brady’s legacy. The first episode airs Nov. 16 on ESPN+, but selected media got to watch a virtual premier Wednesday night.
From landing in New England, where he played under head-coaching savant Bill Belichick, to taking advantage of a serious injury to Drew Bledsoe to become the Patriots’ starter, to the “Tuck Rule” game against the Raiders in the 2001 playoffs, to being chosen to start Super Bowl 36 after Bledsoe rescued the Patriots in the AFC title game that year, Brady has had some really good bounces of the football during his career.
“The reality for me is you need a lot of luck,” Brady says. “You can do the right thing and put yourself in the right position, but I believe I’ve had a lot of good fortune and a lot of commitment from a lot of good people that allowed me to be the best version I can be of myself.”
Each episode of the series, produced by director and Brady’s business partner, Gotham Chopra, will focus on a single Super Bowl appearance and what led up to that game. Chopra also directed Tom vs. Time, a documentary of the Patriots’ 2017 season that provided an intimate look into Brady’s home life, including his three children and wife, Gisele Bundchen.
In Man in the Arena, we hear from some of Brady’s closest friends and teammates. The first episode focuses on how he took over for Bledsoe (who had signed a 10-year, $103 million contract) after the Patriots starter was so severely injured by a hit from the Jets’ Mo Lewis’ hit that he was bleeding internally..
Having survived some lean years with the Patriots as the No. 1 overall pick out of Washington State in 1993, Bledsoe was in his prime when Brady arrived in 2000.
“Those years from ‘96 to probably 2001-2002, that’s probably when I was at the peak of my ability,’’ says Bledsoe, whose team lost a Super Bowl to Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers following the 1997 season. “There were some times when I was playing some damn good football and we weren’t winning.”
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That began to change shortly after Belichick replaced Bill Parcells as the Patriots’ head coach.
“I really didn’t pay much attention to the draft in general,” Bledsoe says. “Once Tommy got in there, he was a guy I immediately liked. I figured he was probably going to be a guy that was going to be in the league for a long time, but probably as a backup. He also was extremely inquisitive. Sort of annoyingly so. He was always in my ear asking about this decision, that decision, and I shared everything freely as I could.
“Just this skinny little twerp out of Michigan. I didn’t perceive him as a threat.”
But then, people have been underestimating Brady his whole life.
“Drew obviously was the franchise quarterback and one of the toughest guys I’ve ever been around,” Brady says. “Mentally, physically, very gifted. He’s got incredible arm strength and accuracy and a great demeanor to him. He’s very calm. A very calm nature.”
But when Brady began to win games while the Patriots starter was out, even Bledsoe grew a little worried about whether he would get his job back. Eventually, Bledsoe was cleared to return to the field and Belichick had a decision to make. He chose Brady.
“This is telling us our $100 million man, who is 100-percent healthy, who is our franchise guy, he is no longer the starting quarterback,” linebacker Willie McGinest says. “It is now this sixth-round kid from Michigan, who has been holding things together for I don’t know how many weeks. We’re going forward with him.”
As fate would have it, the nerves finally got to Brady when the Patriots faced the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs.
“That was the first game that I was scared,” Brady says. “I was scared. The moment was definitely bigger than I was ready for. From the start of the game, I was confused. I didn’t know what was coming. You know, all their different blitzes.”
When Brady got rolled up on and was forced to leave the game, Bledsoe rallied the Patriots to a win and another appearance in the Super Bowl. “I couldn’t help but think that Drew won his job back,” McGinest said.
But Belichick had other ideas.
Bledsoe was crestfallen, but he liked Brady and didn’t want his teammates to fail.
With the game tied at 17 and under two minutes remaining, Brady led a game-winning drive capped by Adam Vinatieri’s field goal as time expired.
“I made eye contact with my sisters,” Brady says. “I remember putting my hands on my head saying, “Can you believe we won the Super Bowl?’ It was a magical end to a magical season.”
Bledsoe initially was excited to win Super Bowl 36. Then he realized what he had missed.
“I remember being excited for our guys, but at the same time kind of internally kind of disheartened,” Bledsoe says. “Like, man, I battled through a lot of things to get to this point and now that we’ve arrived here the other guy got to play.”
Less than 12 hours later, Bledsoe was alone on a ski lift in Whitefish, Montana. “I remember I got on the chair lift, put my goggles on and helmet and I sat all by myself and I cried,” he says. “It was the first time I let it all come crashing down on me.”
This was just the start of the series, and we know it concludes with the Bucs winning Super Bowl 55 in February. Brady speaks briefly about the 2021 season in the first episode.
“I don’t know how it’s going to end,” he says, “but I have a feeling we’ll have some say in what happens.”