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Bucs’ Tom Brady returns to play 49ers team he grew up rooting for

A 4-year-old Brady was at Candlestick Park when Dwight Clark made “The Catch” in the 1981 NFC Championship game, starting his lifelong love affair with football.
Published Dec. 9, 2022|Updated Dec. 10, 2022

TAMPA — Piece by piece, Candlestick Park was ripped down.

The seats were first to go. Eventually, the outdoor waterfront stadium was demolished. The goalpost from the end zone where “The Catch” was made by Dwight Clark in the 49ers’ win over the Cowboys in the 1981 NFC Championship Game was moved to the Montana ranch of owner Eddie DeBartolo.

The goal post from the end zone at Candlestick Park where “The Catch” was made by Dwight Clark in the 49ers’ win over the Cowboys in the 1981 NFC Championship Game was moved to the Montana ranch of owner Eddie DeBartolo.
The goal post from the end zone at Candlestick Park where “The Catch” was made by Dwight Clark in the 49ers’ win over the Cowboys in the 1981 NFC Championship Game was moved to the Montana ranch of owner Eddie DeBartolo. [ RICK STROUD | Times ]

The memories of that game remain. There is a picture on Facebook of an adorable, pouting, 4-year-old Tom Brady being held in the arms of his mother, Galynn. Behind them, the scoreboard lights glared: San Francisco 28, Dallas 27.

Brady posted the image in 2015, adding, “What a magical time in my life!”

“There was a lot of great (things),” Brady said Thursday of growing up a 49ers fan in San Mateo, California. “I always consider myself a California kid, and I grew up obviously loving Joe Montana and Steve Young. And going to 49er games, that’s where I fell in love with football.

“We’d sit up there in the nosebleeds. We had four tickets — my mom and dad would go, I would usually go, and then one of my sisters would go. I was lucky to grow up in the bay area at that time. It was just a great time.”

Of course, there was no way of knowing that kid would grow up to become a quarterback, the greatest to ever play, and exceed the number of Super Bowl rings won by his hometown heroes.

Mixed emotions

Brady always dreamed of playing for the 49ers. But when he entered the NFL draft out of Michigan in 2000, they selected Hofstra quarterback Giovanni Carmazzi in the third round while Brady lasted until the sixth, going to the Patriots at No. 199.

“There were so many great players, it was a great era of football and I loved the 49ers,” Brady said. “I loved them through college, and then when they skipped over me six times, I started hating the 49ers, and that’s just the way it went down.”

Tom Brady honors one of his childhood idols.

Posted by NFL on ESPN on Monday, June 4, 2018

Those are the sort of mixed emotions stirring inside a lot of the kids who grew up on Portola Drive in his hometown of San Mateo.

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For their entire lives, they have been diehard 49ers fans. But with Brady returning to the bay area Sunday when the Bucs play the 49ers a few miles south at Levi Stadium in Santa Clara, their allegiance shifts to “Tommy,” as he is called by nearly everyone he grew up with.

“I’m a die-hard Niners fan. I have been my entire life,” said John Kirby, Brady’s leading receiver as a senior for Junipero Serra High School. “One of my few childhood memories, I was probably about to turn 4, is growing up in a Niner household where whole families watched the championship game together.

“Everyone asks me since we played together, who was the best? Joe Montana or Tom Brady? I say, ‘Joe was the greatest in his era, and Tommy is the greatest in his era.’”

Brady often has told the story that his freshman team didn’t win a game and he was the backup quarterback. Brady and Kirby got in for one pass play in the final game, and they connected on a post route for a couple yards and the game ended.

“I had so many friends growing up there,” Brady said. “Serra was a great baseball school, and I loved baseball. I started playing football and fell in love with football because of the camaraderie of it all. I was always the kid that was trying to prove myself to everyone.

A New England Patriots fan wearing the jersey of quarterback Tom Brady (12) stands next to a San Francisco 49ers fan wearing the jersey of former quarterback Joe Montana before a 2016 game at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California.
A New England Patriots fan wearing the jersey of quarterback Tom Brady (12) stands next to a San Francisco 49ers fan wearing the jersey of former quarterback Joe Montana before a 2016 game at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California. [ JEFF CHIU | AP ]

Brady was drafted by the Montreal Expos as a left-handed-hitting catcher. But he and Kirby kept working in the summer, running routes and building chemistry. Serra went only 5-5 in Brady’s senior season, Kirby said, because ‘’we were a team of individuals.” Kirby went to Hawaii to play football. Another receiver went to San Jose State.

Brady still follows the Serra Padres, and on Saturday they will play for the CIF Open Division state championship against St. John Bosco in Mission Viejo.

“I’m a diehard Niner fan. A Niner victory changes the scope of my week,” said Serra football coach Patrick Walsh. “But anytime (Brady) is playing the Niners ... we love Tommy here at Serra. He contributes. He cares. The kids know he thinks about them and he’s as advertised, and we love him so much.

“I think what everyone loves about Tommy is that he’s human and he exists on a human level, even though he has every excuse not to and he’s one of ours. And not just one of ours at Serra, but he’s one of our human beings and the only reason anyone would ever hate him is because he beat their home team so many times.”

Almost everyone you talk to about Brady credits his parents, Tom Sr. and Galynn, for the great job they did.

“That’s a huge part of Tom’s success,” Walsh said. “It’s that family foundation with his parents and sisters.”

Homecoming game

What’s remarkable is that this is only the second time Brady will play near his hometown. He tore his ACL in 2008, when the Patriots beat the 49ers 30-21. In 2016, he passed for four touchdowns in a 30-17 New England win.

Tom Brady, left, stands with John Elway, Peyton Manning, Joe Montana, Brett Favre and Roger Staubach, before Super Bowl 54 in 2020 in Miami Gardens.
Tom Brady, left, stands with John Elway, Peyton Manning, Joe Montana, Brett Favre and Roger Staubach, before Super Bowl 54 in 2020 in Miami Gardens. [ MARK HUMPHREY | AP ]

“It’s pretty unique,” Brady said. “For as long as I’ve played, to have one experience there, and it was a great one, too. We played out there, it was a rainy day, it was 2016, we had a really good football team, and I had a lot of friends and family in the crowd. I ran out for pregame warmup, and I remember (Niners coach) Chip Kelly coming over and he was like, ‘Damn, it’s a home game for you.’ And it really was.”

Brady expressed an interest in joining the 49ers when he became a free agent in 2020. Head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch met about it. Since quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo had just taken San Francisco to a Super Bowl, the team wasn’t ready to move on.

So Brady has remained on the east coast, while his friends and family celebrate his victories large and small.

“We spelled out ‘Beat Philly’ with all the kids a few years ago and had a helicopter at the first or second Super Bowl,” Walsh said. “And now it’s just like, ‘Okay, now we’re done.’ Just go home and watch the game. Me and my wife are watching it. We’re done. He’s worn us out here with these types of things, he’s so successful, but we love it.”

You have to wonder if this will be the last time Brady plays at Levi Stadium. His Patriots missed the Super Bowl when it was held there after the 2015 season. Brady attended the game and stood next to Montana as the league honored the top 100 players in history.

Could Brady join the 49ers’ quarterback legacy next season?

“Well, I’m not a 49er fan anymore,” he said. “Yeah, that’s long gone. Yeah, I put those emotions away, too. I think my emotion is to do everything I can to help us win this game.”

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