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How Tom Brady Went from Sixth-Round Back-Up to the Most Dominant Player in NFL History

The sports world is filled with prodigies, it’s one of the things that keeps us riveted to our televisions day after day, that desire to witness greatness, the unbelievable. Every exciting young prospect must be labeled. “The next Michael Jordan, the next Tiger Woods, the next Jerry Rice.” These players aren’t supposed to come from nowhere.

So how on earth did someone who graduated from college looking like this:

go from a lightly recruited “dad bod” to the most dominant player the sport has ever seen? There’s some luck to be sure. Even New England can’t pretend like they knew what they had when they snagged Brady with a sixth-round pick in the 2001 NFL Draft. 

But after two solid decades of dominance, it can be easy to forget Brady’s humble beginnings, his insane work ethic, and his desire to win. In this article, we’ll remember the highlights of Brady’s illustrious career, his biggest rivalries, and the controversies that helped turn him from underdog to villain in the eyes of many.

A Superstar Hiding in Plain Sight

Born and raised in San Mateo, California, Brady was a sports nut from a young age, cheering on the nearby San Francisco 49ers and undoubtedly dreaming of gridiron glory. But like another high school that went on to a superstar career, Brady’s football career didn’t seem destined for stardom. [1]

Just like Michael Jordan failed to make his varsity basketball team as a Sophomore, Brady too was relegated to the Junior Varsity as an underclassman. By his Junior year, however, Brady had reached the Varsity squad and was the starting quarterback for two years. [2]

Along with football, Brady also played catcher for his high school baseball team. As crazy as it may seem, he may have been a better baseball prospect with some teams rating him as a potential second or third-round pick if he’d declared for the baseball draft out of high school. [3]

But Brady was determined to see where his football career would go. In the late 90s football recruiting wasn’t the massive industry it was today with college scouts and boosters crawling across the nation looking for the next big thing. Instead, Brady sent tapes around to prospective schools in hopes of catching someone’s eye. [4]

That someone wound up being Michigan assistant coach Bill Harris who convinced Brady to commit to the Wolverines much to the disappointment of Brady’s father who’d hoped he’d attend Cal University, his alma mater. He wasn’t considered a big catch for Michigan. Brady would be considered a three or four-star recruit by today’s grading system, a fine player but a step below the most coveted high school players. [5]

Like his high school career, Brady’s college career got off to a slow start and there were no indications that the greatest quarterback to ever play the sport had just walked onto campus. He barely played his first three years at Michigan, redshirting his first year and backing up Brian Griese his freshman and sophomore seasons.

He finally claimed the starting job as a Junior, mimicking his high school career. But even this wasn’t cut and dry as the Wolverines chose to platoon Brady at times with Drew Henson. [6]

But Brady played well enough to garner All Big-Ten Honorable Mention his junior and senior seasons, tossing 30 touchdowns and finishing 20-5 as a starter. [7]

Replacing a Prodigy and Changing the Course of History

While far from a blue-chip prospect, there was no doubt that Brady deserved a spot on an NFL roster. But where he could expect to be drafted remained unclear as the 2000 draft approached. Some close to Brady believed he could go as high as the second round. [8]

But a poor performance at the NFL combine sunk his draft stock, and Brady watched in horror as the fifth round of the draft came and went and still his name wasn’t called. [9]

At last, at pick number 199, the New England Patriots changed the trajectory of their franchise and the league forever, grabbing the Michigan quarterback to compete for the backup job to their cornerstone signal-caller, Drew Bledsoe. Brady climbed from fourth on the depth chart to second as the season went along but attempted just three passes his rookie year. [10]

He entered the 2001 season as the surefire backup to Bledsoe on a team that had just finished an uninspiring 5-11 campaign. But late in the fourth quarter of the Patriots’ week 2 matchup with the Jets, Bledsoe took a crushing hit from linebacker Mo Lewis.

The Patriots fell to 0-2, and their season was in the hands of an unproven, second-year, sixth-round pick. Patriots fans could be forgiven for believing the season was over. 

But in a scene straight out of a movie, the unheralded kid from California stepped in, and just like at Michigan, all he did was win. Brady didn’t set the league on fire with a string of 300-yard games, but he was a steady hand that minimized mistakes and kept the offense on schedule while head coach Bill Belichick orchestrated one of the best defensive groups in the league. 

Brady finished the year 11-3 as the starter, tossing 18 touchdowns against 12 interceptions as the Patriots won the AFC East and earned a first-round bye. [11]

It’s easy to forget now, but the Patriots had been an underwhelming franchise for decades with just one Super Bowl appearance, a 45-10 beatdown in 1985 by the Chicago Bears.

So in the AFC Divisional round, old wounds were opened as the visiting Oakland Raiders took a 13-3 lead in the fourth quarter at snowy Foxboro Stadium. A Brady rushing touchdown cut the margin to three, setting the stage for two of the most dramatic kicks in history. [12]

Two weeks later, the Patriots took the field for their second Super Bowl appearance against the high-powered defending champion St. Louis Rams. Despite entering the game as 14-point underdogs, Brady led his club to a 14 point lead before a pair of second-half touchdowns tied the game at 17 and set the stage for the first of many memorable Super Bowl moments for the young quarterback. [13]

In two years, Brady had gone from a solid but unspectacular college quarterback to the hero of a long-suffering franchise. Brady could have drifted into obscurity and still been heralded as a hero throughout Massachusetts. But he was just getting started.

He’s No Fluke

The Patriots experienced some regression in Brady’s first year as the full-time starter. While they managed a winning record of 9-7, it wasn’t enough to return to the playoffs. Brady was once again solid but unspectacular, and there was still no indication that he was destined for a hall-of-fame career.

That all changed in 2003. Brady, Belichick, and the Patriots came roaring out of the gates and never slowed down, winning a franchise-best 14 games and capturing the #1 seed in the AFC.  Once again, Brady served as a high-end game manager while the league’s top-ranked defense led the way. 

In the first of many postseason match-ups, Tom Brady got the best of the heralded Peyton Manning with a 24-14 victory while the Patriots’ defense flustered highly regarded Manning into four interceptions. [14]

In the Super Bowl, the Patriots faced an upstart Panthers team that had gone 1-15 just two years prior. The game played out similarly to Brady’s first Super Bowl with the Patriots needing a last-second field goal from Vinatieri to clinch the title. [15]

New England didn’t sit back and relax. In 2004 they again won 14 regular season games, setting the NFL record for consecutive victories at 21. While the defense was once again one of the league’s best Brady took a notable step forward, throwing a career-best 28 touchdowns and eclipsing 3600 passing yards. [16]

Manning and the Colts once again were waiting in the playoffs, and the Patriots once again easily dispatched of one of the league’s most fearsome offenses, holding them to just three points. After crushing the Steelers in the AFC Championship, Brady systematically took apart the Philadelphia Eagles for his third Super Bowl title in four seasons. [17]

Brady could no longer be considered lucky or a flash in the pan. While his numbers paled in comparison to quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, all he did was find a way to win. The spotlight on the Manning/Brady rivalry kept getting brighter. How was this plucky sixth-rounder getting the best of the “best quarterback prospect in NFL history?”

The Rivalry That Changed the NFL

While Brady was an overlooked prospect with poor combine numbers and an uninspiring college career, Peyton Manning arrived in the NFL as football royalty. The son of former-quarterback Archie Manning, Peyton starred at Tennessee and was considered one of the best prospects in history when he was drafted first overall in 1998. [18]

By the time Brady had been anointed the starter in 2001, Manning already had a pair of top-five MVP seasons and a 13-win campaign under his belt. [19]

They met in the playoffs for the first time in 2003, as would become a tradition in the early years of their rivalry, the Patriots’ defense flummoxed the highly decorated Manning. Brady already had bested Manning in the regular season, and the Colts managed just fourteen points in their divisional-round matchup.

It got even worse for Manning the following year. Fresh off his second straight MVP campaign, Manning was brutal in the 2004 AFC Divisional round, putting up just three points in a 20-3 defeat. [20]

By now the narrative had been written. Manning would collect personal trophies and post gaudy passing numbers, but it would be Brady and the “team-first” approach of the Patriots that would have the upper hand. 

By the end of the 2004/2005 season, Manning was 0-6 against Brady and the Patriots. It was the nadir of Peyton’s career as Brady now owned a trio of Super Bowl victories while Manning was still looking for his first Super Bowl appearance.

But over the next two regular seasons, Manning got into the win column with a pair of regular season victories in which he threw for over 300 yards in both games and five total touchdowns. [21]

In the 2006 AFC Championship, Manning truly got his revenge, rallying the Colts from a huge deficit to knock off Brady in the postseason for the first time, 38-34. Two weeks later Manning would beat an overmatched Chicago Bears team for his first championship. [22]

After Manning’s championship victory, Brady managed a 5-3 record against his rival in the regular season. But they wouldn’t meet in the postseason again until Manning had left Indianapolis and joined the Denver Broncos. Manning toppled Brady and their final two postseason matchups, securing victories in 2014 and 2016, the second leading to Manning’s second Super Bowl title. But by 2016, injuries had sapped Manning of his arm strength and the Broncos’ stellar defense helped carry a subpar Broncos offense to the title.

In all, Manning posted the most wins of any quarterback against Brady in history, but his final record stands at just 6-11. However, he does have a winning record against Brady in the postseason at 3-2. [23]

The “Down” Years

One could argue that the most disappointing stretch of Tom Brady’s career is still worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. But when discussing the greatest player the sport has ever seen, nine years without a Super Bowl victory is as close to disappointing as it gets.

It wasn’t like Brady’s 2005-2013 stretch was disastrous. He led the 2007 Patriots to just the second undefeated record in NFL history and won his MVP awards in 2007 and 2010. [24]

His 2007 season remains one of the best in NFL history. Brady tossed 50 touchdowns and just 8 interceptions, leading the league in yards, touchdowns, and QBR for the first time. [25]

But after bulldozing through the league, the Patriots were stopped cold in the Super Bowl by an underwhelming Giants team that entered the game as 12.5-point underdogs. [26]

There would be no revenge tour for the juggernaut Patriots the following year. Brady suffered a torn ACL in week one against the Buffalo Bills, ending his season, and while backup Matt Cassell led the Patriots to eleven wins, New England missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002. [27, 28]

Brady racked up another MVP award in 2011, leading the league in touchdown passes for the third time. [29]

But Eli Manning and the Giants once again stunned the favored Patriots in the Super Bowl in a game boasting some eerie similarities to their classic encounter a few years earlier. [30]

There was no doubt that Brady was a guaranteed hall of famer, and three Super Bowl Championships were nothing to scoff at. But as the 2014 season began it had been nearly ten years since Brady had hoisted the Lombardi trophy, and at 37 years old, it was fair to wonder how much longer he could continue to play at the highest level.

The Malcolm Butler Miracle

But Brady continued to produce in 2014, leading the Patriots to 12 regular season wins for the third consecutive season, winning another AFC East title, and obliterating Andrew Luck and the up-and-coming Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game. [31]

For the first time since 2005, no Eli Manning was standing between Brady and another title. But the Seattle Seahawks were anything but a cakewalk, featuring one of the best secondaries in NFL history and a reliable offense led by quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch. Brady and the Pats battled back in the fourth quarter including another iconic late-game drive by Brady to put New England up four. But with Seattle just inches from the goal line, Seattle made a decision that lives in NFL infamy to this day. 

It’s hard to say that Brady needed a fourth ring to “cement” his legacy, but the heartbreaking defeats of the last decade had made his early career success feel more distant than it probably should. Escaping yet another memorable Super Bowl with a victory only solidified the Brady legacy. At least it should have. But even as Brady and his teammates celebrated, a cloud had begun to form over the franchise, and Brady would be in the middle of a swirling controversy that would dominate headlines for the next two years. 

Brady Goes Heel and Breaks the Falcons

Shortly after the Patriots’ trouncing of the Colts in the 2014 AFC Championship game, reports came out implicating Brady in the Patriots of unfair play. The game had been held in New England under cold and wet conditions and the Colts claimed that Brady and the Patriots had doctored their footballs by deflating them, making them easier to grip and throw in the challenging conditions. 

If true, how much of an unfair advantage did Brady have? And with a final score of 45-7, could deflated footballs have been the difference? Common sense would say no, but the principle of the accusations and the NFL’s desire to enforce every rule led to an investigation that lasted much of the summer. 

In the end, Brady and team trainers were found complacent in playing the first half of the game with footballs doctored below the minimum P.S.I of 12.5. The fact that New England scored 28 points in the second half didn’t seem to have much influence on the league’s ruling. Brady remained steadfast in his innocence stating that he didn’t doctor the balls in any way. [32

Commissioner Roger Goodell levied a one million dollar fine against the Patriots, stripped them of a pair of draft picks, and suspended Brady for the first four games of the 2015 season. But Brady wouldn’t take the punishment lying down, filing an appeal against the NFL that was drawn out in the courts and allowing him to play in the 2015 season in its entirety. Brady fell to his old foe Peyton Manning in the 2015 AFC Championship and after a parade of appeals, court appearances, and countless hours of sports talk speculation, Brady finally accepted his four-game suspension at the start of the 2016 season. [33]

In the span of fifteen years, Brady had gone from a heartwarming and plucky underdog to a villain.

So when New England marched back to the Super Bowl in January of 2017, the majority of the country seemed to be rallying behind the Atlanta Falcons in hopes of seeing the fall of the Evil Empire. Halfway through the third quarter, it appeared they were getting their wish.


After the Falcons scored with 8:31 left in the third to give the Falcons the 25-point lead, here’s how the Patriots’ offensive drives went:

  • Touchdown: 13 plays, 75 yards
  • Field Goal: 12 plays, 72 yards
  • Touchdown: 5 plays, 25 yards
  • Touchdown: 10 plays, 91 yards
  • Touchdown (OT): 8 plays, 75 yards [34]

Instead of watching the villain get his comeuppance, the NFL universe watched in stunned silence as Brady led the Patriots to the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history. Whether you branded him a cheater, a fake, or a savior, no one could deny that Tom Brady had cemented himself as the greatest to ever play the game.

The Final New England Years

If this was a movie, the writer probably would have faded to black as Brady walked off the field with his fifth title. But the same competitive drive that had helped Brady reach this point refused to let him step away from the game he loved. 

Instead, at 40 years old, Brady became the oldest player to ever win the MVP. [35]

What kept Brady going? Could he possibly feel threatened? That someone was coming for his job? As crazy as it seems, that does seem to be the case. The Patriots had drafted quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round of the 2014 NFL draft and it seemed that coach Bill Belichick planned to groom Garoppolo as Brady’s replacement. [36]

But Brady was insistent on playing into his mid-40s and had no interest in walking away.

But Garoppolo got his opportunity early in 2016 with Brady suspended. Despite an injury, “Jimmy G” went 2-0 as a starter in Brady’s absence and showed enough flashes to justify a longer look as an NFL-caliber quarterback. Brady, Belichick, and owner Robert Kraft have all disputed rumors of unrest, but inside sources reported friction between the three with Belichick prepared to move on from Brady and Kraft wishing for Brady to wear a Patriots uniform as long as he wished. [37]

These whispers only grew in 2017 when Garoppolo was traded to the 49ers in October. If there was a power struggle, Kraft and Brady seemed to have won. Any strife didn’t show up on Sundays though. Brady won his third MVP trophy and returned to the Super Bowl, this time against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Brady would set the record for passing yards in a Super Bowl but would lose a memorable shootout to back-up Nick Foles 41-33. [38]

But New England was right back in the big game the following year. Instead of a high-scoring affair, the Patriots won a snoozefest against the Los Angeles Rams 13-3. [39]

Now 42, Brady entered 2019 in uncharted territory. He’d wrecked every aging curve and left analysts wondering what a decline phase would look like. For over five years pundits had declared the beginning of the end was near. [40]

He couldn’t possibly keep this up forever, could he? 

At long last, Brady’s play dropped off in 2019. How much of it was a lack of offensive weapons and how much his age was unclear as Brady failed to make the Pro Bowl for the first time since his injury-stricken 2008 season. [41]

Was this the end of the line? Would he finally hang up his cleats? If so, his final pass in a wild-card loss to the Tennessee Titans was a sour note to end on.

A Title for Tampa

The rift between Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick had not improved despite two more Super Bowl appearances and another title. Belichick had a propensity for moving on from players before they reached their decline phase, and while Brady continued to defy the inevitable aging process, it was simply a matter of if, not when.

Sick of being underestimated and wanting to be, in his words, “appreciated,” Brady sketched out what he desired for his next team and contract.

  • A good, but not necessarily great team
  • Warmer weather
  • Either closer to his parents on the west coast, or near his son who lived in New York
  • A coach that valued collaboration
  • A two year-$50 million contract [42]

Brady chose the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a warm-weather team stocked with offensive weapons like receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin along with a solid offensive line. 

Instead of his play continuing to decline, Brady rebounded with a 40-touchdown campaign and an 11-5 record. [43]

It was Tampa Bay’s first playoff appearance since 2007 and Brady made the most of it, rolling through the NFC playoff bracket and matching up with the Chiefs’ wunderkind quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Behind a stifling defensive performance, the Buc dominated en route to a 31-9 victory. Brady had silenced the doubters yet again and there was no question that he’d be returning the following year. 

The 44-year-old Brady handled the pandemic stricken 2020 season in stride, throwing his most touchdown passes since 2007 and finishing second in MVP voting. [44]

Tampa Bay fell in the playoffs to the Rams who would go on to win the title. But despite the disappointing ending, Brady now stood at the precipice of accomplishing his long-stated goal of playing until he was 45.

Brady briefly retired at the end of the season, but quickly walked back his decision less than two months later, announcing his return to the Buccaneers for at least one more season. Could he capture one more championship?

Father Time is Undefeated

Brady didn’t fall off a cliff in 2022. But he no longer looked immortal either. His arm strength declined noticeably and a weakened offensive line led to him getting rid of the ball earlier to minimize hits and sacks. [45]

That said, Brady’s final numbers were anything but disastrous as he threw 25 touchdowns and led the league in passing attempts. All of this at an age when many quarterbacks would have been comfortably retired for at least five years. Tampa Bay went just 8-9 but still managed to win the NFC South before being soundly defeated by the Dallas Cowboys in the wild-card round. [46]

It had been a tumultuous year for Brady off the field too. He and his wife Gisele divorced at the same time that FTX, a crypto company he had invested in, went bankrupt. [47, 48]

For the second straight offseason, Brady announced his retirement in early February. [49]

But this time there didn’t seem to be any possibility that the greatest quarterback the game had ever seen would return to the field. His body finally seemed to be slowing down along with a lucrative announcing career waiting for him whenever he wanted. [50]

Not to mention, he has kittens to raise.

We Will Never See His Like Again

Few players get to walk away from their sport at the top. Sure, we remember Michael Jordan hitting the game-winning shot in the 1998 NBA Finals but forget that he returned a few years later for a handful of nondescript seasons with the Washington Wizards.

But even if we consider Brady’s Tampa Bay seasons as his “Wizards run,” we find another title and a second-place finish in the MVP race. All at an age where even suiting up for an NFL franchise would defy expectations. 

How good was Brady? He essentially had not one, but two hall-of-fame careers.

  • 2000-2011: 45,264 yards. 338 touchdowns. 3 Super Bowl Championships
  • 2012-2021: 52,305 yards. 372 touchdowns. 4 Super Bowl Championships [51]

Even his closest rival, Peyton Manning, can’t come close to touching any of these numbers. In an age where roster turnover and free agency reduce a team’s window to just a few years, Brady’s two-decade run will likely never be touched. Can someone like Patrick Mahomes enjoy a long run of excellence? Absolutely. But the odds of him maintaining the sort of elongated success that Brady has enjoyed are very long. 

But even if Mahomes does manage to match Brady, it won’t be the same. Mahomes was a first-round pick, a highly sought-after prospect that the Chiefs traded up to draft. Brady was an afterthought. A sixth-round pick that started fourth on the depth chart and only got his chance because the franchise quarterback in front of him went down. Love him or hate him, it’s impossible to deny the storybook tale that is Brady’s career, the long odds he overcame, and a legacy that will continue to cast a shadow over every player that steps behind center for decades to come.


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