3 Super Bowls make Brady football's guy

Dec 6, 2009 - 3:00 PM EDITORS: The Associated Press is asking members to vote on their choice for Athlete of the Decade. Their selection will be announced Dec. 16. Ahead of that pick, the AP is profiling some of the leading candidates.

By BARRY WILNER=

AP Football Writer=

Tom Brady began the decade as an obscure backup. He closes it as the most accomplished player in the nation's most popular sport, a three-time champion whose persona has transcended football.

Brady is the NFL's rock star, as much The Boss as Springsteen, as much the American Idol as David Cook.

He's also a candidate for The Associated Press' Athlete of the Decade.

"For one reason, he's won a lot of games," says Broncos star cornerback Champ Bailey. "He's won three Super Bowls and been to four. I think that says a lot about what kind of player he is."

What kind of player is this sixth-round draft pick, who lost his starting job at Michigan and came to New England almost as an afterthought? A quarterback who by 2001 had become a second-stringer behind Drew Bledsoe, then was forced into the starting lineup when Bledsoe was injured two games into the season?

He's a winner. A leader. A clutch performer. The phrases used to describe Montana, Marino, Unitas - they all apply to Brady.

"I play in a team sport, so leadership is of paramount importance," he says. "All of us in that locker room push each other, and we communicate well. I've never felt that leadership consists of empty words. Instead, I feel that you lead by showing up every day ready to work hard, and be accountable for what you do for yourself and toward others."

And listen to what one of his contemporaries - and the only true challenger to Brady for the NFL's top player in this century - has to say:

"I've never been in a practice with him or a huddle with him," Peyton Manning says, "but you just get the sense, and you hear from his teammates and the guys he's played with, that Tom is an excellent leader. Based on strictly what you read and hear, he's one of their top offseason weightlifters and film studiers. Football, it's not just a part-time thing, it's a year-round thing for him. He truly walks the walk, and I think that's important as a quarterback."

Brady couldn't walk the walk, or do much walking of any kind, a year ago. He tore left knee ligaments in the 2008 opener, sidelining him for the rest of the season and depriving the NFL - not to mention the paparazzi who track every move he and wife Gisele Bundchen make - of a whole bunch of glamour.

So Brady attacked his rehab the way he goes after defensive backs, and by the middle of this season, fear had returned to the eyes of those defenders.

"I have always believed the quarterback has to be the hardest-working guy on the team and Tom is that kind of guy," says Ron Jaworski, the former NFL quarterback and longtime TV analyst. "He is the tempo-setter for the entire organization. The quarterback is the guy the flashlight is always on and has to be at his best, and he is that type of guy. He gives them life and hope and energy."

Not to mention a superb chance of winning. The Patriots won the 2001, 2003 and 2004 NFL championships, and reached the Super Bowl after the 2007 season with an unprecedented 18-0 record. They memorably lost that one to the Giants, and Brady didn't get an opportunity to add a title last year because of the wrecked knee.

But he does have a chance to conclude the decade with another crown, which would equal Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw for Super Bowl victories. And Brady is only 32, so the next decade could be fruitful, too.

Brady never stops learning the game and honing his craft. Broncos coach Josh McDaniel, who worked closely with Brady through most of the decade as an assistant to Bill Belichick in New England, has seen Brady take on the role of coordinator, too.

"He's the smartest player, or the most capable intellectually of understanding things that many players or probably most players can't understand," McDaniels says. "Tom is mentally capable of handling all that and he actually can go out and use it all. Some players can understand it when you're sitting in the room with them, and they can listen to you and it makes sense, but then when it goes out onto the field, they don't apply it because that's a whole other thing.

"And then, at the same time, what makes him special is when he does suggest something, it's a good idea. Other players say, 'Hey, what about this?' And you go, 'Well, you know, you haven't seen on the film and that wouldn't be any good.' Tom has seen as much film as you have. He says, 'You know, I really like this concept this week. Do you think we can apply it somewhere in the game plan?' Sure ... because it is a good idea. He's not overbearing with that - he's right."

That was particularly true during 2007 which, oddly, might become Brady's signature season even though the Patriots didn't win the championship. He threw for 50 touchdowns, surpassing Manning's record by one, and proved emphatically he'd gone from, as Jaworski puts it, "managing a game to being the guy who wins the games."

But in consideration for the AP's Athlete of the Decade honor, Brady is up against some of the greatest winners in sports history. He likes the company he's keeping.

"It is flattering to even be considered - especially when there are so many great athletes like Tiger, Federer, Kobe, Usain Bolt," he says. "I think what all of these great athletes have in common is that they all work very hard at their craft. And that takes time and dedication."

And the kind of talent Brady has exhibited for 10 years.






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