When Tom Brady debuted vs. Detroit Lions, ‘kid from Michigan’ started legendary career

Detroit Free Press

Carlos Monarrez
| Detroit Free Press

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More than 20 years have passed. More than 1,000 weeks. More than 7,000 days.

And yet, Tom Brady remembers the day well. Even if it was garbage time.

It was the day he played in his first regular-season NFL game, during the New England Patriots’ 34-9 loss to the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day 2000 at the Pontiac Silverdome.

Even as Brady prepares for another milestone — when his Tampa Bay Buccaneers visit the Lions, it will be his 300th career game — one short series 20 years ago still stands out. After six Super Bowl titles and a Hall of Fame career that has rewritten the definition of what it means to be a successful quarterback, that day remains memorable for Brady.

He was just 23. The fourth quarterback on the Patriots’ roster, trying to climb past Michael Bishop and John Friesz on the depth chart. Heck, Brady wasn’t even active for the Patriots’ game 11 days earlier.

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But when Drew Bledsoe threw an interception that Bryant Westbrook returned 101 yards for a touchdown, Bill Belichick gave Brady the nod. With 4:04 left in the game, he stepped onto the field, walked into the huddle and began his path down the corridors of NFL history.

“Yeah, I was active for that game,” Brady, 43, said Wednesday during a conference call. “It was Thanksgiving Day. We got our butts beat pretty bad by the Lions and got in at the end of the game. I think I threw a few, three passes.

“And it was just, you know, an insignificant start to the career because I wouldn’t say many people were expecting me ever to have the kind of career that I had. So for me it was great to be out on the field and learning.”

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Brady played in the final offensive series for the Patriots, and it wasn’t remarkable.

His first play was an incomplete pass that he threw too early and hit running back J.R. Redmond in the face. Westbrook almost picked off his second pass to Terry Glenn at the sideline. His third pass was completed to Redmond — then nullified by a penalty on center Damien Woody. On his next (and final) play of the game, Brady completed his first NFL pass: a 6-yarder to tight end Rod Rutledge on third-and-10.

By the time Brady came in, many of the 77,923 fans at the Silverdome had scattered to get an early start on Thanksgiving dinner. The debut of Michigan football’s former All-Big Ten honorable mention quarterback got little to no attention from Detroit sports writers busy hammering out their stories on a holiday deadline.

Larry Lee was the Lions’ vice president of football operations in 2000, and even he recalled very little about Brady’s debut.

“If I do remember,” Lee said, “it was a run-of-the-mill deal because he wasn’t the (Greatest of All Time) back then. He was like the backup quarterback or the Michigan kid getting in the game at that time.

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“But it wasn’t like he was the G.O.A.T. that he is now. It wouldn’t have been sentimental or something special. It was just, ‘Hey, the kid from Michigan is in at quarterback’ kind of thing.”

Phil Simms was the color commentator working alongside Greg Gumbel for CBS’s broadcast of the game. He would be the first analyst to say something about Brady. Simms couldn’t recall what he said, but he took a playful stab anyway.

“Tom Brady coming in the game?” Simms told the Free Press recently. “I thought he was the third-string quarterback, not the second?”

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Simms was even against Brady even playing because New York Giants coach Bill Parcells had taught him that starters should learn from their losses and should never be pulled.

“Here comes Tom Brady at quarterback for Drew Bledsoe,” Simms said on the broadcast. “Not surprising … and I’m not a big believer in you take your quarterback out ever.”

Of course, plenty of Michigan fans as well as Brady’s friends and family were watching. Jay Feely, the former Michigan kicker who remains a close friend of Brady’s, was watching the game with his wife at their home in Tampa.

“I do remember just being excited for him just because we thought he might get an opportunity,” Feely said. “Here’s the irony. I was thrilled for him when he made the team as a fourth-string quarterback. I remember calling him and just being like, ‘Man, that’s so awesome! You made the team! That’s great!’

“And most teams don’t keep four quarterbacks, so that’s great. And just the fact that he’s in the NFL and he made a team, I thought that was amazing. Little do you know who he’s going to become and what he’s going to become.”

Why didn’t the Lions draft Brady?

It seems obvious, doesn’t it? How could the Lions, who played an hour away from Michigan Stadium, miss out on drafting the best quarterback in NFL history when he played basically in their own backyard?

Of course, it’s important to remember that Brady was drafted 199th overall in 2000, which means 32 teams passed on him a total of 198 times. Ron Hughes was the Lions’ vice president of player personnel, but he was effectively the team’s general manager for 2000 NFL draft, when the Lions tried to beef up their defense by spending four of their six picks on defense.

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The Lions weren’t in the market for a quarterback in 2000. Charlie Batch was entrenched as the starter and the Lions went to camp with four other quarterbacks: Stoney Case, Cory Sauter, Mike Tomczak and Steve Stenstrom.

“I don’t remember much other than I know we had him rated higher than a sixth-round pick,” Lee said. “We had a better grade on him than that, but it wasn’t much better. Maybe a third-, fourth-round type grade.”

The Lions didn’t have a fourth-round pick, but in the third round they drafted Oregon running back Reuben Droughns, who battled injuries and played nine games for the Lions. In the sixth round, 18 picks before Brady was selected, the Lions drafted Auburn defensive end Quinton Reese, who never played an NFL down.

Last year, longtime NFL writer Bob McGinn went through his predraft notes from personnel evaluators for an article in The Athletic. One NFC scout lauded Brady’s game against Alabama in the Orange Bowl but said, “I think he’s just very common.” Another scout told McGinn: “I don’t like him. Smart guy. That’s it.”

One of the most prescient evaluations McGinn collected came from Hughes.

“Interesting, interesting guy,” McGinn quoted Hughes as saying. “He looks like one of them poles you hang coats on. He’s got big knobs on his shoulders. But this guy is a very good deep passer. He’s highly competitive. He can’t run worth a lick but he has enough where he can step out of the way of people.”

One question Lee doesn’t remember getting a clear answer to was why Michigan coach Lloyd Carr platooned him with Drew Henson for two years.

“If I remember correctly,” Lee said, “we were wondering why he was being alternated at Michigan. So we just were wondering what the coach was thinking with that move. We thought he was the better of the two and we had him graded better than a sixth-round pick.”

Brady was the seventh of 10 picks for the Patriots in 2000. Belichick announced Brady’s selection with all the gusto of someone who just scored the cheapest 12-pack of socks at Costco.

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“The value board at that point really clearly put him as the top value,” Belichick recalled to the Patriots’ website in 2016. “Brady is a guy that has obviously played at a high level of competition in front of a lot of people and he’s been in a lot of pressure situations. We felt that this year his decision-making was improved from his junior year after he took over for Brian Griese. He cut his interceptions down.

“He’s a good, tough, competitive, smart quarterback that is a good value, and how he does and what he’ll be able to do, we’ll just put him out there with everybody else and let him compete and we’ll see what happens.”

The beginning of everything

Even if NFL talent evaluators had questions about Brady’s athleticism and his ability and why he was splitting time with another quarterback, Brady never did.

“Once he got an opportunity and he was starting at Michigan I never saw a lot of doubt in him at all,” Feely said. “He was always a great leader. He always had a magnetic personality. And once he was the starting guy he was going to draw people towards him.

“And the same thing happened in New England, which that didn’t surprise me at all in the least bit. As soon as he got there and made the team, even though he was fourth string, you knew he was going to have that personality that he would be a leader. And as soon as he got into the role of starter I never doubted that he would keep that role because he’s the perfect guy to be in that position.”

Simms may not have remembered much about Brady’s debut. But he remembered how high Belichick and then-offensive coordinator Charlie Weis were on Brady when he attended Patriots practice and CBS’s production meetings with the team.

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“And they were talking about, ‘Hey, you know this Tom Brady,’ ” Simms said. “I said, ‘Really? Yeah, OK. I saw him at Michigan. I liked him but I don’t know.’ ‘No, no, he’s yadda, yadda, yadda.’

“I remember all that from that year when I’d go talk to them, between Charlie Weis and Belichick and whoever else was on that staff. They were talking about Brady to me.”

In retrospect, Simms said, it made sense when Brady entered the game so late on Thanksgiving. It was part of a grooming process that had begun months earlier and that, unknown to anyone, would pay off huge with a Super Bowl victory the following season.

“I think it’s just the beginning to tell you here’s a little spot to give Tom some experience,” Simms said of the debut. “Because his rookie year practice would end, he would go, I think they would go to another field and he would take a bunch of first-year guys and some of the coaches and ball boys, whatever, and they would run mini-practices and he would be in charge of everything.

“And he would call plays, check it out, do this. He might have a quality control coach running down the field as a receiver, whatever. But I think they did that quite a bit that year because they were trying to speed up the process of grooming him.”

Even after Brady’s frustrations at Michigan, even after being a bargain-basement draft pick buried on the depth chart behind an entrenched Pro Bowler who had taken the team to the Super Bowl, Brady spent his rookie year tirelessly grinding, making up for deficiencies and turning himself into a better player.

“Always,” Feely said. “Yeah, I mean he was never a great athlete. He was limited athletically and he was going to make himself and will himself into a better athlete, a better player.

“That still is part of who he is. He still studies as much or more than anybody. He still spends two hours a day working on his body making sure that he’s doing everything he can to be the very best that he can be. That’s why he’s played so long at such a high level.”

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This is why Feely wasn’t surprised in 2001, when he was playing for the Atlanta Falcons and the Patriots visited in early November. Brady threw three touchdown passes and led the Patriots to a 24-10 win after taking over for an injured Bledsoe six weeks earlier.

“I remember giving him a big hug after that game and just being kind of like giddy for him that he was playing so well,” Feely said. “He was getting an opportunity to start and I think everybody that was at Michigan was a bit surprised at how well he played that year when he got his opportunity.

“And it took a little while, but that was one of the big games. That game at Atlanta was one of the galvanizing moments kind of for that team that season and where he really started to play really well.”

Lessons at Michigan paid off

That Thanksgiving Day game itself was insignificant, but it was the start of something for Brady; he used it as a springboard for the rest of the season and into the next year, which turned into the most important of the Patriots’ dynasty.

“And then I got more opportunities as that season went on in practice,” Brady said, “and put myself in a position that next offseason to compete for the backup role, which I ended up winning. And then when Drew got hurt I was able to become the starter.

“And I tried to play as well as I could and I treated everything like it was very important year-round. It was very important for me to compete against myself to see how good I could be.”

The frustrations Brady might have felt as a college player constantly having to prove himself seem to have either faded or turned into something else. Maybe something like gratitude for serving as the crucible in which he molded himself into an unrelenting competitor.

“And I learned a lot of those lessons at Michigan,” Brady said. “And Michigan was a great training ground for me because it wasn’t — nothing was gifted. I think you had to go out there and earn it. You had to earn the respect of your teammates and your coaches. And for me, that’s what I had to do in order to play in college.

“So I didn’t expect much difference when I went to the pros and then got my opportunity and I always felt like if I got my opportunity I was never going to look back. And still haven’t really looked back that much even 20-plus years later.”

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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