EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — Take away the super model wife, the Ugg boots commercials and the three Super Bowl trophies.
Take away the two MVP awards and the guest appearances on "Saturday Night Live" and "The Simpsons."
Take Tom Brady back to his first days in the NFL as a sixth-round draft pick with almost no expectations for his career, and therein lies the foundation for his friendship with Minnesota Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel.
Cassel was a seventh-round pick of the New England Patriots in 2005 and Brady saw a little bit of himself in the former USC quarterback who never started a game in college. Brady quickly took Cassel under his wing, pushing him, prodding him, investing time in a kid no one knew anything about.
"He's had to fight his whole career and I think that's what makes him a special player," Brady said. "Things were never easy for him in high school. They weren't easy in college. Certainly when he got to the professional level, they weren't easy. There was a lot of competition that really tested his mettle and it served him really well over the course of his career."
The two became fast friends, with Cassel stepping in for an injured Brady in 2008 and leading the Patriots to a 10-5 record over the final 15 games. Cassel left to become a starting quarterback with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2009 and the two will be opponents on the field for the first time on Sunday when the Vikings (1-0) host the Patriots (0-1).
"Tom and I have remained close friends throughout this entire process," Cassel said Wednesday. "I think even in the offseason, we play golf together, we see each other, we see each other's families and it's a relationship that I'm very fortunate to have. He's a guy that I bounce stuff off of. We talk every other week. We probably won't talk this week, I'm guessing."
The diplomacy Cassel expresses publicly on this and any other subject is straight out of the Patriots playbook. He of course watched how Brady broke down film, exploited opponents' weaknesses and read defenses. But Cassel also spent four years watching Brady take hold of the locker room, respond to the demanding New England media and keep the team together in good times and bad.
"There's a number of different things I took away from Tom, but one of the main things was his leadership and how he approached his leadership, his work ethic," Cassel said. "And each and every day, his accountability to knowing the offense and being accountable."
Patriots coach Bill Belichick watched the two quarterbacks work together over the years and benefited from that relationship when Brady went down with a knee injury in the first game in 2008. In stepped the unknown Cassel, who threw for 3,693 yards, 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while completing 63.4 percent of his passes.
"Those two players really worked well together," Belichick said. "He had the opportunity to watch Tom and learn from Tom when he came into the league. Very competitive and hard-working player with a lot of talent and I think he made Tom better and they made each other better."
It's been six years since Cassel and Brady were teammates, but the two have remained close. Cassel struggled through injuries and fan criticism during his four years in Kansas City and was frustrated last year in his first season in Minnesota while the Vikings cycled through three quarterbacks during a 5-10-1 season.
Through it all, he sought Brady's counsel and has now cemented himself as the unquestioned starter in Minnesota. Now Cassel finds himself in a mentor role, with first-round draft pick Teddy Bridgewater waiting in the wings as the team's quarterback of the future.
"He's always been one of my great friends," Brady said. "He's just a special guy, special friend. We're great buddies. I'm so happy for him for what he's been able to accomplish, but I hope we beat him up this week. It's just the way it goes.
"At the same time, he's a great friend. He was a great mentor to me when I was there and, like I said, I'm really grateful I had that opportunity to work with him and learn from him."