Back before the wins, all 249 of them. Before the touchdowns, all 614 of them. Before the Super Bowl titles, all six of them. Before the MVP awards, all seven of them – three of them in the regular season and four for the Super Bowl. Before the famous actresses and supermodels and fashion statements. Back before Tom Brady was Tom Brady the GOAT.
Back in 2000 there was a skinny rookie sixth-round pick out of Michigan who arrived at Bryant College with a simple goal in mind: find a way to make the coaches realize he was worth keeping around.
As strange as it sounds now, that was no easy task. The Patriots had three other quarterbacks on the roster when training camp rolled around. Drew Bledsoe was the franchise at the time, but John Friesz and Michael Bishop were also ahead of Brady on the depth chart, and Brady knew it wouldn't be easy to prove his worth.
As part of our camp coverage back then we used to include a feature we called our "Rookie Diary" where we'd speak to one player and have him recount each day's events. In 1999 that player was Marcus Washington, a cornerback who was also a sixth-round pick but failed to achieve much notoriety.
As surreal as it seems now, Brady was our subject back in 2000.
Shane Donaldson and I were tasked with chatting with Brady every day, and while neither us will pretend that we knew what was going to happen, we both came away quite impressed with the youngster's demeanor and poise. We enjoyed the daily briefings and watched him during practice a little more closely in order to help our conversations afterward.
We both felt he was far superior to Bishop (nothing gets by us!) and should make the team over him. Turns out the scrambling young quarterback, who briefly became a sensation in New England with his ability to freelance, stuck around, too, as all four were on the roster for the entire season.
As camp continued the first game of the Bill Belichick era arrived – a trip to Canton, Ohio, to take on the 49ers in the Hall of Fame Game. How fitting that Brady's career began in the same place it will end – at the Hall of Fame.
In looking back over some of those diary entries, Brady unwittingly offered a glimpse of the future. In describing his first professional road trip, Brady explained his thoughts on the visit to Pro Football's shrine.
"It was neat walking through the Hall of Fame and seeing the history of the game," he said. "We're part of the NFL now, and someday we'll be part of the tradition of the game."
If only he knew just how much he and his teammates would indeed become a part of the tradition of the game. Or maybe he did.
Much has been made of Brady's famous first meeting with Robert Kraft, when the rookie introduced himself to his new boss and told him he was the best decision the team ever made. Now 20 years have passed, and somehow calling Brady the best decision the Patriots ever made seems like an understatement.
So, perhaps Brady did envision the magic he was about to sprinkle throughout New England over the following two decades. After all, the kid led a game-winning drive to a last-minute Adam Vinatieri field goal in the very next game, a 13-10 win over Detroit in Week 2 of the preseason. That was the first of many victories he would secure.
Last-minute heroics and historic success would become commonplace. All because of Brady's presence at the center of the greatest modern-day dynasty in sports history.
As impressive as the numbers are, they don't begin to tell the story of what the Patriots have become in his tenure. It's true that the franchise's metamorphosis began nearly a decade earlier with the arrivals of Bledsoe, Bill Parcells and Kraft, but the massive heights attained since would come under Brady.
Brady simultaneously became the game's most iconic figure and in a true testament to his immense popularity, one of the most reviled among opposing fans. That kind of juxtaposition can only be achieved by pure greatness. While there are some lingering detractors out there, he is now widely considered the greatest quarterback to ever play.
All of which is remarkably impressive on its own, but perhaps equally so is the reputation he's earned off the field. Through two decades, most of which has been spent under the bright spotlight of fame at the highest level, Brady has barely ever had a misstep let alone made any egregious mistakes. He's always been able to avoid the controversy that many other celebrities manage to find regularly.
Much has changed since that skinny kid from San Mateo by way of Ann Arbor found his way to Foxborough. The golly-gee-shucks persona he wore then is long gone. The boy next door has morphed into that rare celebrity who transcends sports, with his every move monitored everywhere.
The idea of chatting with him one-on-one every day nowadays seems as likely as seeing him no longer wearing a Patriots jersey. But that's the reality of where we are today.
Tom Brady is no longer a Patriot, but he will always be The Patriots.