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Brady's return to the field for Patriots has been a long time coming

He married a supermodel, spent quality time with his 2-year-old son and appeared on the television show "Entourage," which joked about his knee surgery in a way that Bill Belichick would never let him talk about for real.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- He married a supermodel, spent quality time with his 2-year-old son and appeared on the television show "Entourage," which joked about his knee surgery in a way that Bill Belichick would never let him talk about for real.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has been everywhere in the last 11 months.

Except playing quarterback for the New England Patriots.

After a year off worthy of a rock star -- right down to the police investigation into whether his bodyguards shot at photographers covering his Costa Rican wedding -- Brady is ready to return to the NFL on Thursday night when the Patriots open the exhibition season in Philadelphia against the Eagles.

And that's when the two-time Super Bowl MVP plans to prove that, despite all the trappings of his success, he hasn't gone soft.

"I'm a believer that talk is real cheap," Brady said this summer. "I know it looks glamorous at times, but I think what I enjoy the most is playing football and being with my family, and those are the kind of things that I do. I'm excited to go out there and compete. And anytime I have a chance to compete, I love that."

Brady, who had started 128 consecutive games, has played just 5 minutes, 58 seconds since a loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII spoiled the Patriots' chances at a 19-0 season. He sat out the entire exhibition season last year because of an unspecified foot injury, then was knocked out for the regular season in the first quarter of the opener against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Brady made the best of it.

After visiting Brazil to meet her family, Brady married supermodel Gisele Bundchen in two ceremonies, one in Costa Rica and another in the United States. He played Mr. Mom for the son he had with actress Bridget Moynahan. Then came reports that Bundchen is pregnant. (Brady has denied it, but publicists for one of Bundchen's modeling gigs said they airbrushed the baby bump out of the photo shoot.)

"There's been great things happening in my life for a long time," Brady said. "And certainly this year was no different, and different areas of success with marriage and with children. It's a great part of my life and so is work. I'm excited for all those things coming together. I think I'm a happier person when I'm working."

Brady appeared as himself this week on the HBO show "Entourage," in which Mark Wahlberg sandbagged for extra strokes on the golf course by saying, "This guy's had 12 surgeries in six months." But Brady didn't want the extra strokes, and he doesn't expect any sympathy on the football field, either.

"No one wants to play more than he does," Patriots center Dan Koppen said of Brady. "I know how much that hurt him to be off on the sidelines last year and watch. No one's a bigger competitor than him."

Brady's teammates enjoy treating the superstar in their midst as just another player. On his birthday, which falls in the middle of training camp, Brady got cake smeared all over his face. He seems to be involved in every locker-room practical joke, either as the culprit or the victim.

And, through three Super Bowl victories, the other Patriots have learned that Brady has long coattails. Offensive lineman Matt Light compared having Brady back to winning the lottery.

"You are one of the guys here, and I enjoy that. ... I always have fun here," said Brady, who's accustomed to the ribbing that results from his A-list celebrity and multiple endorsements.

"For 10 years, I've been leaving myself open, so I've heard just about everything," Brady added. "Those guys are the biggest beneficiaries of everything, too. So they get their Smartwater delivered to their house and their cologne and their watches and the cars. When something goes well for me, it goes well for them, too."

Patriots coach Belichick wouldn't say how much Brady will play in the four-game exhibition season, though he said he wasn't worried that the 2007 NFL MVP would be nervous about his injury or distracted after a year away from the field.

"Tom's always been a pretty focused guy, very focused," Belichick said. "He does his job, and there're a lot of distractions out there when you're at quarterback and a lot of things that can get you off track. But that doesn't happen much to him. I'm sure he'll be ready to go, and he's worked awfully hard. I'm sure he's looking forward to the opportunity to play."

Belichick is right about that, especially after Brady waited so long. Brady hinted this summer that his lack of playing time during the 2008 exhibition season might have left him open to the injury that knocked him out for the season. The tackle by Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard was legal, though the NFL has since outlawed the type of lunge that hurt Brady.

"I wish I would have been able to play last preseason," Brady said. "I think it's an important part for all of us as football players to be out there to understand the things that just don't come up in practice.

"I'm expecting to play; there's no reason why I wouldn't. I mean, I've been out here and doing everything, and it will be nice to get out there and play some football."

After all, even with everything else in his life, that's still what Brady does best.

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