Tom Brady is special.
That's something even some of his most veteran, respected teammates can easily acknowledge as New England prepares for the opening of training camp 2018 at Gillette Stadium.
Three fellow Patriots captains – 11th-year Pro Bowl special teamer Matthew Slater, ninth-year Pro Bowl safety Devin McCourty and fourth-year center David Andrews – met with reporters on the eve of practice action, their combined experience barely more than what Brady brings heading into his 19th NFL campaign.
"I certainly think you have to take the time to pause and be appreciative of an athlete like that. What he's been able to accomplish is special and to be able to witness it up close and personal is really a blessing," Slater said. "I'm thankful to have learned from him as a professional, to see the way he goes about his craft, to see his desire to prepare himself so he can be successful. It's really something to watch. I'm thankful to be witnessing greatness."
McCourty was asked about seeing Brady, who sat out OTAs this spring for the first time, back to work this week grinding toward another season with an almost youthful exuberance.
"I think we're spoiled, though. I think we're so used to that," McCourty said. "You don't think about it. Tom is who Tom is. You know, every day you know you're going to get him in here early, leaving late, working hard, encouraging guys. The thing I've loved about him since I've been here – he's always a guy that you can look up to. He's always an example. You don't have to sit there and ask him a ton of question about what he does, how hard he [works] – you just watch him and you can see it. I think anybody who steps foot in the building, you kind of see that right away. So, since I've been here, he's always a guy, you know, he's in the early part of camp, he's kind of full-go. As soon as guys are reporting, he's always already ready to go. You know, it's so normal for especially a guy like me. It's my ninth year, so I've gotten to watch that nine years in a row that I don't even think about it. But, as you said, to see him still grinding, I don't know if I could pull that off for 19 years. You know, I think it's a huge part of the team's success and being able to watch him and his leadership."
As much as fans get to sit back and just observe Brady's greatness year in and year out, Andrews admitted that teammates sort of do the same thing on an even more regular basis.
"You've got to have a lot of respect for that guy," the center concluded. "Just seeing what he does day in and day out, the same drive and focus that he's had, in my – now going on our fourth training camp together, I guess – so it's kind of crazy to see all of the things that he's accomplished and things like that, and still has that drive and things like that. It's a great quality of his and something you look up to.
"He's taught me a lot. I think you can learn a lot from just watching people and just kind of soaking things in like that. It's not always what people say or may say to you. It can just be something as little as watching somebody and seeing how they approach things, how they carry themselves. I think you can learn a lot from people like that."
Beyond praise for Brady's ongoing greatness, here are some of the other highlights from New England's captains' meeting with the media.
Anthem policy update – As training camps open across the league, players, coaches and owners have been asked about the ongoing issue regarding how teams and players will handle the National Anthem prior to games. Slater, an NFLPA rep, and McCourty, active in the Players Coalition, were both asked about how it will be handled moving forward.
"I can't really get into what I've been involved in and what I haven't," Slater said. "I'll say this, we all know how that issue has affected our league, our country. As a Christian, I believe it's my responsibility to show people the love of Christ and how I deal with Him in my relationships, to invest in our youth, to invest in people and the human side of things, and that's the way I want to handle that. I can only speak for how I'm going to handle it. I'm always going to be viewing things from a Christ-centered lens and that's how I'm going to be moving forward.
McCourty remains open-minded to how things will play out.
"You see how it all works out," McCourty said. "I think for us and I know for me, a lot of what I've focused on has been what you've seen throughout the offseason, doing different things, a DA forum, different op-eds. That will continue to be my focus. So, with the anthem policy, we'll see how it comes out and what happens, but the work off the field, to me, is what's been very encouraging throughout the league, seeing guys in different cities doing things. You know, I think with the anthem policy, obviously that's what you guys have to cover. Hopefully you put a little side note and throw in things that guys have been doing because I think that's more important than whatever anthem policy."
Andrews sees old and new on O-line – Change is a part of the business of the NFL. Players and coaches come and go. For Andrews, there is a certain continuity on the offensive line, which could return four of five starters from a year ago, a group to be led once again by coaching legend Dante Scarnecchia.
"I've got a lot of respect for Scar and what he does," Andrews said of the longtime assistant eschewing retirement to return for his 35th NFL season. "He's been doing it a long time. I think as a player – seeing that – it speaks volumes to how committed he is and how much he really does want to do this. It's been awesome getting to learn from Scar and getting to play for him."
Andrews will have to deal with life without left tackle Nate Solder, who signed a $60 million contract with the Giants.
"That's just, unfortunately, the business," Andrews said. "Like I said earlier, each year has been different; different teams. It's kind of crazy when you think about it, but that's just how it is. Nate was always great to me, a great teammate and I wish him all the best."
The center also had the best line of the day when talking about newcomer mammoth left tackle Trent Brown.
"I wouldn't have wanted to feed him as a child, that's for sure," Andrews said, walking away from the podium.
Patriots school is in session – Each summer when players report for training camp, for a new year with a new team, they often liken it to the first day of school. Slater, the first to speak with reporters, put forth the common comparison.
"It's exciting. It's always exciting to start a new year with a clean slate, with a new group of guys. I say it every year – it's like the first day of school, so we're excited to be back, excited to go back to work," Slater said.
McCourty arrived ready to show that he was ready to go.
"Guys I think are all working out all offseason. You kind of come in today, you want to kind of showcase that passing the conditioning test, feeling good about it. So, it's an exciting time, I think, for all of us. Obviously, no one loves training camp and doing everything that comes as a part of that and sleeping in the hotel. But, I think the excitement of a new team, coming back together with some guys and new faces and trying to blend all that together – that challenge is tough, but once it comes together, I think you kind of realize when you look back at like this time of the effort and everything you put into it hopefully results into something that you really like."
It will also be McCourty's first training camp since college with his twin brother, Jason. He said he offered up some simple advice for the veteran cornerback who arrives via trade from the Browns.
"I guess he's doing OK. It's our first day, but I think he's doing pretty good. I just told him to just act like me as much as possible," McCourty quipped.