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The Mind-bending Disorientation of Tom Brady’s Return to Foxboro – Part 1: Conflicting Loyalties

Updated: Apr 21, 2023

The happiest sports moment of my childhood was watching my beloved hometown Chicago Bears destroy the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX on January 26, 1986. The worst sports moment of my adulthood was watching the then-undefeated New England Patriots lose Super Bowl XLII on February 3, 2008 to the New York Giants 17 to 14. How could I derive such unbridled elation from seeing the Patriots get beaten to a pulp in 1986 and such utter despair to watch the same team lose in 2008?!?

It comes down to my allegiance to my fellow University of Michigan alum Tom Brady. Such conflicting loyalties had long caused my head to hurt from an overload of sports cognitive dissonance paradoxes. That sports fandom confusion boiled over when Tom Brady returned to Foxboro for the first time as a visitor for the Patriots – Buccaneers game on Sunday night, October 3, 2021. After watching Brady beat the New England Patriots in his homecoming game, I arrived at a greater understanding of my lingering sports bigamy condundrums.

To this day, Chicagoans still revel in the Chicago Bears 46-10 triumph over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX.

Left: William, the Refrigerator, Perry.

Middle: Soldier Field scoreboard after the NFC Championship on January 12, 1986.

Right: “Da Coach” Mike Ditka.

In the fall of 1989, I moved from suburban Chicago to Ann Arbor, Michigan to attend the University of Michigan, graduating four years later in 1993. Perhaps coincidentally, just two years later in 1995 Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, Jr. moved from San Mateo, California to Ann Arbor to attend the same University. Despite our paths not crossing at the UM campus, our common Michigan nexus has long inextricably bound Tom and me. Well, actually, we have never met and, to be fair, the Brady bond is decidedly one-sided. Yet, it is that one-way bond which compelled me to watch hundreds of Patriots games over 20 years and feel tremendous personal pride in my fellow Michigan man’s Hall of Fame career.

Both Tom Brady and I attended to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, but our paths never crossed at the Law Quad Library (left), Michigan Stadium in 1996 (right) or anywhere else.

In the fall of 1997, Tom Brady threw just fifteen passes as a backup quarterback for the National Champion Michigan Wolverines (Nebraska who?!!!!!). At the same time, I moved to Boston and into a tiny rodent-friendly apartment in the crap part of the Back Bay. Luckily, my Casa de Mickey was less than a mile from Fenway Park, so I tried to get to Red Sox games as much as possible.

Like my childhood team the Chicago White Sox, the Red Sox were then mired in seven decade championship drought, so their fans’ pain felt comfortably familiar. At first, I was more of a fan of Fenway Park than the Red Sox team itself. With super likable players like Mo Vaughn, Pedro Martínez and Nomar Garciaparra, I found myself gravitating to them more and more. That said, my Red Sox dabbling still paled in comparison to my love of the White Sox.

Left: The Back Bay of Boston.

Middle: Red Sox stars Petro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra.

Right: Fenway Park sits in the middle of the congested streets of Boston.

​But I digress… In 1998, Tom Brady and I still had not met, but we did both attend the 1998 Rose Bowl in Pasadena when Michigan defeated Washington State University to clinch the National Championship (again, go pound sand Nebraska). At the time, Brady was the seventh string quarterback, so neither of us threw a pass in that game. Our paths crossed nonetheless… sort of. With the chance to win their first championship since the Tom Harmon team of 1948, the ticket was a hot commodity.

Further, Michigan featured Heisman trophy winner Charles Woodson and future NFL quarterback Brian Griese (son of Hall of Fame Quarterback Bob Griese). Meanwhile, WSU’s standout quarterback was future NFL flop Ryan Leaf. My old college housemate and I arrived without tickets and hoped for a miracle that we would find reasonably priced tickets in the vast parking lots surrounding the Rose Bowl (mobile ticket apps were decades away). We scored one ticket at the $75 face value price from a kindly elderly alum. Getting desperate, we picked up one more ticket from a father of a back-up player on the team for only double the face value price – $150 (admittedly, a reasonable price). Years later, my Michigan trivia savant buddy told me that the back-up’s dad who pocketed our ticket money was none other than Thomas Brady Sr.!!!

Tom Brady and I had the same number of passes in the 1998 Rose Bowl between Michigan and Washington State.

Over the years, my company would give away tickets for the various teams in town, but no Boston team would challenge my love of my hometown Chicago teams. I barely paid attention to the Patriots other than keeping an eye on fellow Michigan alum, defensive star Ty Law. It took me three years of living in Boston before I finally saw a Pats game live when I got free tickets to a meaningless game in early January. With Ty Law on the bench with an injury, my main memory of that game was that Foxboro Stadium might have been the very worst football stadium in both the NFL and college football.

Foxboro Stadium (left and right) was, by far, one of the worst football stadiums in the NFL and College Football. Middle: Michigan alum Ty Law laughed it up on the sideline during Coach Pete Carroll‘s final home game.

During their final season at the dreaded Foxboro Stadium, New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis knocked star quarterback Drew Bledsoe out of the game on September 23, 2000 and nearly killed him. Back-up second year QB Tom Brady replaced Bledsoe and the rest is history, not to mention the subject of about twenty books and ten documentaries. Although the quarterback controversy soap opera was a HUGE story, I personally was more focused on the Bears’ playoff-bound team at the time. I only learned the details of Brady’s emergence a while later when I noticed a “Brady’s Bunch” blurb in the Boston Globe.

After 2001, both Foxboro Stadium and Drew Bledsoe’s Patriot career were history.

At the time of Brady’s elevation to starting quarterback, my only substantive knowledge about his skills was from a Michigan football game that I attended at Syracuse University a few years earlier. During that game, my fellow Michigan fans sitting around me were bummed that star quarterback Drew Henson was splitting time with Brady. Henson was a heavily recruited two-sport athlete who already had been drafted by the New York Yankees. Brady would only throw ten passes, compared to Henson’s twenty-eight attempts. As has been well-documented, Tom Brady had a 'meh' experience at Michigan and was overshadowed by the much-heralded Henson. From a fan’s perspective, Brady barely registered in our consciousness compared to other Michigan standout players of the era.

During the September 18, 1999 Michigan vs Syracuse game, Drew Henson (left) and Tom Brady split the snaps as quarterback.

One of the reasons that Brady was overlooked by the Wolverine faithful is that Michigan had NOT been a quarterback school for most of its history. Instead, like other Big 10 schools, Michigan was better known for its punishing running game and bruising defense. Finesse quarterbacks went to schools like USC, Alabama or Miami’s so-called “Quarterback U”, not to a small midwestern city known for having about 512 cloudy days a year (yeah, I know that math is dodgy, but it felt that way). Until Jim Harbaugh (currently Michigan’s head coach) was drafted by my Bears as their first pick in 1987, no Michigan quarterback had ever thrown a touchdown in the NFL, despite having played football for over a century. While Michigan’s quarterback fortunes have improved since then, Brady’s limited career at Ann Arbor barely made a maize and blue splash.

Left: Running Back Jarrod Bunch was a more typical Michigan football star than a pocket passing quarterback.

Middle: Jim Harbaugh (future coach) was the first Michigan QB to throw an NFL touchdown.

Right: Most Michigan quarterbacks, such as Elvis Grbac, were at best functional and efficient.

Once he became the starter, like the rest of the football world I quickly realized there was something special about Brady’s game that hadn’t been apparent during college. Unlike any Michigan quarterback that I had ever seen, he displayed a clear sense of poise and intensity, with an uncanny knack for making the correct decisions under pressure. The first time I saw him play in person was against Green Bay in his second season in 2002. Despite becoming Patriot-curious, I did not own Patriots gear to wear to Gillette Stadium. Instead, I wore my favorite Michigan hat because I reasoned that I was journeying to Foxboro mainly to see my fellow Michigan alums Tom Brady and Ty Law and not really the Patriots.

By the time I finally saw Tom Brady play for the Patriot in person in 2002, Foxboro Stadium was under demolition (note the scoreboard still displaying the combatants from the famous “Snow Game” (aka the “Tuck Rule” game)). Gillette Stadium was the Patriot’s new home, despite the ticket showing the temporary name of CMGI Field.

As he amassed Super Bowl trophies, MVP awards and a CVS-receipt long list of NFL records, Tom Brady emerged as the most accomplished Michigan athlete of all-time (President Gerald Ford might have had a plausible case if he won a second term in the White House). As a fellow Wolverine, I took irrational pride in his accomplishments.

Needless to say, his achievements had ZERO reflection on me, but us sports fans somehow feel transitive pride when someone shares a portion of their bio with ours. Leaving that mental mind twister aside, I had a great vantage point in the early 21st Century to watch Brady’s career on and off the field given that he played in my adopted town. At one point, Brady even lived in a condo just down the street from my apartment, albeit in a MUCH fancier building than mine. Not only were we fellow Michigan alums, but practically neighbors.

Tom Brady quickly morphed from little known back-up into an international superstar.

Left: Brady and the Patriots beat the Eagles for their third Super Bowl win in Jacksonville, FL in 2005.

Right: The Burrage Mansion on Commonwealth Avenue in the Back Bay, where Tom Brady briefly owned a condo. I never saw him on the streets of the Back Bay, but did hear that we shopped at the same picture frame store on Newbury Street.

With each season, I marveled at his accomplishments along with all of the football world. He no longer felt like that kid quietly emerging from Ann Arbor, but now was featured in glamour magazines showing Tom and his supermodel wife at the Met Gala. I had once debated with a New York friend that Brady had eclipsed New York Yankee Derek Jeter in off-the-field notoriety.

What had been an arguable point in 2006 was a laughable concept by the time Brady flew south to Tampa Bay in 2019. Brady was no longer the parttime quarterback that I saw play for Michigan in Syracuse in 1998, but now was returning to Foxboro in 2021 as a global icon in addition to becoming the football G.O.A.T. Given Brady’s legacy, the game would be much more than a New England Patriots vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers regular season football contest. Instead, there would be more storylines than even the most complex of TV dramas.

Brady amassed six Super Bowl trophies and a slew of NFL records during his time in New England.

​But I digress again…One of the weirdest and most impactful moments of the Brady era occurred at a game that I attended in 2004. The odd thing is that I didn’t even know it happened until hours later. Yup, I was there for Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” and we completely missed the moment of infamy.

As luck would have it, my good friend secured two tickets in the lower endzone for Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston between the Patriots and the Carolina Panthers. Just being at the Super Bowl was thrilling in so many ways. I had always dreamed of going to the Super Bowl, with my deepest hope being that it would be for a Bears championship. The next best thing was to see a Michigan alum try to win his second ring in person.

After passing through a ninety minute airport-level security line, I felt transported into an experience unlike any other event. The stadium was jammed two hours before kickoff with starry eyed fans soaking in the scene. To pass the time before kickoff, fans were invited into the adjacent Astrodome for a pre-game concert by 80’s rocker Eddie Money.

Once we got to our seats for the main pregame show, it was impossible to remain focused on any one area. With performances by Aerosmith, Toby Keith, Willie Nelson and Beyonce playing all over the field amongst pyrotechnics and dance troops, it was a total sensory overload. The low scoring boring first half was like a respite for the racing mind.

Left: Pregame festivities before Super Bowl 38.

Middle: Adam Vinatieri’s opening kickoff to the Panthers.

Right: Reliant Stadium with its perfectly manicured and painted field seeming as lovely as any painting hanging in the Louvre.

Once the halftime show began, my mind again was mesmerized by sights and sounds coming from all over the field. The MTV-produced extravaganza included headliner Janet Jackson along with P. Diddy, Nelly, Kid Rock and both the Spirit of Houston AND Ocean of Soul marching bands. The finale was a duet of the song “Rock Your Body” with former Mouseketeer Justin Timberlake taking the stage with Jackson.

Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake performing during halftime, right before the infamous "wardrobe malfunction."

Given the overwhelming spectacle of the three ring entertainment circus, fans did not realize that one of the most controversial television moments had just occurred before their eyes. Instead, the only partial nudity most fans saw was from a streaker from Liverpool, UK that ran across the field right before the 2nd half kickoff. As you can barely see in the pre-iPhone primitive Zapruderesque video below, the interloper was wearing only a football shaped jock strap and was tackled by Patriots linebacker Matt Chatham.

The Patriots and the Panthers had an offensive explosion in the second half, scoring a record breaking combined thirty-seven 4th quarter points. Brady threw three touchdowns and won the MVP award. Just like the Patriot’s first Super Bowl victory two years prior in New Orleans against the St. Louis Rams, Adam Vinatieri kicked a game winning deja vu field goal with just four seconds left.

After watching the trophy ceremony, my friend and I went back to downtown Houston to celebrate with other Patriots fans blissfully unaware of the bubbling controversy coming out of Reliant Stadium. There was no twitter or Instagram yet to inject the news instantly into our eyeballs. Only after flipping on the local news at our overpriced junky hotel in the wee hours of the morning did we learn that the game was being overshadowed by what became known as “nipplegate”. It was mind boggling to us that nobody was even talking about amazing game we had just witnessed and, instead, were fixated on Justin Timberlake’s inadvertent removal of a bit of fabric off of Janet Jackson’s clothes. It was just one more unbelievable crazy story from Tom Brady’s unbelievable crazy career.

The story continues…The Mind-bending Disorientation of Tom Brady’s Return to Foxboro – Part 2: The Record, The Rain and The Rivalry


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