Aaron Shea can laugh over the fact he is selling title insurance 16 years after his dear friend and Michigan teammate, Tom Brady, wondered if he would end up in the same profession. Brady was picked 199th in the 2000 draft by the New England Patriots, or 89 spots after Shea was picked by the Cleveland Browns, and the quarterback knew he was on shakier ground than the tight end.
Brady looked around coach Bill Belichick's first camp in New England and worried that the numbers game was tilted against him. "Tommy wasn't sure he was going to make the team," Shea recalled. "He wasn't sure they were going to keep four quarterbacks. He said to me, 'I might be getting cut. Don't forget about me. I might end up selling insurance.'"
"I think Deflategate hurt Tommy a lot more than he'll let anyone know. ...This is only going to make Tom better. It's going to hurt the other 31 teams because Tom is healthy, he didn't have to take any hits the first four games, and now he's angry." Aaron Shea, Tom Brady's friend and former Michigan teammate
It's hard to believe the four-time Super Bowl champ ever questioned his own ability to survive and thrive in the NFL, especially since a young Brady made that legendary guarantee to Patriots owner Robert Kraft that he would grow into "the best decision this organization has ever made." Only the self-doubts were there, however small. Brady had played in the East-West Shrine Game after his senior season at Michigan, and Shea had played in the Senior Bowl with the higher-rated quarterbacking likes of Chad Pennington, Chris Redman and Gio Carmazzi.
"Hey," Brady asked his friend, "how were those quarterbacks there?"
"Man," Shea responded, "you are better than all of them."
"Ah," Brady answered. "You're just telling me that."
Whatever insecurity Brady was feeling over his uneven Michigan career was ultimately overwhelmed by the quarterback's raging inferno within, his unbending desire to settle the score by tilting scoreboards. It's a relevant point to reconsider now that Brady is done with his four-game suspension for Deflategate and is heading to Shea's town, Cleveland, to begin raging against the machine that is Roger Goodell's NFL.
Brady returns to a 3-1 team positioned to make a run at his seventh Super Bowl appearance, and he returns a bitter man. He swears he had nothing to do with the alleged deflation of Patriots footballs before the AFC Championship Game victory over the Colts two seasons ago, and he likely believes the only way to right this perceived wrong is to win a record fifth Super Bowl ring with properly pressurized balls.
"I think Deflategate hurt Tommy a lot more than he'll let anyone know," Shea said. "We barely talked about the details other than a lot of f-bombs going back and forth. But now you've pissed off the GOAT [greatest of all time]. I grew up in Illinois, and if you got under Michael Jordan's skin, he would score 50 or 60 on you. This is only going to make Tom better. It's going to hurt the other 31 teams because Tom is healthy, he didn't have to take any hits the first four games, and now he's angry.
"I want him to stick it to Roger Goodell so bad. At the end of the year, I want him up there holding that Lombardi Trophy and taking it from Roger Goodell. Then I'd tell Tom, 'That's it, man, you couldn't go out any better than that.' It's just that every year he adds two seasons to how long he wants to play. He may play until he's 50."
Tom Brady is 39, and he eats avocado ice cream, among other ghastly things, in his 24/7 fight with the natural-aging process. Above all else, his competitive fire is the thing that has kept him young, and that could be really bad news for Cleveland and the rest of the NFL.
Shea knows better than most. He played six seasons for the Browns and later worked as the team's director of player engagement, and in all his years around major college and professional football players, he has never met anyone more driven than Brady, the godfather of his 5-year-old son Kinzy.
Shea recalled the 1998 Michigan-Ohio State game, won by the Buckeyes after the Wolverines had gone 10-2-1 in the previous 13 meetings. Brady threw for 375 yards that day, a Michigan record, but the junior quarterback was enraged by the loss and the sights and sounds of Ohio State fans rushing the field before time expired.
"This will never f---ing happen again," Brady told Shea as they trudged toward the locker room.
The following season in Ann Arbor, Brady threw two touchdown passes in the final 16 minutes of his final home game to lead Michigan to a comeback victory in one of the sport's most storied rivalries.
"He's always had that burn that he really doesn't ever shut off," Shea said. "We had apartments right above each other -- he had the top one that was always perfectly clean, and mine was always trash -- and you'd hear his door shut at five or six in the morning. He was going to run the stadium steps by himself, and then he'd come back and do it again with the rest of the team.
"Tom would ask me to go with him for film study, and I'd hop in the car with him. But we'd be there forever, and I'd go, 'Hey, you said this would be an hour. Now it's two hours. You're trapping me here.' We drove separately after that."
Of course, Brady's time at Michigan is defined not by what he achieved, but by what he didn't. He was a field goal holder for the unbeaten 1997 national championship team quarterbacked by Brian Griese. He seriously considered transferring. He seriously worried he might remain on Lloyd Carr's bench for his junior and senior seasons after the Michigan coach landed everybody's All-American, a local named Drew Henson.
Carr has gotten a bit of a bum rap over the years, as Brady became Brady in the big leagues, for this simple reason: There wasn't a college coach in America who didn't want Henson as his quarterback, and who wouldn't have felt immense pressure from the students, alumni and fans to get him under center as quickly as possible. In their two years together, even though Carr at times used the two quarterbacks in an ill-conceived rotation, Brady threw 691 passes for 35 touchdowns to Henson's 137 for six.
By the numbers, Carr knew Brady was the better man. Before the 2000 draft, he offered the only NFL executive to inquire about his quarterback, New England's Bobby Grier, the following pledge: "Bobby, there's no doubt in my mind that Tom Brady will be a starting quarterback in the NFL."
According to Brady's former Michigan teammate Jay Feely, a longtime NFL kicker, the rocky road from Ann Arbor to Foxborough ended up benefiting his friend. "All the trials and tribulations and everything Tom had to do to prove himself to Lloyd Carr, to the world and to the NFL," Feely said, "that all led to the chip on his shoulder that exists today."
Deflategate turned that chip into a boulder. Brady hasn't done any talking this week at his team's facility, leaving his close friend, Shea, to do some talking for him. The former tight end remembered that Brady wouldn't play him one-on-one in basketball at Michigan (He knew Shea was the superior player), and that he'd only play him in the shooting game of P-I-G, a game Brady mastered by hitting the same near-impossible bank shot from the baseline over and over again.
"Beat me every time," Shea said, "and it drove me nuts." He knows how desperately Brady tries to avoid losing to a friend, a stranger, a defensive back, a defensive coordinator or an NFL commissioner. In 2007, the Patriots quarterback famously scorched and berated a Steelers safety who had guaranteed victory. In 1999, the Michigan quarterback less famously blasted a jeering intramural basketball opponent (the frat boy was razzing him about Henson) with a blind screen that Brady buddy Jay Flannelly described as: "a Charles Oakley-like pick. Tommy killed the guy, just blew him up, and the kid was on the ground for five minutes looking for his face."
All these years later, Brady doesn't have to hunt for his next opponent which he believes did him wrong. Asked if he thinks the godfather of his son wants to stick it to Goodell, Shea said: "One hundred percent. He'll never tell anyone that, but we're all human. You want to stick it to someone who stuck it to you. Deflategate was a witch hunt for Goodell and all the other owners who wanted to slow the Patriots down. And now everyone in the NFL knows Tom is back and fired up. If there's one guy in the history of sports who didn't need to cheat, it's Tommy Brady."
Shea said he'll be visiting with the visiting quarterback Saturday night. He said that he'll be wearing his Brady cap, and that his son Kinzy will be wearing his Brady jersey when they attend the Patriots-Browns game Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS).
Shea hasn't been to a Cleveland game since the organization let him go in 2014. He still has some friends working for the home team, and still has a desire to see the Browns someday exorcise the same legion of ghosts that LeBron James exorcised on the basketball side of town.
"My poor Browns just can't catch a break," Shea said. "It's just their luck that they didn't get the Patriots on the schedule in Week 3. But Tom is family, and I'll be pulling for him. I think he's going to light the Browns up, and I think the Browns know it's coming. And so does the rest of the NFL."