Meet Tom Brady's first believer

The multiple Super Bowl winner picked 200th in his draft, Bart Starr, had a role in the discovery of the multiple Super Bowl winner picked 199th in his, Tom Brady. As head coach of the same Green Bay Packers he once quarterbacked to greatness, Starr was the one who decided that a small-college lineman he had cut from his roster, Dick Rehbein, would make for a heck of an assistant.

Rehbein was the one who decided more than two decades later that Brady would make for a heck of a New England Patriot.

Rehbein died eight weeks before Brady made his first-string debut in Foxborough, Massachusetts, early in the 2001 season, but his wife and two daughters still find comfort in the staggering success of the man who has a chance Sunday to become the first quarterback to advance to a sixth Super Bowl. Betsy, Dick's older girl, still recalls her old man returning from Patriots practices in 2000 and telling stories about this skin-and-bones rookie who had a certain something about him.

"My dad would talk about Tom Brady almost as if Tom was his own kid," Betsy recalled. "He would talk about Tom driving this yellow Jeep Wrangler, making fun of this little boy he was watching grow up. It's really cool to see Tom as an adult now with his own family. He's a megastar and a household name, but it seems like yesterday when he was that funny, young, cute guy with the yellow Wrangler."

Sarabeth, the younger daughter, gets the biggest kick out of watching Brady when the opposing team has the ball. "My favorite part isn't watching Tom actually play," she said. "It's when he's happy and joking and laughing on the sideline. I like to think that even in the short time my dad knew Tom, he influenced him. Maybe Tom thinks of my dad now and then on how to be a father and husband and human being."

Pam, Rehbein's wife, deals with conflicting emotions when she watches the non-prospect her husband raved about after a scouting trip to the University of Michigan, the non-prospect her husband pushed Bill Belichick to draft until the Patriots coach made the call late in the sixth round. Big games involving the Patriots can summon painful thoughts of what might've been, at least until Pam remembers what Brady's standing among the sport's all-timers means to her daughters.

"I really wish Dick was still here to see this," Pam said, "but my husband's legacy is with Tom, and I feel proud that my girls have something to associate their dad with. It's an awesome thing for them to have."

Now remarried and working as a realtor in Orlando, Pam Rehbein keeps part of that legacy stored in a glass hutch containing old photos and clippings, playbooks and plaques. She doesn't like to visit her storage room -- it's there for the girls, Pam said. It hurts too much to live in the past, and besides, they moved away from Massachusetts and headed south 10 years ago for a reason.

"There's no NFL team in Orlando," Pam said. "I felt I needed to start over."

She grew up a Packers fan and lived the coaching life with Dick from Green Bay to Minnesota, from Minnesota to the New York Giants and from the Giants to the Patriots. It was an accidental career arc for Dick, the former Division II All-American center out of Ripon College who planned to attend law school at the University of Pittsburgh after failing to survive Starr's final training camp cuts in 1977. As tough as it was for Dick, son of Green Bay, to be released by his idol, Starr made it up to him by praising his intellect and offering him an entry-level job.

Dick Rehbein would ultimately become Green Bay's special-teams coach and the league's youngest full-time assistant, whom Starr passionately defended when criticized in the media -- he scolded one critic and called Rehbein "as sharp a guy as we have in this organization." Fired with Starr in 1983, Rehbein made a brief stop with Los Angeles of the USFL before resuming his NFL journey and earning a reputation as a likable, even-tempered teacher who could reach all kinds of players in all kinds of systems. With the Giants, Dan Reeves kept him after Ray Handley was fired, and Jim Fassel kept him after Reeves was fired.

Belichick, upon taking over in New England in 2000, asked him to coach his quarterbacks, but Rehbein was against uprooting his daughters one more time. Pam sat him down and said, "Do something for your career for once." So he did. If nothing else, Rehbein figured the Patriots' quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, might play effectively enough to help Rehbein become somebody's offensive coordinator.

But before Rehbein worked with Bledsoe, Belichick had him evaluate a couple of draft-eligible college kids who might develop into reliable backups: Tim Rattay of Louisiana Tech and Tom Brady of Michigan. On his trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan, Rehbein looked beyond Brady's scarecrow build and heavy feet, just as he would ignore those images of Brady running the 40-yard dash at the pre-draft combine as if he were some panting insurance broker chasing after a downtown bus.

Dick appreciated Brady's competitive desire and talent for pulling Michigan from the brink of defeat. Belichick's quarterbacks coach told Pam he thought he'd found another Joe Montana or Brett Favre. "Twenty years from now," Dick told his wife, "people will know the name Tom Brady."

A childhood San Francisco 49ers fan who dreamed of being another Joe Cool, Brady was hoping to go in the third round to San Francisco. The 49ers instead picked a quarterback from Hofstra, Giovanni Carmazzi. Six quarterbacks in all were taken off the board by other teams before the Patriots listened to their man.

Pam answered the phone in her home. "We got him," Dick said. "We got him."

It was a team effort, of course. Belichick deserves credit for trusting his assistant and making the pick. New England's personnel man, Bobby Grier, a holdover from the Bill Parcells and Pete Carroll regimes, deserves credit for being the only NFL executive to call Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, his former staffmate at Eastern Michigan, to check on Brady's pros and cons. Even though Carr spent part of Brady's senior season using a two-man rotation that included everybody's All-American, Drew Henson, at least until Brady played him back to the bench, the Michigan coach didn't give Grier much in the way of cons.

Long before Brady erased two 14-point deficits in last week's playoff victory over the Baltimore Ravens, Carr had seen him do the same thing against Alabama in the Orange Bowl.

"I told Bobby that they'd never regret drafting him and that Tom had every intangible you could ask for," Carr recalled by phone. "I remember his first scrimmage as a true freshman, when I was the interim coach and Tom wasn't physically developed yet. The defense just knocked the hell out of him, and he kept getting up. He took a beating and kept standing in there and throwing the ball, and that was the day the whole coaching staff realized just how tough Tom was."

Belichick fired Grier a couple of weeks after Brady was drafted -- the new coach wanted his own people around him -- and in a statement released at the time called it "an unpleasant thing for me to do. I recognize that Bobby Grier has made significant contributions to the New England Patriots."

Belichick had no idea. Rehbein, meanwhile, was soon writing in his journal encouraging things about Brady's progress in practice. The fourth-stringer was scaling the depth chart and, by the 2001 training camp, winning the backup job behind Bledsoe, who had just signed a record 10-year contract worth $103 million. Rehbein was 45, in the prime of his life, ready to enjoy the fruits of his labor. Though he'd been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy in 1988, Dick was an active runner who projected the appearance of a man in no need of the pacemaker that was regulating his heart.

One day during camp, he passed out while running on a treadmill and ended up at Massachusetts General Hospital. On the morning of Aug. 6, after undergoing a hospital stress test, Rehbein lost consciousness again. The doctors couldn't revive him, and Pam still doesn't have a sound medical reason for why her husband's heart quit beating for good.

"It was just his time," she said. "We felt there was a greater calling, and Dick was called home for whatever that was. We don't control that. I wish we did."

Two games into the 2001 regular season, Bledsoe absorbed a vicious hit from the New York Jets' Mo Lewis and gave way to Brady, who would struggle in his first couple of starts before -- voilà -- becoming Tom Brady. Belichick never replaced his quarterbacks coach; he split the duties with offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and established a close working relationship with his burgeoning franchise player, blowing away Brady with his knowledge of opposing defenses.

But in paying tribute to his colleague after Brady and another Rehbein find, receiver David Patten, destroyed the Indianapolis Colts that October, Belichick made it clear that Dick was "the guy that's most responsible" for Brady being a Patriot.

Pam, Betsy and Sarabeth would serve as honorary captains at the coin toss for New England's AFC Championship Game victory at Pittsburgh, and Brady would praise Dick before the first of three Super Bowls he'd win over four seasons by saying, "Coach Rehbein was a tremendous influence on my life, on all the quarterbacks' lives on what it takes to be successful."

All these years later, Brady's words and play resonate with a family forever embracing the sweetest memories of the man they lost. Married with two stepsons, Colson and Jackson, Betsy was told by doctors she couldn't conceive a child without attempting in vitro fertilization. Betsy and her husband Jason Vallery preferred adoption and started exploring the process when, about six months later, she discovered she was 15 weeks pregnant. Betsy gave birth to Dick's first grandchild, Rylee, on Aug. 6, the date of Dick's death.

"Rylee was born at 8:22 in the morning, within the same hour of my father's passing at Mass General, and there was no denying it at that point," Betsy said. "It was totally my dad placing her right down to me and saying, 'See, she's going to be just fine.' I had mixed feelings about the date at first, but it's not sad at all. Rylee gets to be a part of my dad's legacy. ... Truly our miracle girl."

Sarabeth is preparing to be married on Feb. 27, the same date Dick and Pam were married in 1982. Sarabeth and her fiancé, James Laughlin, used the combined gold from her parents' wedding bands for their own set, and the jeweler surprised them by keeping Dick's inscription -- 2-27-82 -- in James' ring.

Sarabeth cried when she saw it and thought it was a message from her dad. She didn't set out to get married on her parents' anniversary date. She wanted a February wedding in Florida, and the hotel she picked with James had only the 27th available. "So we just knew it was the right thing to do," Sarabeth said. "Again, like a sign from Dad. We firmly believe he's still with us and guiding us."

The daughters still talk with Pam all the time about Dick as a father and husband and summer softball coach, his presence as real to them as the urn that contains his ashes. With the Patriots on the verge of another trip to the Super Bowl, the revived story of Dick's once-in-a-lifetime find gives them reason to remember him as a significant figure in NFL lore.

As the 37-year-old, Brady was being dismissed in some corners as washed up after the Week 4 blowout loss at Kansas City, Betsy feared her father's quarterback was about to meet the grisly end awaiting so many aging stars. "Oh, no," she told herself, "don't let this happen to him." No, Brady wasn't about to let it happen. "And when I saw how excited he was on the sidelines when they started winning again," Betsy said, "I saw how much my dad loved the game." The game loved him back, too. By all accounts, Rehbein was the rare NFL coach who could spend 20-plus years in the league without collecting a single enemy.

On this front, Pam credits Starr, one of football's enduring gentle souls. Starr was scheduled to deliver Rehbein's eulogy before health issues prevented him from attending the services, leaving Charlie Weis to step in and read from a letter Starr had written about his former aide.

"Dick used to think of Bart like a second dad," Pam said. "Bart was the one who taught Dick that you could be a successful NFL person and have high morals and standards and love your family."

Down in Birmingham, Alabama, an 81-year-old Starr is trying to recover from a series of strokes and seizures and a heart attack, showing the toughness that made him a five-time champ. His first night in intensive care four months ago, Starr's neurologist wasn't sure he'd make it. He uses a wheelchair now, and, according to his high school sweetheart and bride of 60 years, Cherry, Starr is lucid at times and disconnected at others.

Cherry said her husband's long-shot story out of Alabama topped Tom Brady's out of Michigan. Bart suffered a back injury as a junior and was benched for much of an 0-10 senior season before the Alabama basketball coach, John Dee, called a friend in Packers management and sold him on drafting Starr in the 17th round and signing him for what Cherry called "a grand total of $6,500."

Brady was paid a starting wage of $298,000 in New England. "I don't think Bart made that in three years," Cherry said by phone. "I think his last contract was for $150,000."

It was all worth it, of course, to be Vince Lombardi's quarterback. Starr wasn't another Lombardi in his second Packers career, but he did mold the coach who identified one of the greatest winners of all.

"We really did love Dick Rehbein," Cherry said. "Bart was so impressed with his character, his morals and his work ethic. We were very, very hurt when we learned of his premature death."

The Starrs were always there for their good friend Pam Rehbein, whose father remains a season-ticket holder at Lambeau Field. Bart Starr wrote Pam's first referral letter as a realtor. It would be hard for her to root against the hometown team in a Packers-Patriots Super Bowl.

But regardless of whether the Packers win in Seattle or the Patriots beat the Colts, Pam would like to make one thing perfectly clear: "I would love it," she said, "if Tom Brady set every record on fire."

Just as her husband predicted.