The Tom Brady Experience: 'Almost' perfect

Tom Brady's easy smile sometimes hides the hard work behind his success. AP Photo/Stephan Savoia

Alone in the garage, calves screaming, the 16-year-old boy bounces grimly, tenaciously, into the night.

In a 3-by-2-foot box, with five dots arranged as you would find them on dice, he works through five simple drills: both feet forward then back, around the perimeter, the left foot first and then the right in a figure-eight pattern, a two-footed bunny hop all the way around, always facing forward and, finally, the bunny hop with a 180-degree hopscotch twist to bring it home.

He does the routine five times -- each takes just over a minute -- then pauses to catch his breath, hands on knees, gray T-shirt darkening at his heaving chest. His football coach in San Mateo, Calif., has told him the only thing separating him from a college football scholarship is agility and speed. This is the solution, the way to close that distance.

So Tom Brady does it again. And again. And …

"We created four stations in our weight room, but what made Tom different was that he took the template we had at school and created the same drill in his garage," explains Tom MacKenzie, then the coach at Junipero Serra High School, who developed the "dot drill" in 1993, before Brady's junior season there. "A lot of the things you see today -- his ability to extend plays by moving laterally, shuffling -- came from mastering that drill.

"Many times, a coach will have a great player; but because he is so talented, he won't work the way he needs to. I never had that problem with Tom."

Today, at the age of 30, Brady has taken on the scope and dimension of a fictional character: too good to believe. Almost perfect. Measured by the pure standard of winning, he already is the greatest quarterback who has ever lived. His New England Patriots are on the threshold of the greatest NFL season ever, one Super Bowl win away from 19 victories in 19 games. Brady, given receivers worthy of his game this year, produced one of the best individual seasons on record and was named the league's Most Valuable Player.

Moreover, in the national consciousness, he has moved from athlete to personality. Brady and his exquisitely dimpled chin have become as much a target of the paparazzi's long lenses -- see him saunter down the sidewalk in Manhattan's West Village, wearing sunglasses, hood pulled over his head, carrying flowers to the apartment of his girlfriend, Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen -- as Britney and Lindsay are.

But here's the thing: He doesn't see it that way. Not really.

"He always knew what his shortcomings were," says his father, Tom Sr. "He figured, 'If I can fix the shortcomings, the long-comings will take care of themselves.'"

When "60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft, in a 2005 profile, asked Brady to explain himself, the first words he used were "hard-working."

In Brady's mind, he is still the plodding high school freshman who took only a handful of snaps, the unheralded college quarterback who couldn't wangle an invitation to the Senior Bowl, the afterthought seventh passer chosen in the NFL's 2000 draft, the Patriots' lowly scout team quarterback. These are the images, according to those who know him best, that he carries with him to this day. Almost certainly, these are the images that will drive him all the way to Canton, Ohio, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"He has always had the mentality that he wasn't good enough," says Scott Loeffler, who played with Brady and later coached him as a graduate assistant at Michigan "His goal is to strive to be perfect. The reality is, that can't happen. But that doesn't stop him from trying."

Deep scars
On the day Joe Montana threw the pass that became "The Catch," Brady was in the stands at Candlestick Park. He was 4½ years old, and he cried through most of the first half because his dad wouldn't buy him a foam "No. 1" finger. The Bradys had season tickets to the 49ers games, and little Tom always wore his Montana jersey.

The Record Maker

Following in the wake of his three athletic older sisters, he distinguished himself as a basketball player and a baseball catcher, good enough as a high school senior to be selected in the 18th round of the 1995 major league draft by the Montreal Expos. When Brady tried out for football as a freshman at Serra, he had never played a real game outside of his back yard. As a result, he found himself fifth on the depth chart, behind varsity starter Tony Vargas, JV starter Mike Parodi, freshman starter Mike Krystofiak and his backup, Preston McCrary. Brady got more reps at outside linebacker than quarterback.

His first-ever touchdown pass, a 60-yarder, came in a freshman scrimmage against St. Ignatius.

"It wasn't the world's most beautiful pass," says John Kirby, who caught it. "The defensive back fell down."

There wasn't a lot of mop-up work in the regular season; the 1991 Serra freshmen were 0-8.

The next year, Brady became the JV starter only because Krystofiak, his best friend, quit to focus on basketball. But in the first start of his life, trailing Mission San Jose's junior varsity by less than a touchdown, Brady took Serra down the field for the winning score, a 12-yard slant completion to Kirby.

With Brady under center for the JV, Serra advanced to the West Catholic Athletic League championship game. He was driving his team down the field to the winning score when the sprinklers, triggered by an electronic timer, came on. After a 10-minute delay, the fullback fumbled and the Padres lost to Bellarmine Prep.

He never stopped working. His father remembers his schedule this way: At home at 6 p.m., after football practice, he'd eat and do homework until 7:30. Then he'd head to the gym and work out for a few hours, come back home and do more homework until midnight.

As the varsity starter in his junior and senior seasons, Brady threw for 3,702 yards and 31 touchdowns and was recognized as All-America by "Blue Chip Illustrated" and "Prep Football Report." But his teams were only 6-4 in 1993 and 5-5 in 1994.

Perhaps the most painful loss of his life came during his senior season against Sacred Heart Cathedral, where Tom's uncle, Chris Brady, was the principal. Trailing by two points, Brady drove Serra to the 7-yard line with 15 seconds left. There was no reliable place-kicker, so MacKenzie called a sprint-out pass, "933 Choice." Brady's throw was intercepted by Jamar Sheppard and returned 101 yards for a touchdown.

"People don't think about it," says Tom Sr., "but he's had a string of disappointments. He doesn't get up every day and step out of the house in the clouds."

"It's never come easy for me," the son said in the "60 Minutes" interview. "I don't think my mind allows me to rest ever. I have, I think, a chip on my shoulder, and some deep scars that I don't think were healed."

It cost Tom Brady Sr. $2,000 to make 60 highlight tapes of his son's high school career. Sitting with a stack of envelopes, father and son pored through a list of colleges and addressed them all: St. Mary's College in Moraga, Calif.; Stanford University; the University of California at Davis …

"What about Michigan?" Tom asked his father, pretty sure it would be a waste of time.

"Sure," he replied. "Why not?"

Working his way up
In the fall of 1995, Brady was last on the list of Michigan's seven scholarship prospects at quarterback, notably behind freshman Scott Dreisbach and sophomore Brian Griese. When Dreisbach became the starter, head coach Lloyd Carr decided to redshirt Brady. But as the third-string quarterback in 1996, he began to make an impression.

"He was running with the second and third groups, playing behind guys that couldn't block me and you," says Stan Parrish, Brady's quarterbacks coach for four years in Ann Arbor. "They kept knocking him down and he'd get up and keep competing."

Tight end Aaron Shea, who played at Michigan during 1995-99 and lived with Brady on McKinley Street, says Brady spent most of his time three blocks away from home -- at Schembechler Hall, which houses the football offices and weight room.

"Because he was so slow, he would work hard on his legs, running and lifting weights," Shea says. "He'd come back from there before it was time to go to class. After practice, we'd get ice cream and he'd say, 'Let's go and look at [film of] third downs.'"

With a determination that first manifested itself in the dot drill back in high school, Brady continued to hit all the marks on improving himself. Still, it wasn't enough. In 1997, Brady lost a spirited competition with Griese for the starting job and he seriously considered a transfer to Cal, back home. After a long talk with Carr, he decided to stay; but an emergency appendectomy ended his season in October. Brady was on the sidelines when Griese led the Wolverines to a share of the national title with a victory over Washington State in the Rose Bowl.

And then Drew Henson arrived in Ann Arbor. Henson was everything Brady was not: dashing, a supremely athletic three-sport star, born and raised in nearby Brighton, Mich. Brady was named the starter for the 1998 season, but Henson was given every opportunity to take the job. Michigan lost its opener at Notre Dame, and Henson relieved Brady the following week against Syracuse.

"I vividly remember the Syracuse game," says Parrish. "Drew finished the game and played well. Here's a kid with all the tools and potential in the world that was going to get every chance. For Tom to keep a stiff upper lip and be a good leader -- I know he felt his job was slipping away -- was tough. I sensed about as much frustration as you could feel in your whole life."

But after the loss at Syracuse, Brady put together an eight-game winning streak and carried Michigan to a victory over Arkansas in the CompUSA Florida Citrus Bowl.

In 1999, for the first time, there were moments that suggested the greatness to come. Michigan trailed 27-17 at Penn State until Brady produced two touchdown drives in a span of two minutes. In the Orange Bowl, the Wolverines upset No. 5-ranked Alabama, 35-34 in overtime, when Brady rallied the team twice from two-touchdown deficits.

"If you're a quarterback, you want everything on your shoulders," Brady told reporters after the game. "You want to be the one to make the decisions."

Moving the chains
Early in their 2000 training camp, the Patriots' coaches noticed something interesting about their sixth-round draft choice. Charles Pierce, author of "Moving the Chains," a book about the Patriots' difficult 2005 season, wrote:

Tom Brady moves the chains. It's the first thing the New England Patriots and their coaches saw in him, directing the scout team with players who hadn't been around long enough yet to be considered castoffs. The scout team's job is to simulate the offense of the upcoming opponent. However, after practice, Brady and the scout team would practice the New England offense. He led, and they went with him. "They'd go through the plays, and, if somebody got something wrong, he'd correct them," recalls [Bill] Belichick. "You could see them getting better and better. They moved on you."

"He is an enormously curious guy," Pierce says now. "It manifests itself in his study of film and the attention to detail. Belichick says he could be a great defensive coordinator if he chose to."

Playing behind starter Drew Bledsoe and backups John Friesz and Michael Bishop, Brady threw all of three passes in his rookie year, all of them in a blowout loss at Detroit. But that didn't mean he wasn't working.

Scott Pioli, the Patriots' vice president of player personnel, has told people that Brady is the hardest-working player he's ever known. In his rookie season, Brady would come into the facility at 6 a.m., well ahead of the curve, and leave around 7 p.m. On many nights, he'd come back four hours later and work out and study film on his own for another two hours. When the security guard asked Pioli if he could give Brady his own key to the facility, Pioli didn't think much of it. Brady got the key. Working past midnight one night, Pioli encountered Brady and came away impressed.

After the 2000 season, at a buddy's wedding, Brady told Shea, the former Michigan tight end, that he was going to beat out Bledsoe for the starting job.

"Dude," Shea said. "This is Drew Bledsoe we're talking about."

Brady just smiled.

On Sept. 23, 2001, Jets linebacker Mo Lewis hit Bledsoe so hard he never started another game for the Patriots. Brady won 14 of 17 games on the Patriots' improbable road to Super Bowl XXXVI. They were two-touchdown underdogs to the St. Louis Rams in New Orleans; but with the score tied at 17, New England found itself on its own 17-yard line with 81 seconds left. With what seemed an unnervingly detached serenity, Brady drove the team down the field. When he finally spiked the ball to stop the clock with seven seconds left, he was so in control that he caught it on the rebound and handed it to the official. Adam Vinatieri kicked the winning 48-yard field goal and New England became the first team to claim the Super Bowl on the last play of the game. Brady was the Most Valuable Player.

Two years later, it happened again in Houston. He might have won his third MVP award in Jacksonville if wide receiver Deion Branch hadn't caught a record-tying 11 of Brady's 23 completions.

When Pierce approached him with his book idea after the 2004 season, Brady, then 27, gave a curious response.

"I'm not old enough for a book like that," he told the author.

Brady didn't say he wasn't worthy of the project, just that the time wasn't right. There was more work to be done.

In this season's divisional playoffs against the Jaguars, only drops by Wes Welker and Ben Watson prevented Brady from throwing a perfect game. He completed 26 of 28 passes.

"Those guys, when they are open like that, it's my job to hit them," Brady said. "It's easy when you have receivers that are open all the time and an offensive line that never lets anyone touch you. It makes it fun to play."

Figuring it out
A few years ago, a television producer led Brady through a word-association exercise. A funny thing happened when the word "pressure" came up.

"Let me think about that," Brady said, frowning. "I think that's the pressure to grab a hold of something and obtain something that maybe a lot of ways … that's a sh---y explanation. What the hell am I talking about?"

Then, after another failed attempt at an answer, he put his head between his knees and laughed.

"Oh, God," he said. "I do have a college degree."

Perhaps it's impossible to define what you can't feel. Brady has never lost an overtime game (he is 7-0). He is an astounding 14-2 in playoff games. And he has 24 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or beyond.

In the same interview, Brady said, "I think it's a feeling like I've got it all figured out. There's nothing that can shock me anymore. There's nothing I haven't anticipated; so at that point, there is a calmness."

In Bill Belichick, his coach with the Patriots, Brady has found a similarly driven soul. Together, in a world that encourages individualism, they have redefined the word "team."

"He has bought into Belichick's Kool-Aid," says Tom Sr. "Bill Belichick rips into him every bit as much as anyone else, maybe more. It's good for guys like Randy Moss and Corey Dillon to see that. No sacred cows. Everyone's equal. Tom believes that, too."

Brady, in only his eighth season, already finds himself in the conversation about the game's all-time greatest quarterbacks. He has compiled the best winning percentage of any starting quarterback in the Super Bowl era (100-26, .794) and he has a reasonable opportunity to become the greatest winner ever, in total victories.

Early this season, Brett Favre broke John Elway's career record for regular-season wins by a quarterback; Favre currently has 160 of them. Factoring in his 12 playoff victories, Favre has a total of 172 wins accomplished over 17 seasons, an average of 10.1 victories per year. Brady, with 100 wins in eight seasons (including playoffs), has averaged 12.5 wins per season. Conceivably, he could pass Favre if the Patriots and his health remain sound.

Brady, despite those paparazzi shots making the rounds lately, is still that bouncing, lunging boy in the garage, still looking forward to his offseason workout schedule. In a series of tests before every training camp -- 225-pound bench repetitions, 40-yard dash, vertical leap, shuttle run, etc. -- the Patriots quantify everything a player has achieved since the previous season ended.

Every single year, Brady has improved his scores.

Luck, wrote the Roman philosopher Seneca, is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Nearly 2,000 years later, it's still true, at least in Brady's case.

"We set very high goals around here," Brady told reporters before the final regular-season game against the Giants a month ago. "I just think we've been fortunate this season in a lot of ways. Along with hard work, you need quite a bit of luck, too. I think we've been on the good side of that. I really feel you can have a perfect record. I don't know if anybody's perfect.

"I haven't experienced that."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.