Tom Brady's stardom in New England led to championships -- and 3,268 babies named Brady

Courtesy The Gaffney Family

TAMPA, Fla. -- The birth of one of the NFL's greatest Cinderella stories happened 20 years ago this month, when former sixth-round draft pick Tom Brady, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, stepped in for Drew Bledsoe and led the New England Patriots all the way to a Super Bowl XXXVI victory over the "Greatest Show on Turf" St. Louis Rams.

But then something else happened: the birth of babies in the New England region named after Brady.

From 1960 to 2001, the name Brady was not ranked among the top 100 for babies born in the state of Massachusetts, according to Social Security Administration records. From 2002 to 2019, in the six states that make up New England as a whole, 3,268 baby boys were named Brady. The name ranked in the top 100 for most of those years.

So, who are these Brady babies and how are they dealing with Brady -- whom they knew only as a member of the Patriots until last season -- being on another team now and traveling to Foxborough, Massachusetts, as a visitor on Oct. 3?

'Brady, I LOVE your name!'

Michael Paolino and his wife, Cheryl, were one of the first families to name their son Brady -- after attending Super Bowl XXXVI in September 2002 in New Orleans. Their son Brady is now 18, a second baseman at Keene State College in New Hampshire and an accomplished bass fisherman.

"It was a good name, and we just thought we were gonna honor Tom Brady if we had a son, that we hoped some day would be a quarterback, and he was a quarterback -- my son -- and he always wore No. 12. ... He was totally enamored with Tom Brady."

He could identify with him, too. His bedroom walls were covered in Brady posters.

"I was really small growing up," Brady Paolino said. "And just like Tom was just kind of like -- coaches kind of looked past him always in tryouts and everything because he was smaller. But if you look at Tom Brady, he was like the fourth-string quarterback [in New England], he was barely gonna make the team. ... He worked hard and look where he is now."

One of the family's favorite memories is when, after an encounter with Patriots president Jonathan Kraft at a draft party, Tom Brady mailed them an autographed photo. But instead of it being a picture of himself, it was a picture of 10-year-old Brady Paolino, captioned with, "Brady, I LOVE your name!"

Then the phone rang about a week later.

"Tom Brady actually called my house," he said. "I had probably had like a five-minute conversation with him. ... I asked him, 'What was your favorite Super Bowl?' And he said, 'The next one.' ... And I asked, 'Who is your favorite receiver to throw to?' And he said, 'The one that's open.'"

Michael still remembers that winter day when they learned Brady was leaving the Patriots.

"It was like ... surreal: Tom Brady was leaving," he said. "It was something people never thought would happen. For that generation of kids -- it's something they never thought would happen. ... I used to tell my son, 'It's all gonna end someday.' And it did."

The Paolinos watched Super Bowl LV together and will be in attendance Sunday as a family -- minus Brady, because he has practice. But he knows Cheryl will be cheering loudly and proudly ... for Tom Brady.

"My mother is like in love with him," Brady said. "My mom is like a big Buccaneers fan now. She doesn't really care about the Patriots. It's all about Tom Brady."

Who will Brady be rooting for Sunday?

"The Buccaneers," he said.

"I think that's gonna be the biggest regular-season football game in NFL history," Michael said. "Players have come back, like when they can't play anymore -- like Babe Ruth on the Boston Braves or some ridiculously old player, like Willie Mays -- but never a player that won six championships that is still a prime player coming back to a team after 20 years.

"He's gonna get some kind of ovation that's never been matched before in sports. I think it's gonna go on and on and on."

'I plan on wearing a Patriots hat and my Bucs Brady jersey'

Sean Sullivan and his wife, Christine, decided to name their son Brady Thomas after they got back from the Patriots' second Super Bowl win in Houston. Brady Thomas was born June 8, 2004.

Now a senior in high school, he wants to study sports medicine or physical therapy, although he used his writing skills to pen an article in his hometown newspaper in September 2019 on the chances of Brady opting out.

"It was definitely kind of a shocking decision," Brady Sullivan said. "I was definitely sad in the weeks after, realizing that the best quarterback of all time, the best player of all time, wouldn't be playing for your team anymore. It was definitely a sad time."

Fast forward to 2021 -- the Sullivans took their family vacation in Tampa, Florida, to visit Raymond James Stadium and see the Hillsborough River, where Brady and his new Bucs teammates celebrated their Super Bowl victory -- and Brady had his famous Twitter moment -- "Noting to see her ... just a litTle avoCado tequila."

"For the Sullivan household, it was almost like a Patriots Super Bowl run," Sean said. "I was rooting just as hard for the Bucs as I was for the Pats in all those Super Bowl runs."

Sean's sons bought him a Brady Tampa Bay jersey as an early birthday present just before the NFC divisional game against the New Orleans Saints. He wore the jersey from then on during the playoffs.

"I'll be honest, I'm gonna have some mixed emotions as far as [Week 4]," Sean said. "I plan on wearing a Patriots hat and my Bucs Brady jersey to the game."

Brady added, "It's gonna feel really weird seeing him in a different uniform. He'll be the No. 12 of a different team. ... I think I took it for granted toward the end of his years, like how much we could depend on him as a QB. ... It's definitely a weird feeling now, not having that feeling of knowing that you're one of the greatest teams in the NFL."

Among the lessons Sean hopes Tom Brady imparted on his son: "Being calm, facing adversity -- you're never out of anything in life. You keep battling until the very end. You never give up," Sean said.

"Definitely the 'never give up' aspect," Brady Sullivan said. "He's gotten so many game-winning drives and fourth-quarter comebacks -- it makes you realize that you should never give up until it's over and basically fight until the end."

'Now begins the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history'

Sean Gaffney's wife, Colleen, went into labor on Super Bowl Sunday on Feb. 5, 2017 -- "The day I asked her not to," said Sean, who was putting ribs in the oven and preparing for a party when Colleen headed to the hospital, not thinking she'd deliver because it was a few weeks early.

They put her in the room with the largest TV at Falmouth Hospital in Massachusetts. All the nurses were wearing Patriots gear.

"If he was my first baby born, it would have been very weird because there was not a lot of attention on me," Colleen said. "It was more on the TV."

At 8:49 p.m., while the Patriots were still down 28-3 to the Atlanta Falcons, their son was born.

Sean told her, "'Now begins the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. If we win this thing, his name has to be Brady.'"

Not only did the Patriots come back, they won 34-28 in overtime.

"I'm screaming," Adam said. "I was shaking the floor probably. ... When James White scored [the winning touchdown], I was flipping out."

They chose James as the middle name but reassured the hospital staff that it was not after running back James White, but Colleen's father.

"I had to tell them, 'We are not that psychotic,'" Sean said. "I should have been a little more attentive to the birth of my son. I was torn between the TV set and spending time with him. It was a strange situation."

They had fun with it, though. The newborn Brady was photographed wearing a crochet football hat.

And as for Brady with the Bucs, the support is still there.

"We watched Tom win the Super Bowl with the same admiration as if he was still in New England," said Sean, who dressed little Brady, now 4, in his No. 12 Patriots jersey. "There was no way we weren't gonna watch Tom have a crack at it. It was amazing to watch."

Little Brady now points to the television saying, "Hey, that's me," Sean joked. "And I said, 'No, that's Tom Brady. That's who you're named after.'"

He hopes one day his son grows into the confident leader Tom Brady is -- someone who can "get the best out of people."

"I hope to take my son Brady to the unveiling of a statue in Tom's likeness outside of Gillette Stadium one day and be able to explain how I was able to watch the greatest of all time play the game," Sean said. "We still love to root for Tom, although I will not be pulling for him on the third of October."

Colleen added, "I can't see him coming back here and having [Patriots owner] Robert Kraft not greet him with open arms, and everybody will love to see him again because I just think he's a likeable person. There's no way that anyone would not want the best for him or boo him when he comes out on the field. I can't wait. I think it's gonna be an awesome game. It's gonna be weird for him more than anybody to play there."

But despite how weird things will be for fans, Tom Brady and maybe even little Brady, the anticipation is still high.

"I know guys that I work with that took Monday off because they plan on enjoying the game as much as possible," Sean said.

'I walked out of the house and was snowblowing the driveway'

When Brady Cocio of Hanson, Massachusetts, introduced himself to people as a boy growing up, he always stuck out his hand and said, "Hi, my name is Brady. I'm named after Tom Brady."

He doesn't do that anymore. On March 17, 2020, Brady was in his room doing school work when his father, Adam, walked in and said, "Brady's not coming back."

"I looked at [him] like he was crazy," said Brady Cocio, who's an aspiring quarterback. "I was like, 'That's not happening. You're lying.'"

Then he checked his phone.

"I was just shocked," the 14-year-old said. "I didn't know what to say. I was upset because he won six [Super Bowls] with us, and I wanted him to stay. But at the same time, I know big-name players want to experience different parts of their career and go different places. ... Then, when he won the Super Bowl, I was even more mad because I wanted that to be here, not there."

His parents, Adam and Teresa, exchanged texts while Teresa was at work.

"You have to be from Boston to understand -- it [was] just ginormous," Teresa said. "Like Tom Brady's leaving the Patriots. Nobody ever thought that would happen. He's iconic here."

"I'm completely upset about the whole thing, even a year and a half later," Adam said. "I don't blame any one person. I'm mad at the Patriots. I'm mad at Kraft. I'm mad at [Patriots coach Bill] Belichick. I'm mad at Tom Brady. ... It truly broke my heart when he left.

"Personally, I can't root for Tampa Bay. I don't have anything against Tampa Bay. We have family down there actually. But I'm a Patriots fan, and I know that there's a lot of people up here rooting for Tampa Bay, but when they took the lead in the Super Bowl, it was snowing up here. I walked out of the house, and I was snowblowing the driveway because I couldn't watch it anymore. I couldn't watch the Super Bowl. It was upsetting me. In my heart, he should be throwing touchdowns in a Patriots uniform still."

But he wasn't. And neither was one of his primary targets in New England, tight end Rob Gronkowski.

"The minute Brady threw the first touchdown to Gronk, he walked out," Brady Cocio said.

"He was pouting," Teresa added. "It doesn't bother me in the least, but my husband pouts, like seriously pouts. It's not a pretty sight."

Adam said when Brady returns to Gillette Stadium, it will be "bittersweet."

Teresa put it simply: "He's going to cry." Adam could only agree.

"I probably will have a tear in my eye," he said.

"And then get pissed and go outside," she rebutted while chuckling.

But for the Cocio family, it's all in fun.

"When the day comes that he finally does retire, and they bring him back to retire his number, all will be forgiven in my mind," Adam said.

But what happens Sunday (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC) if Brady and the Bucs defeat the Patriots?

"I'll mow the lawn," he said.