In January, as news of Tom Brady's retirement sent shockwaves through the NFL community, one question began dominating social media: Where were you when Brady was drafted in April 2000? The answers were staggering. There was a flurry of middle-aged dads sharing photos of their college days on NFL Twitter, and well-established sportswriters posting pictures of themselves as kids. An entire generation of adult fans were too young to remember. An NFL with Brady as its face is all they had known.
But one British fan, who resides in the sleepy Midlands countryside, knew exactly where he was, and he has the physical evidence to prove it.
In a bank vault in Manchester, England, alongside a will and a house deed, sits a rookie Tom Brady memorabilia card. It belongs to Phil Jones, a 66-year-old NFL fanatic and joint-president of the BucsUK fan club. An avid collector, he happened to be in Florida during the 1999 Orange Bowl and watched from a hotel room as Brady capped his college career at Michigan by throwing four touchdowns in a dramatic comeback win over Alabama. He took a liking to the quarterback. Months later, when his friend in America sent him a recording of that 2000 NFL draft, he checked to see where Brady was taken.
So, the following season, when he came across four Brady rookie cards at a memorabilia event in the lead-up to Super Bowl XXXV, Jones asked what the seller wanted for them. The sixth-round rookie did not command much of a price. Jones bought the cards for $6.
Included in the bunch was a non-numbered 2000 Playoff Contenders Tom Brady RC rookie card. A similar card fetched close to $50,000 online in October, but high returns for cards that aren't graded or numbered are an anomaly.
The market for sports memorabilia boomed during the pandemic, in what has become something of a gold rush. Even as the American economy became bruised, sports cards began breaking all known records. Brady memorabilia is no exception. A numbered, high grade (Mint-9) version of the card sold for $3.107 million last June, the highest sum ever paid for a football card at a public auction. The previous record, for the same card, was set just two months before.
Jones can't get his card insured -- he has tried -- so it stays in the vault. "I find it quite sad. I love to get them out and have a look at them," he says.
The first thing to know about Jones is he is an NFL devotee. He has been to 12 Super Bowls -- first in 1990 for Super Bowl XXVII, then again from 1994 until 2003. He stopped after that, when his Tampa Bay Buccaneers won their first Lombardi Trophy -- except for once more, to Super Bowl 50 in 2016. He keeps all of his tickets from those games together in a card binder.
He has stories to tell, too, like the time Green Bay Packers legend Bart Starr and his wife, Cherry, sat next to him at a breakfast diner. Or when, at Super Bowl XXIX in 1995, Joe Namath was waiting at a taxi rank for a ride back to downtown San Francisco. "We were going in the same direction. So I said 'You want to share a cab?' And he did," Jones says. They rode together, talking about Alabama and Bear Bryant, arguably the greatest college football coach of all time. In those days, Jones would save all year round, spending around $3,000 each time, arriving to soak in the Americana.
"Oh the stories I have," he says.
Jones is also a collector. His office is a shrine to his memories. A commemorative rug, which depicts New Orleans' famed Cafe du Monde, a jazz trio and the iconic American-flag Super Bowl XXXVI logo, hangs next to a small collection of autographed helmets and framed photos.
His wife calls him "the world's worst magpie." Among others, he has a particular liking for Brady memorabilia.
"The Tom Brady thing, I just find his whole story.... My better half said to me: 'Why? Why Tom Brady? And I told her the whole story [about the card,]" he says.
Jones began collecting soccer cards as a Manchester United fan at the age of six, and the hobby carried him through life. He has always had a sense of what was valuable. As a teenager, he worked as a cleaner in a cinema, and one day he took the James Bond "Dr. No" film poster off the wall. He wanted it as a keepsake. Years later, he sold the poster for £1,500 and used the money to go to the Super Bowl.
His collection today is a testament to his years of fandom of both Tampa Bay and United. One of his most prized possessions is a book with the signatures of over 700 United players. He personally collected almost every signature, from George Best, to a teenage David Beckham -- who he asked to autograph it while the footballer was waiting for his dad, Ted, to pick him up outside Old Trafford -- to the club's newest young hero Marcus Rashford. He plans to pass it down to his son. He keeps his collection not on display, but rather in boxes in his house.
This is the crux of why Jones collects the cards. They're memories, mementos, the hard-copy, certifiable proof of who he is and where he has been. He is a passionate United fan, a follower of the Bucs, a former teenage employee of a movie theatre. In a sense, Jones embodies the reason sports memorabilia exists. He collects for the joy of it, for the visual reminders of his time at the Super Bowls. A year after he bought the Brady card, he sat behind the posts as Adam Vinatieri kicked the winning field goal, handing Brady his first-ever league title. He remembers the St. Louis Rams fans, who had been ringing cowbells for hours during the game, leaving dejected, and the packed New Orleans streets in the hazy, drunken aftermath. The Brady card is a direct link back to that moment.
"Some of my cards are worth a lot of money, but I buy them because I like them, or because I think 'I remember him, he scored that or did that''' so I'll get a card of him," Jones says.
"It could be worth nothing, but it's just for me."
There is a reason why he no longer goes to the Super Bowl: He can't afford it. The price of tickets, much like the rookie cards of your favourite quarterback, has soared over recent years. He loved that he could walk around a city in the lead up to the game and brush shoulders with his NFL heroes. But that, as corporate sponsors and events boomed, became increasingly rare.
He found the same issue with trading cards. He still buys rookie cards, but he says there is an issue. A couple of years ago, he spent around $110 on two signed rookie cards of new Cincinnati Bengals sensation Joe Burrow. He says he checked the price recently and found they're worth twice as much.
"I feel quite sad about it in a funny sort of way, even though I could be a beneficiary, because kids can't collect them anymore. They're meant for investors, not for kids. Not how I started," he says.
People have asked what he will do with the Brady card. He has pondered a few scenarios. Maybe he will need them in case of a rainy day. "Brady is my pension," he jokes. Or maybe he will hand them down to his two adult children.
"I don't know what I'll do with them," Jones says. "They're my memories."
For now, they sit in a Manchester bank, forever a reminder of Brady's Hall of Fame career, and a British fan that followed along.