Like many non-New England Patriots fans, I grew up jealously resenting Tom Brady for absolutely no reason.
As a die-hard Redskins' supporter, it pained me to see a guy lead a team to so much success over and over again. Sure, I recognized the allure. This is a player who came out of Michigan with average stats and very little interest from NFL teams. Somehow, some way, Brady just kept getting better and better.
He's a four-time Super Bowl MVP, two-time NFL MVP, and holds a bevy of ridiculous records including all-time postseason marks for completions, passing yards, passing touchdowns, fourth-quarter comebacks, and game-winning drives.
The Patriots' star owns just about every notable Super Bowl Record under the sun — far more than any player in the history of the NFL — including his childhood idol, Joe Montana.
I'm not sure if it's human nature to resent people who are the very best. It's strange with Brady. I've never hated LeBron James or Tiger Woods (even when after his transgressions and cold in-person encounters). Brady is often depicted as overly cocky and smug, but don't you have to have at least a little of that to be the best?
Then there have been the widely-publicized accusations of cheating — which of course I latched on to like some internet troll, and used it to fuel my already-smoldering fire of hate for the 40-year-old superhuman.
I was sour. I was envious. I couldn't understand why the Redskins' struggled so hard to find a capable signal caller and were constantly screwing things up, yet New England had this guy who seems to never fail. Don't talk to me about Tom Brady — just like everything in Boston — I don't care and don't want to hear it.
But earlier this week … everything changed.
I spent Tuesday and Wednesday in White Sulpher Springs W.V., the new home of Houston Texans training camp. I heard the Patriots were coming to town and it was less than a two-hour drive, so figured it would be a great time to load up the car and go catch up with some of the former ACC players on both teams (the conference I cover the most here at HERO).
There was the Deshaun Watson narrative. I thought I might get some great sound clips from DeAndre Hopkins — another Clemson product. Tom Savage (a Pittsburgh alum) is fighting for the starting QB spot in Houston, while former Wake Forest star Kevin Johnson looks healthy and revamped coming off a broken foot that ended his season in 2017.
In all — the Texans' have 15 former ACC players on their current 90-man roster, so I knew there would be some solid storylines. The Patriots have just five ACC players, but I figured I could track down former Clemson tight end Dwayne Allen or ask Jacoby Brissett (N.C. State) what it's like to learn the QB position in a place like New England.
That was the plan — and I was able to follow up on a few of my original targets.
But I came away from the two-day trip with one thing that stood out significantly more than anything else: I was wrong about Tom Brady. So very wrong. Who the hell was I to judge someone I've never even met?
From the moment Brady took the field on Tuesday morning — I began to feel at least a little bit different. I had a nice place to stand on the Patriots' sideline — and became fascinated with his every move. Every time he came off the field, Brady would kneel about 20-30 feet from me and intently observe practice. New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels or WR Julian Edelman would occasionally come chat with him, but he was laser-focused at all times, even if it was the third string unit playing the Texans' backup defense.
There were a few times where Brady became noticeably frustrated with himself. A poorly thrown out-route that was deflected by a Houston defender. A botched play where it appeared either Brady or another player didn't understand his assignment.
"We got to make that play," Brady told me after Wednesday's practice. "It's got to be a better throw. We just have to keep up with it. Sometimes you get the exact look you want for a certain play — and it's not a productive play. Those are the ones you kick yourself for. Sometimes they just call the right defense for the play you call and that's just how it is, but the ones you know should work, those are the ones you have to come up with."
Here is the greatest QB of all time — dissecting the one or two bad passes he made during the entire practice session. That's greatness at it's core.
I continued to study Brady throughout the remainder of practice. He cheered when Jimmy Garoppolo or Brissett connected for a big play. He watched the Texans' offense closely as well — talking intently with McDaniels after each pass from Deshaun Watson or Tom Savage. He was engaged and intense at all times. It was clear Brady had the same demeanor on the field that we've all become accustomed to over the years. It was just practice — but he approached it like a game. It didn't matter how many accolades or honors he had.
Brady — the greatest to ever play the position — wanted to get better.
This was wild. Crowd chanting "Brady, Brady, Brady," after practice. Mind you – this is TEXANS camp in rural West Va. The guy is incredible pic.twitter.com/oisGi3DiNM
— Sean Labar (@SeanLabarACC) August 17, 2017
After practice, chants of "Brady, Brady, Brady," echoed off the mountains that overshadow the field.
"Man, I ain't never seen anything like this," one Texans' player said as he took off his jersey and pads.
"This is Tom Brady," a Patriots staffer tells him. "I guess we are just used to it."
I continue to get drawn to Brady. There was an unexplainable aurora that grips my attention. He spends an extra 20-30 minutes after practice to focus on footwork and agility with a trainer/coach. After that, Houston head coach Bill O'Brien makes his way over and they chat for a moment.
When O'Brien leaves, Watson — one of the most electrifying players in college football over the last few seasons — makes his way toward Brady. The Pats' QB gives him advice and they chat for a minute or two. Watson stares intently, listening to every word he says. It reminded me of a kid meeting his idol for the very first time. It was a cool scene to witness.
After speaking to various former teammates, coaches and Peter King of Sports Illustrated, Brady makes his way to speak with a young boy who was clearly battling some form of cancer or severe illness. I was close enough to hear the compassion from Brady's voice, as he spoke to the child and his dad. I don't recall the exact words and don't want to misquote, but I know he told the boy he loved him and is there for him, while comforting his dad and family. It was raw, unfiltered emotion and yes, I even teared up.
Coolest moment over the last two days? Brady speaking to a boy who was clearly battling cancer or another disease. Such raw emotion pic.twitter.com/O1rjx765br
— Sean Labar (@SeanLabarACC) August 17, 2017
Remember how I had been tracking his every move?
There was a crowd of reporters, players other people and it was obvious Brady was trying to find a clear path to the podium where he was set to meet with the press.
I notice he's b-lining straight toward me — and I freeze. I've interviewed and worked around a decent amount of college and professional athletes in during my short time working in sports and can't remember just completely shutting down like this.
Can I get out of his way in time? Why do I feel like Ricky Bobby in "Talladega Nights" when he doesn't know what to do with his hands? I was stuck… and incredibly nervous.
"Hey buddy how are you," Brady said graciously as I must have looked like a deer in headlights. "Excuse me, I just need to slip by."
I don't even know if I said anything in return, but I stepped out of his path and gained my composure.
As ridiculous as it sounds — Brady made me feel comfortable in the smallest of moments. The image I built in my mind for all of those years made me think he would be rude and harsh — but I couldn't have been more wrong.
I headed over to the press conference where I listened to him continue to exude humility — even going as far as saying he wishes he had the dual-threat ability of Watson, Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers. Really? You? The greatest ever wishes he could do even more? He wasn't just saying it either. It was authentic.
As I drove home, I began to think about everything that led to my change in perception. I began to think of the handful of athletes and coaches (I won't name) who have been rude to me for absolutely no reason, particularly early in my career. My thoughts shifted to practice again — and each moment that Brady acted the exact opposite of the image that I had sculpted in my mind — based only on the way I wanted to view him.
I'll always be a die-hard Redskins' fan, but I'll also never say another negative thing about Tom Brady and will be rooting for his continued success.
I had the chance to witness a level of greatness I never thought I would in a first-hand setting. I'll never forget it.