The GOAT’s Beginning

Brady win in first of 9 Super Bowls was sign of many great things to come

We didn’t know what to make of this world we shared with 7 billion others back on February 3, 2002.

Not five months had passed since the 9/11 terrorist attacks shook the United States to its core. Fear, sadness, defiance, pride—so many emotions won the day. And when our greatest cultural phenomenon, the Super Bowl, took its rightful place inside the Louisiana Superdome and across our television screens, patriotism reigned.

Mary J. Blige performed America the Beautiful. Paul McCartney sang Freedom, which he’d written in response to the attacks. Irish rock band U2 honored the terror victims. And George W. Bush became the only sitting president before or since to march to the 50-yard line and take part in the pregame coin toss.

It was under this fitting backdrop that Tom Brady’s GOAT-ness began.

For sake of explanation, GOAT refers to Greatest of All Time. If you happen to be living inside a Swanson TV dinner box and are unfamiliar with the 41-year-old Mr. Brady, he will be making his record ninth Super Bowl appearance—which astonishingly is more than any other NFL franchise, except for, of course, the Patriots.

Courtesy New England Patriots

Perhaps it’s fitting that Brady, the New England Patriots’ iconic quarterback, played in his first Super Bowl that day—a 20-17 Pats victory over the then-St. Louis Rams—considering that, love him or despise him, Brady is as much a front-man for American sports as anyone not named LeBron or Tiger.

It’s also fitting to remember that it began against the same franchise—since moved back to Los Angeles—that he will see Sunday in Super Bowl LII at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Patriots-Rams battle could well be as close as the one that took place in Louisiana 17 years ago. Brady brings a 5-3 Super Bowl record down to the Dirty South, as the kids call it, and will get more airtime by CBS than anyone. Again.

Fair to say, Brady’s Q-rating took a giant leap in his first Super Bowl. Soccer Moms in Topeka and fourth-graders in Bakersfield might just have heard his name for the first of many, many, many times. That’s because in New Orleans that day, Brady and his partner in crime, Patriots coach Bill Belichick, won their first NFL title together over Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, who’d had a fabulous season.

Warner, then 30, was wrapping up his second MVP trophy in three seasons. The Rams were nicknamed “The Greatest Show on Turf” for their fast-paced, aggressive offense. It was an even greater weapon inside the Trans World Dome in St. Louis, with its artificial turf. It led to a 14-2 regular-season record. And yes, the Superdome also had the artificial stuff. It was no surprise that Vegas oddsmakers made the Rams a 14-point favorite.

This says it all. It helps explain why Brady’s journey to the forefront of America’s sporting conscience is so unique. It’s not just the wins. It’s the Cinderella story.

Brady was 24 years old that day. He had been the 199th pick in the sixth round in the NFL Draft out of Michigan less than two years earlier. He wasn’t even supposed to be a starter during that 2001-02 season. He entered as backup to veteran Drew Bledsoe until Bledsoe’s season ended abruptly in the second game with a torn blood vessel following a hard hit.

“He did not have the prototypical NFL body,” said Sports Illustrated’s Don Banks at the time. “He came out kinda skinny (and) they didn’t think he was strong enough.”

But according to SI, Patriots quarterback coach Dick Rehbein didn’t believe the others. He had been so excited about his potential that he told his wife, “20 years from now, people will know the name Tom Brady.” Tragically, Rehbein didn’t live to see it. He died of a heart attack just prior to the start of that 2001-02 season.

That season, Brady stepped in for Bledsoe and led the team to an 11-5  finish, including a 24-17 home loss to the same Rams that were favored to do it again in New Orleans.

But it didn’t happen. Yes, the Rams outgained the Patriots in the 36th Super Bowl 427 yards to 267, but New England did that day what it has done so brilliantly during its 18-year dynasty—it capitalized on its opponent’s mistakes. Brady managed an 8-yard TD pass to David Patten in the second quarter and the Patriots led 17-3 in the third quarter due mostly to three Rams turnovers.

And here’s where things got interesting. It looked like the lead would increase after a Patriots fumble return for a touchdown. But instead of a three-TD lead, a holding penalty took it away. And now the Rams capitalized—Warner scored on a short run, and then threw a 26-yard TD pass to Ricky Proehl to tie it with 1:30 remaining.

With all the momentum, Rams fans went ballistic.

And Brady went to work. The GOAT was born.

Tom Brady’s last-minute drive put Adam Vinatieri in position to kick the 48-yard game winner in Super Bowl XXXVI.  | Photo courtesy The New England Patriots


With no timeouts remaining, Brady led the Patriots down the field with efficiency that would become familiar in the 21st century. His exploits helped set up kicker Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning 48-yard field goal as time expired. And even though Brady completed only 16 of 27 passes for merely 145 yards, he was named the game’s MVP because of his poise and leadership.

Just like his Super Bowl stats, Brady’s 2,843 passing yards in 2001-02 and his 18:12 touchdown-to-interception ratio weren’t awe-inspiring. But his calm under pressure was—whether it was handling his position coach’s death, his sudden thrust into the lineup after Bledsoe’s injury, or a final march down the Superdome field after all of his team’s momentum and timeouts were gone.

Classic Brady.

Classic career.

And it all began when America was at its most vulnerable, celebrating its unsung heroes and forging forward with a spirit that perhaps had been missing.

Some might say that spirit is again missing in 2019 during some of our most politically divided times. But reliable Brady will still be there. Some things never change. This man will fill our TV screens with the same steady hand and quiet swagger that we’ve seen play out in front of us during four more Super Bowl wins after that day in 2002.

He’s thrown for more than 70,000 yards and 517 touchdowns in the regular season. He’s thrown for nearly 11,000 yards and 73 touchdowns in the playoffs. He’s ripped the hearts out of many team’s fans—and none more so than those in the city he’s visiting this week, when he rallied the Patriots in 2017 from a 28-3 second-half deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons 34-28 in the 51st Super Bowl. After a terrible start, he passed for 466 yards that day.

It’s an unpredictable world, full of ups, downs, surprises. But some things, like the morning sun and Mr. Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, Jr., simply stay the course. H&A

Cover photo: Tom Brady | Courtesy the New England Patriots

Steve Kirk

Steve Kirk

A sports writer and editor for 25-plus years, Steve’s career includes stints at The Birmingham News, Florida Times-Union, The (Columbia, S.C.) State and Birmingham Post-Herald. A native of Huntsville, Alabama, he lives in the Atlanta area.
Steve Kirk

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