Seventeen years ago, Tom Brady was 24 years old and in his second NFL season when he led the Patriots to a last-second victory over the St. Louis Rams for New England’s first Super Bowl title.
Four rings later, Brady will arrive in Atlanta for the Patriots’ Super Bowl matchup with the Los Angeles Rams having already established himself as the most-decorated Super Bowl quarterback in league history.
But as Brady prepares to play in his ninth Super Bowl, he will have another chance to do something no other NFL player has done.
If New England beats Los Angeles, the 41-year-old quarterback will break a tie with Hall of Fame defensive end Charles Haley and become the first player to win six rings.
But to his coaches, teammates and admirers across the sporting world, he already stands alone.
Known to Brady affectionately as “Jules,” receiver Julian Edelman called it an honor to be a part of the quarterback’s career.
“He’s a really good football player,” Edelman said. “The best. And he goes out and he consistently proves it.”
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has caught more passes from Brady than any other player and will play alongside him in a Super Bowl for the fourth time. He said Brady’s approach has been the same since their first practice together back in 2010.
“The guy is just so precise with everything. Just the way he is out on the field, the way he prepares,” Gronkowski said. “You know every single time you’re going to get the best out of him no matter what the situations are.”
After New England’s divisional-round win over the Chargers, Brady was openly miffed about what he perceived as pessimism outside of the Patriots’ locker room about their chances of reaching a third straight Super Bowl following a regular season which they started 1-2 and lost five games.
“I know everybody thinks we suck and, you know, we can’t win any games,” Brady said. “We’ll see. It’ll be fun.”
A week later, Brady led the Patriots on a winning drive in overtime to beat the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship game — his 12th such drive in the postseason in the fourth-quarter or overtime.
The next day he posted a video on Instagram of himself and Gronkowski walking to the team bus after the game. Both are smiling and Gronkowski flashes his AFC championship T-shirt.
It was the kind humble brag that Brady has steered away from in the past. But this postseason he has been more open with his emotions and acknowledged after the AFC title win he was “as excited as I have been in a long time.”
“When you have 70,000 people cheering against you, it is pretty sweet when you win on the road,” Brady said.
On Twitter, congratulations came from all corners of sports.
Among them was one from Paul Pierce , who helped lead the Celtics to the NBA championship in 2008. “There’s aliens there’s Pegasus and there’s Tom Brady,” Pierce wrote.
Left tackle Trent Brown is in his first season in New England after being traded to the Patriots last April. He said sharing the huddle with Brady has lived up to his expectations.
“There’s one word, G.O.A.T. That’s it,” Brown said. “He’s one of those great leaders and it trickles down to the rest of the team.”
Brown is a member of a starting lineup on offense that, excluding Brady, has an average age of 27.
Brady’s continued ability to lead and inspire teammates more than a decade his junior is a unique skill, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said.
“He communicates well with every player,” McDaniels said. “One of the things that’s always impressed me is how he’s one of the first guys in the building to know a new person’s name, which speaks to how important that is to him, to introduce himself to somebody and also get to know that person, whether it be a practice squad player, a rookie, whatever it is.”
Brady’s introductions to new players is always the same. At some point after they arrive Brady seeks them out, walks up and says plainly, “Hi, I’m Tom Brady.”
Linebacker Kyle Van Noy said he still remembers his reaction to hearing those words.
It was October 2016 and Van Noy, following a trade from Detroit, arrived at the team facility about 5:30 a.m.. Hours later while on a restroom break from a meeting, he turned and saw an outstretched hand.
“Tom comes up and kind of shakes my hand like, ‘Hi, I’m Tom Brady.’ And I’m like, ‘You’re an idiot.'” Van Noy said.
But he said the moment was emblematic of a player he has no doubt will be at his best on Super Bowl Sunday.
“Those little things are why he’s where he’s at,” Van Noy said. “Those little things that people don’t pay attention to, those detailed things, that just separates him. He’s really good at what he does. … That’s what makes him Tom.”
Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at https://twitter.com/khightower