FOXBOROUGH -- The first time left him incredulous, his hands atop his head in boyish disbelief. If only, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady realizes now, all Super Bowl seasons could align themselves as seamlessly as in the 2001 campaign, when he was 24 years old and crowned the prince of the National Football League after only his first full season as a starter.
"I was so naive at that point," Brady said. "I was young, man. There was so much excitement going on, and I didn't really know what was up.
"And now, it's just so hard. You don't realize how difficult it is. I'm not saying the first time we won was easy. It was tough that first year, too. But at that point I just had no idea."
The 2006 season has presented formidable challenges. His relationship with actress Bridget Moynahan quietly ended. He had to soldier on without his top two receivers from last season, Deion Branch and David Givens, leading the team to a 12-4 record despite the fact the lone returning receiver was 35-year-old Troy Brown.
The Patriots face San Diego in their AFC playoff matchup this afternoon acutely aware that Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson is the reigning new superstar of the league and that young quarterback Philip Rivers -- not Brady -- will play in the Pro Bowl in February.
Times have changed, but New England's quarterback hasn't.
He still believes his team can win it all, because it has invested the time and effort into it. He has never forgotten the lessons of 2002, when New England slipped to 9-7 and became yet another Super Bowl champion unable to return to the postseason the following year.
In 2002, the team lost its edge. Brady vowed to never let that happen again.
"There are a lot of talented players out there, but to become great, you have to be willing to pay the price," Brady said. "We have guys who understand that."
Last Tuesday, two days after the Patriots eliminated the New York Jets from the playoffs, Brady hauled himself out of bed and drove to Foxborough.
Although Tuesdays are designated as a day off for the team, Brady has been showing up at Gillette Stadium on Tuesdays since his rookie year in 2000.
"There are no off days," he said.
In fact, Charlie Weis, Brady's former offensive coordinator, said the quarterback's routine on Tuesdays is a full one. According to Weis, Brady meets with coach Bill Belichick for about an hour, then meets with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. After that, the quarterback retreats to the trainer's room to receive treatment. Brady's next stop is the weight room, where he follows a specific weightlifting regimen. He then heads home. But Weis said the quarterback's day is far from over.
"Tom is usually checking his fax machine every hour or so," said Weis, now head coach at Notre Dame. "Usually, by then, we'd have our game plan drawn and done, so we'd fax it to him. He'd sit down, and pore over it for a few hours before he went to bed."
Brady's father was visiting last weekend from California and stuck around for a few extra days after the victory over the Jets.
"I got up Tuesday morning and told him, 'Dad, I'm going down to the stadium,' " Brady said. "He asked me, 'Tom, how many guys go down there on Tuesdays?' I told him there were about 25 guys, and he could probably guess them.
"So he said, 'Larry [Izzo], right?' I said, 'Yep.' Then he said, 'And Tedy [Bruschi]? Troy? Richard [Seymour]?' I said, 'Yep.' Then he said, 'Ty Warren, right?' He knew them all.
"Each one of those guys made himself a great player. That's why we win."
"I miss Deion," he said. "I miss him a lot. He fit in so well here, and he's a friend."
He is asked the question that could well echo for the balance of his career. Does he daydream about throwing to a No. 1 receiver such as Marvin Harrison?
"Some teams have an incredible passing game," Brady conceded. "You look at Cincinnati, and they have Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. But they're home watching right now. We're not."
Brady has grown fiercely protective of his current receivers, after investing hours getting to know them personally and schooling them on the intricacies of the Patriot offense. He even went so far as to run the routes for them so they could envision exactly what he wanted.
"I tell you what, they listen a lot more to what he says than what I say," said coach Bill Belichick. "If I tell them to run a route at 14 [yards], that's good. If he tells them to run it at 14, they're going run it at 14 because he's the guy throwing them the ball."
"Tom has been tremendously helpful," said receiver Jabar Gaffney, who confessed he was "starstruck" when he first met Brady. "He wants us to succeed, and he has shown us exactly how to do that."
Grooming the receivers has required a reservoir of patience, but the results have manifested themselves at the right time.
"Look at the performance we've gotten out of Reche [Caldwell]," Brady said. "And what Jabar has done the past eight weeks is unbelievable. Chad [Jackson] has come a long way after missing most of training camp.
"Even a guy like Kelvin Kight, who has just worked his tail off since he got put on the active roster, makes you feel good about what we're doing. Guys are receptive. They put the time in."
"There's no question that one year set Tom up for success for the rest of his life," Weis said.
New England started out 3-0, but then dropped four straight, to San Diego and Miami on the road and Green Bay and Denver at home.
"The game that really stands out in my mind was the Packers," Weis said. "They had lost almost their entire defense to injuries the week before, and we went in figuring we were going to smoke them.
"They had no guys in the secondary. But they kicked our butts that day. [New England lost, 28-10]. It was an incredibly humbling experience. And the inconsistency was unilateral, across the board -- offense, defense, and special teams.
"The Patriots -- and Tom -- were fortunate to learn from 2002."
Brady examined his behavior during the previous offseason, after the Super Bowl win over the Rams, and realized he hadn't managed his time well. He found it difficult to say no to the overwhelming number of people who were tugging at him, and as a result, he shortchanged those who meant the most: his family and teammates.
"I think I tended to go overboard with some things," he said. "I had to find my way back to my comfort zone. For so long I saw myself a certain way, but then I realized I couldn't continue like that. I wanted to accommodate people, but if I did that too much, they took advantage. I had to make some changes.
"That year was really difficult. I had never had a 9-7 season before. I had been fortunate in that I had never had a losing season since I was a freshman in high school, and I wasn't even [getting on the field] then. We had so much success so early, and then we lost four straight games and all of a sudden it seemed so hard to win just one game."
But that was all about to change. The Patriots were whipped, 31-0, by Buffalo to start the 2003 season and were 2-2 before going on an incredible run that culminated in a victory over Carolina in Super Bowl XXXVIII and earned Brady his second Super Bowl MVP award.
"I tell you, I look back on that stretch where we won 21 straight [the final 15 games of 2003 through the first six games of 2004], and when you think about that now, it's just so unbelievably awesome," he said.
"But the whole time we were doing it, it didn't seem like such a big deal."
Brady understands opportunities can be fleeting. Players and coaches come and go. In a flash, an injury can change your life. And most players have a small window of time to succeed in their prime.
"We were at practice [Wednesday] during a defensive period," Brady said. "All the offensive players were waiting around, but there's Troy, running up and down the sideline, doing sprints, then catching footballs with the Jugs machine. The guy's been in the league 14 years and that's how he approaches it.
"So now when Troy says, 'We've got to start working harder,' who is going to question him? They're going to be thinking, 'Well, I don't work harder than Troy Brown does, so I better listen to him.'
"That's the kind of leader I want to follow."
For most of the young offensive players on the roster, Brady is that leader. He is so confident that, at times, he is misconstrued as arrogant.
"I remember when I first got there," said linebacker Rosevelt Colvin. "I was watching him in the locker room thinking, 'Man, that guy is so cocky. Hey, dude, I know you won a Super Bowl, but calm down.' It took me a while to realize it wasn't cockiness. It was confidence."
"He wasn't content just to be on the team," Weis said. "He was our fourth quarterback when he came. Drew [Bledsoe] was the starter, but Tom had [John] Friesz and [Michael] Bishop in front of him. His goal the next year was to be the No. 2 quarterback. Now, going from No. 4 to No. 2 is no easy thing, but that's what he had in his mind."
Even Brady couldn't have envisioned what happened next. Bledsoe went down with a life-threatening injury to start the 2001 season and the kid stepped in. He's started 106 consecutive games since.
"I sit here now, and every single one of these games we win is great," Brady said. "Truly great. It means everything, because it means we're moving on."
He acknowledges that if the Patriots could run the table this season, it could be the most rewarding season of his career.
"We have to see how it plays out," he said. "But I can already tell you, God, I've learned a lot of lessons this season. I've had to deal with a lot of things on and off the field. There have been some very challenging things, both mentally and physically. You find yourself looking back and saying, 'Did I do everything I could in that situation?'
"But overall, when I look at it, life is good, man. I wouldn't change what I'm doing for a second. I'm healthy, I'm young, and I'm doing something I love to do with people I love to do it with. I don't want any sympathy."
Although Weis is now the coach at Notre Dame, he watches Brady regularly. The progression of the quarterback, he said, has been gratifying.
"The physical thing would be his accuracy," Weis said. "We can talk about his arm strength and his footwork and his poise in the pocket, but when you watch every throw, the ball is right there.
"Mentally, he sees the field. He sees the field pre-snap, then, whether he takes a three-step, five-step, or seven-step drop, he knows exactly what he's doing. A lot of quarterbacks are guessing. He's not.
"And the last thing is, very few people have that special air about them that permeates success and confidence. He has that special 'it.' Always has."
Will "it" be enough? Brady is convinced his team is playing its best football at the best time, and he has spent the better part of this past week with a serene grin on his face, as if he knows a secret the rest of us don't.
"The thing you need to understand is his most important Super Bowl ring is the next one," said Weis. "He's not about to say, 'I'm 29, I've got three Super Bowl rings, I've got a lot of money, I'm pretty good. I'm all set.' "
The 29-year old quarterback refuses to be satisfied.
He learned that from the 24-year-old kid with the incredulous grin, who couldn't possibly have imagined what lay ahead.