THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Punching in

During an injury-plagued, up-and-down season, the high-profile Brady has shown more toughness and grit than glamour, working hard to get the Patriots back to the playoffs

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / January 10, 2010

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There was nothing glamorous about this Tom Brady. This wasn’t the guy hounded by the paparazzi on TMZ.com, starring in Stetson cologne ads, or performing an impossibly well-coiffured workout to hawk “electrolyte-enhanced’’ smartwater. This portrait of Brady was decidedly less idealized. He was wearing Patriots sweats and a black baseball cap, a bandage on his broken right ring finger and bags under his eyes.

You’ve heard of the “real Randy Moss,’’ well, this was the real Tom Brady. He isn’t just some urbane celebrity who cruises through life with a supermodel spouse. The real Brady is defined more by grit than glamour, fortitude than fame. He is a battered and bruised NFL quarterback who will start the Patriots’ wild-card playoff game today at Gillette Stadium against the Baltimore Ravens with more injuries (three) than wide receivers with playoff experience (one, Moss).

Brady has the broken finger on his throwing hand, a sore throwing shoulder, and what a source close to the team confirmed is a debilitating rib injury. (CBS Sports reported last Sunday that Brady has been playing with three “broken’’ ribs, and the Providence Journal reported the same day that Brady had three “cracked’’ ribs.)

Brady, who started this season recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee - which sidelined him for the 2008 season and the Patriots for the playoffs - has proven in returning the team to the postseason that there isn’t a tougher quarterback in the NFL.

“I think toughness for a quarterback is measured by being out on the field,’’ said Brady, now in his 10th season. “Brett Favre, who has been on the field as long as he has, and Peyton Manning, you just get out there and be out there for your teammates.

“That’s how a quarterback can display toughness. We don’t go out and hit anybody or block on a reverse or anything like that. You can’t get in the trenches. Teammates have to know that you’re going to stand in there and make the throws.’’

They do.

“He is definitely a guy that has played through about everything you could play through, so I think you respect that,’’ said left tackle Matt Light, who has protected Brady’s blind side since 2001.

Dating to when he made his first career start, taking over for an injured Drew Bledsoe on Sept. 30, 2001, the 32-year-old Brady hadn’t missed a game until the Chiefs’ Bernard Pollard plowed into his knee seven minutes and 33 seconds into the ’08 season opener. The injury ended a streak of 128 consecutive games played (including playoffs) that was the third-longest in NFL history.

“He is real tough,’’ said running back Kevin Faulk, the only player on the team who predates Brady’s arrival in 2000. “Tom, man, the hits that he takes, the injuries that he has that probably no one knows about, it’s amazing to see that he still does what he does and gets the job done at that point.’’

A host of injuries
The timeline on Brady’s injuries this season is as murky as the team’s injury reports, which per league policy are required only to list the afflicted body parts and not the specific nature of the injuries.

But the source close to the team said, “He’s been beat up all [expletive] season.’’

Back in August, in the Patriots’ third exhibition game, Brady was driven into the turf shoulder-first by Redskins defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. That hit affected Brady’s accuracy on deep balls more than his surgically-repaired knee did.

The Patriots’ Dec. 4 injury report marked the first time they made mention of a finger injury. According to the source, Brady injured the finger in practice that day, before the Patriots lost to the Dolphins, 22-21, at Land Shark Stadium Dec. 6.

At that point, Brady already was playing with the injured ribs, said the source. Although coach Bill Belichick made a point of shooting down Charley Casserly’s CBS report about Brady having broken ribs, he has not had a similar response to any reports of cracked ribs.

Dr. Helene Feiler, an orthopedic surgeon who works at Excel Orthopedics in Woburn, said the difference between a broken rib and a cracked rib is semantic.

The real question is whether the rib injury is a non-displaced or a displaced fracture. A non-displaced fracture is like a log of wood that has a crack in it, but the wood itself is intact. A displaced fracture is one in which a hunk of the wood essentially would be hanging off the log.

Feiler said the traditional treatment for fractured ribs is to just wait for them to heal, which can take 6-8 weeks. “You tell people not to participate in contact sports,’’ she said.

That’s not an option for Brady.

Despite the injuries, Brady threw for 4,398 yards, fifth-best in the NFL, and tossed 28 touchdown passes, tied for sixth in the league, this season. Both numbers matched or exceeded the best of his career outside of his record-setting 2007 season, when he threw an NFL-record 50 touchdown passes. His 65.7 percent completion rate also trailed only his ’07 mark.

Those stats and his highly-scrutinized return from the knee injury earned him the Associated Press NFL Comeback Player of the Year award. He just as easily could have won the award for what he’s overcome this season. But Brady doesn’t want any special recognition for playing hurt.

“Injuries are like excuses,’’ he said. “They’re built-in excuses, so if you can play, you play, and you got to play good. You got to play to the championship level that your team needs.

“You can’t sit there and go, ‘I’ll play,’ and then when it doesn’t go well say, ‘Well, I was hurt anyway.’ That to me is a bunch of b.s.

“So, I’m healthy enough to play. If I wasn’t healthy enough to play, I wouldn’t play.’’

Notice he said “healthy enough.’’

Season of adjustments
It’s not just injuries that have made this season one of the most challenging of Brady’s career.

He has had to adjust to a new position coach and presumptive play-caller in Bill O’Brien and deal with a revolving door at the No. 3 wide receiver spot, which is important in the New England offense. (Joey Galloway failed in that role and sparked an expletive-laden tirade from Brady, caught by television cameras, just before halftime of the Patriots’ 26-10 win over the Falcons Sept. 27.)

Brady also has had to play wide receiver whisperer with the mercurial Moss, whose effort was questioned following a loss to the Panthers last month.

Now, the same knee injury Brady came back from this season has robbed him of his go-to receiver, Wes Welker, for the playoffs. Welker, who tore his ACL and MCL last Sunday against Houston, caught 123 passes from Brady this season, tied for the second-most receptions in NFL history.

“Mental toughness is more important to me than physical toughness,’’ said Brady. “I think the mental toughness of being able to put whatever happened to you behind you and move forward with excitement and energy, I think that’s what this Patriots team is all about.’’

While Brady has played every game, what has been missing this season is his late-game heroics. The season started with the classic Brady comeback against Buffalo, but that’s the only time this year he produced the type of game-winning drive that has become his signature. He threw four straight incompletions against the Jets, fumbled against Denver, failed on fourth and 2 in Indianapolis, and was intercepted in Miami.

“I’ve been playing with Tom for 10 years,’’ said Faulk. “He’s like a brother - the things that he does, the way he came back from injury. I know in his heart he feels like he hasn’t played his best football yet, but at the same time, we always have confidence in him.’’

Between the injuries and the birth of his first child with wife Gisele Bundchen Dec. 8 - Brady has another son with actress Bridget Moynahan - it’s understandable why Brady has had some sleepless nights this season.

One of the most challenging seasons of Brady’s career is not going to get any easier today against a ravenous Baltimore defense. He knows that.

“You wouldn’t play football if you didn’t enjoy it and kind of relish it,’’ he said. “You put the pads on and the helmet on and you go out there and see what you’re made of.’’

His teammates already know what Brady is made of.

“I don’t know what people think,’’ said center Dan Koppen. “But we know what we got in this locker room, and it’s a tough QB.’’

Kay Lazar of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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