THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

From faceless to franchise

This once-anonymous Patriots quarterback showed his famous form at practice yesterday. This once-anonymous Patriots quarterback showed his famous form at practice yesterday. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / December 30, 2010

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It’s like thumbing through your high school yearbook and discovering that the wallflower you ignored in US History turned out to be Angelina Jolie.

Tom Brady was here 10 years ago and we barely noticed.

In the old Foxboro Stadium locker room, the kid from San Mateo, Calif., via the University of Michigan had a stall along the row where Drew Bledsoe dressed. Brady regularly had to make room for reporters who wanted to speak with Bledsoe.

Drew was the Patriots’ franchise quarterback. Drew was the three-time Pro Bowler who had led the Patriots to a Super Bowl in 1996. Drew was the guy with the 10-year, $103 million contract extension.

Brady was . . . in the way.

I was there, but I don’t remember Brady. (The soundtrack to this column is Joan Osborne’s “[What If God Was] One Of Us?’’) Who bothers to pay attention to a sixth-round pick who never plays? Like most of the other reporters, I was working to get words from big Drew. Tom Brady wasn’t even Brian Hoyer.

In 2000, the Patriots were staggering through a 5-11 season under first-year coach Bill Belichick. Not yet a hooded genius, Belichick in 2000 was a suspect Bob Kraft hire who had been run out of Cleveland, Grady Little-style.

With Bledsoe taking the snaps, those 2000 Patriots staggered through losses at New York, Miami, Indianapolis, and Cleveland. Belichick looked especially pasty and unsure of himself. Brady was listed as inactive for all but two games. He played only once, throwing three passes (completing one for 6 yards) at Detroit on Thanksgiving.

Today Brady is touted as one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of football. He’s the modern Joe Montana. He has a chance to win his fourth Super Bowl. He has thrown an NFL-record 319 consecutive passes without an interception. He has thrown a touchdown pass in all 15 games and at least two in each of the last eight games. He has thrown 24 TD passes since his last interception and he looks like a lock for a second MVP award. He’s one of the most famous men in the world and looks like a guy who could be president someday.

So how did we miss him 10 years ago?

Easy. In 2000, Brady was New England’s fourth-string quarterback, playing behind Bledsoe, Michael Bishop, and John Friesz. His rookie season was a virtual redshirt year. He got into the preseason games (22 of 33, one touchdown, no picks), but who’s paying attention in August when it doesn’t count?

Longtime publicist Stacey James remembers rookie Brady in 2000, and says, “He used to overhear me arranging to take Drew upstairs for press conferences. Tom would tease me and say, ‘When’s my press conference?’ I told him to be careful what you wish for.’’

Globe multimedia producer Alan Miller was part of the Patriots “All-Access’’ crew in 2000, and remembers, “We profiled just about everybody that year, and by the end of the season, we were running out of guys, so we profiled Brady, about how he was drafted by the Montreal Expos and went to the same high school as Barry Bonds. He told us he loved watching ‘All-Access.’ ’’

The 2001 edition of the Patriots media guide features 26 pages on Bledsoe. He has the long hair and the extensive résumé. Brady’s bio merits less than one page and he looks a little chunky in his photo.

Everyone knows what happened that year. Near the end of a Week 2 loss to the Jets in Foxborough, Bledsoe was almost killed on a hit by Jets linebacker Mo Lewis. Brady came off the bench and never looked back. He won the Super Bowl four months later.

We’ll never know how long it would have taken Brady to demonstrate his greatness if Bledsoe hadn’t been hurt.

We know only that Brady beat out Damon Huard for the No. 2 job during the 2001 preseason. He completed 31 of 54 passes and threw two touchdowns with no interceptions in four exhibition games. Brady opened the season as Bledsoe’s backup.

“The broadcast production crew had a meeting with Belichick before the first 2001 preseason game,’’ said Miller. “We asked him who would improve the most, and he cited Stephen Neal and Tom Brady.

“He went on and on about Brady and what a leader he was, and at the end of that meeting, I walked out and said to the others, ‘Bledsoe’s not long for this job.’ ’’

In Charles P. Pierce’s excellent book “Moving the Chains,’’ former Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis says, “Bill and I talked and I said maybe we ought to give Brady an opportunity to beat this guy [Bledsoe] out.’’

Easy to say now. But we’ll never know.

While Bledsoe was still recovering from the Lewis hit, Brady threw his first touchdown pass (to Terry Glenn) in an overtime victory against the Chargers. A month later, Bledsoe was healthy enough to play but Belichick made the bold decision to stick with the kid. And now the Hall of Fame-bound coach and quarterback are primed for their fifth Super Bowl appearance as they take their place as the top coach-quarterback tandem in NFL history.

Ten years later, who can name the six quarterbacks drafted ahead of Brady?

They are Chad Pennington, Giovanni Carmazzi (drafted by Brady’s beloved 49ers), Chris Redman, Tee Martin, Marc Bulger, and the immortal Spergon Wynn out of Southwest Texas State.

Maybe it’s easier to name the players New England drafted ahead of Brady in 2000.

They are Adrian Klemm, J.R. Redmond, Greg Robinson-Randall, Dave Stachelski, Jeff Marriott, and Antwan Harris.

“I was the 199th player picked,’’ Brady said before playing the 49ers in 2004. “I’ll never forget those days.’’

The rest of us remember none of it. Those were the days when Tom Brady was invisible. Right in front of our eyes.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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