For all of this background, it’s hard to know Tom Brady. The man is a product of the Patriots system — an automaton that can come across as alien and unemotional. For all he has accomplished, there has not been a great deal of access to Brady as a person — until now.
It’s easy to forget that, at one time, Tom Brady was completely forgettable. Brady didn’t start until his third year at the University of Michigan and was an afterthought sixth-round pick by the New England Patriots. More than twenty years later, Brady, draft pick number 199, has seven Super Bowl rings, nearly every statistical quarterback record, and is the unquestioned greatest quarterback of all time.
In the ESPN+ series, The Man in the Arena, viewers get to revisit the kid and the man who would become an NFL legend and the GOAT over 10 episodes. This story was essentially weaved for the NFL out of Hollywood silk.
Each episode is built around one of Brady’s first nine Super Bowl appearances. Episode one, In the Arena, details Brady’s first Super Bowl win in 2001, one of the more improbable recent playoff runs in any sport.
Nobody viewed “The Comeback Kid” as NFL material, but Brady was thrust into the spotlight in the second game of his second season. Drew Bledsoe — an established starter who’d just signed the largest contract in NFL history at the time — took a massive hit from New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis that left him with internal bleeding that would take weeks to heal. Never expected to start, all Brady did was carry his team to victory after victory. The Patriots went on a dramatic, twist-filled run (thanks, in part, to the tuck rule) that ended with a last-second win over the heavily-favored, defending Super Bowl champs, the “Greatest Show On Turf” St. Louis Rams.
While the long view would see Brady continue upon this storybook trajectory, Man In the Arena does an excellent job of digging into the details to reveal the lesser-known emotional depth behind the quarterback’s fairy tale run. Episode two, for example, The Toughest Things, alludes to the NFL’s harsh realities.
The year after its Super Bowl run, the Patriots burst out to a 3-0 start before losing a defensive slugfest, 21-14, to the San Diego Chargers, led by late linebacker Junior Seau and safety Rodney Harrison. After the Pats wound up slogging to a 9-7 finish, the team brought Harrison on board to toughen up the defense. This, however, meant letting go of safety Lawyer Milloy, one of the more popular players on the team and Brady’s good friend.
“I didn’t know they brought Rodney in to replace Lawyer. I thought they brought Rodney in to complement Lawyer,” Brady said in the episode. “I just was so mad. I couldn’t understand why we let this guy go who had meant so much to the team. That was kind of a ‘welcome to pro football’ moment.”
This is where Man in the Arena shines, giving audiences candid access to the man behind the legend.
“For me, that was the one that hit hard,” Brady said of Milloy’s release. “I remember driving home after that happened and I drove right over to his house. I didn’t even know what to say.”
Produced by Religion of Sport, Brady provides a large part of the narration that’s complemented by present and former teammates — receivers Julian Edelman and Wes Welker, tight end Rob Gronkowski, linebacker Willie McGinest, and even Bledsoe, who offers perspective on losing his job to the future GOAT.
Man In The Arena provides a welcome window into the Brady bubble. Episodes air every Tuesday on ESPN+ through January 18.
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