TAMPA, Fla. — Every jersey Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady has worn in his 43 years bears significance — not only in his dazzling 21-year professional career that’s included six Super Bowl titles with the New England Patriots, but his time as a fan in the San Francisco Bay Area, his high school years at Junipero Serra High School and his time at Michigan.
It was wearing Joe Montana’s jersey that helped launch his dream of playing in the NFL and in his Serra jersey that he began cultivating his talent. In the Michigan blue, he learned to dig deep, and in his Patriots jersey he learned to seize the moment — one that was not given to him, but earned. And now in his Buccaneers jersey, he’s learned what it means to start over and try something new.
ESPN sat down with Brady, as part of his new partnership with Fanatics Authentic, the collectibles and memorabilia division of Fanatics. In this exclusive interview, Brady talked about his journey from football fan to icon and the significance and lessons he learned during each of those chapters of his life.
You’ve worn so many jerseys over the years, from the time you started playing, and even when you were a fan, all the way until now. I can imagine that there are different feelings you associate with each one.
Brady: When you’re a kid, you kind of pick your teams, and obviously it’s the team where you grow up. I had my San Francisco 49ers jerseys and I had my San Francisco Giants ones. And then once you kind of get into high school, you’re kinda more along the lines of the school you’re playing for, which for me was a high school called [Junipero] Serra High School, which was in the Bay Area.
When I went to school at Michigan, it was wearing Michigan stuff. It was less Niners, Giants and more the school I repped. And then the only ones I’ve worn since then were the Patriots ones I wore for 20 years and now Tampa ones, the Bucs ones I’ve worn for the last six weeks. They’ve taken on a little different meaning — the teams I root for, and I guess obviously still root for, but I’m actually playing for, which is still a … when you’re a kid growing up and you never know what your life is gonna take on, but I feel like the transition from a fan of a lot of these teams to playing and representing the team, it’s been quite a bit different but still super exciting for me, even at this point in my life. I love wearing the Bucs jersey — we’ve just gotta make some special memories out of it now.
Going back to when you were a kid, what did it mean to you to wear your idol Joe Montana’s jersey? What did that name and jersey represent to you? What do you remember about those games at Candlestick?
Brady: He was the guy. When you’re a kid growing up in the Bay Area in the ’80s, that’s who you rooted for. My mom, she loved Joe Montana. So that’s who I wanted to be for Halloween. I had some cool jerseys. All the kids did. I mean, they won Super Bowls. That’s what you wore on Super Bowl Sunday. I had three older sisters and we always had to pick who would go to the football games — we only had four tickets — and I always somehow figured out a way to talk my sisters into letting me go. It was usually myself, my parents and one of my sisters. But I just loved being in the parking lot, wearing my jersey, playing catch before the game and going to watch the Niners play, and obviously just hoping they won.
That was my childhood. It was so sports-centric … and based around the pro sports teams, which were all really great at the time. It cultivated a love for the sport of football just by being a fan, like so many kids have. Even the college towns — they’re so supportive of their teams, and professionally, when they win, they’re certainly supportive of them — that’s the goal for us as pro athletes, to get our fan bases really into it, because it’s a huge advantage when they have that type of support that you always hope they have.
What did it mean for you the first time you wore a jersey with “Brady” on it?
Brady: That was cool. It doesn’t happen much in elementary school. Once I think there was an all-star team that I played on — I think I was probably 12, because normally with uniforms, you wear the uniform and then at the end of the year, you give the uniform back and they just wash them, and put them in a cardboard box and get ’em ready for next year. So for my jersey, it was the first jersey I got to keep and they put your name on them …That was cool.
It takes on a little different meaning, you feel like you’re playing like the pro guys are playing, like you’re finally — like you’ve made it a little bit. Even when you’re 12 years old and you’re playing on all-star teams, you earned that — it wasn’t like you just signed up to play. So I think that’s definitely part of the growing process for athletes as they advance from “everyone participates” type of leagues to the ones where it’s more like, you’re reaching different levels of sports. So that’s kind of one of the ways that you certainly notice.
One of your former teammates, David Terrell, told me that your experience at Michigan — being the seventh-string quarterback — that it molded you. What were your feelings putting on that Michigan jersey?
Brady: That was pretty cool for me because it was a tough college career. Because it was just, maybe different — I maybe created some unrealistic expectations for me and thought that I would just go in and be this player, and like when your time comes, you play. But the reality is, in college, it’s earned, you’re not given anything. And then I really had to fight hard for the opportunity to play and to keep my ability to be the starting quarterback, which really helped me a lot when I became a professional. Because I still look at it that way.
I still feel like my spot has to be earned, and it’s not about, “I’m so and so. I’ve done this. I’ve done that.” I feel like, “No, I’ve gotta go out there and earn the opportunity to be the best player to play for my team.” It sounds crazy, ya know, “Oh, he’s had this type of success.” But none of that matters this year. You’ve gotta earn it every year. You’ve gotta put the work in every year. You’ve gotta treat it like it’s your first year every year. You’ve gotta gain the respect every year. The work never stops.
And I don’t know what other aspect of life it should work like that. It doesn’t work like that with your kids. It doesn’t work like that in relationships. It doesn’t work like that in a business career. You just can’t mail it in like, “Well, I did pretty well three years ago.” It’s like, “No, I’ve gotta do it every year.” When you have that approach, I think it benefits you, because not a lot of other people are looking at it like that. A lot of other people just feel like, “Oh, because this is what I’ve done, this is what I should continue to get.” But that’s not how life works.
Speaking of working like it’s your first year, you told Robert Kraft as a rookie back in 2000 after he drafted you, “You won’t regret picking me.” What gave you that level of confidence the first time you put on that Patriots jersey?
Brady: I was basically just like, “You picked me. I’m not gonna let you down. And I’m gonna make sure that it was a great pick for ya.” He appreciated it. And hopefully I lived up to that. … I think what happens with players when they get to the next level is they never transition from being an amateur to being a pro. What becomes a professional — your daily habits, your decision-making. When you’re a kid, when you’re an amateur, it’s a different level of expectation, it’s a different level of commitment, it’s a different level of discipline, it’s a different level of determination. When you become a professional, it’s on you. Because it’s your job to take that and take advantage of the opportunity as opposed to depend on someone else to give you the opportunity.
I think that’s where most athletes fail is they don’t understand that. I see guys that are the most talented that never learn those lessons. And in the end it becomes a very disappointing career because they underachieved from the level of what maybe their potential could be. But we so often look at the physical and determine expectation as opposed to look at the mental and develop an expectation.
When you can combine the physical and the mental, that’s when you get really unique players, ones that go, ‘Man, I know I have the physical ability, but I’m gonna have to work at it and earn it and improve, make this a part of my life, my lifestyle, and not let anyone get in the way of what my goals are. I’m gonna prioritize them and make great decisions based on what I want to achieve in my career. So often you look at this physical body and you go, ‘Man, this guy’s got all the potential.’ But not if he hasn’t developed the mental and emotional. If you don’t develop the mental and emotional aspects of your mind and body, in the end you’re always gonna come up short.
What about putting on a Bucs jersey for the first time? It’s a season of change for you and change can be scary, doing something new for the first time at 43.
Brady: The first time I did it was at a photo shoot — a promotional shoot for the Bucs. I will say, it took a little bit of getting used to. The first time I went out for practice with a different jersey color, it was like, ‘Oh this is different.’
But now that I’m six weeks into it, it feels normal, and it feels like, ‘Yeah, this is what it’s always been. This is what I’ve always done.’ I get ready to go, I get ready to go out there, to practice, and I want to go out there and do a great job. So now I’d say, after a little bit of time, it just feels like, ‘This is what I do.’ It feels great. I wish at this point we’d be 5-0, but we’re not — we haven’t earned it. The season is gonna be what we make of it. Every time I wear it, I’m gonna go out there and compete my butt off and see if we can go out there and win games.”