By Arnie Leshin
It was New Years night, 2000, start of a new decade, and Pro Player Stadium in Miami was packed for the 66th annual Fed-Ex Orange Bowl between Alabama and Michigan.
By now, Wolverines head football coach Lloyd Carr had known enough about his senior fifth-year quarterback Tom Brady and sophomore quarterback Drew Henson. His team had arrived for its regular-season finale at 9-2. The losses came back-to-back against Michigan State and Illinois, and Brady and Henson were splitting the position. Carr had said that it was too close to call when the season began.
So although Carr was a self-professed, one-quarterback man, he decided to play both, with Henson starting and Brady finishing. Other times Brady would start, Henson would play the second quarter, and the coaches decided at halftime who started the third quarter, leaving the fourth quarter up for grabs.
The younger Henson was also an All-America third baseman and the New York Yankees had expressed interest in him. He wore a Yankee cap around campus, Brady wore nothing but Wolverine blue and gold. So with some two months left in the season, Carr made his move. Brady clearly emerged as “the” guy, and Henson became the back-up.
That was what spurred Michigan on. The 6-foot-4 Brady made Carr look like a genus. He completed 61 percent of his passes for 2,217 yards and 16 touchdowns to go with six interceptions, and earned Michigan’s Most Valuable Player award as he engineered the run to the Orange Bowl. Henson? Well, he wound up with 46 of 89 completions thorough the air, for 51.7 percent, 546 yards, three TDs and a pair of interceptions, and never got to wear the Yankee pinstripes.
Then, after the victorious 29-28 two-overtime thriller over Alabama when the Crimson Tide failed to convert the second extra point, Carr was all prepared for questions from the media as the capacity turnout of 75,291 began heading for the exits.
“I would do it exactly the same if I were to go into this same season tomorrow,” he said. “And you can see I did the right thing.”
Over at his locker room, the soft-spoken Brady was happy to celebrate, glad to greet the media.
“This was quite a game, and this was quite a season,” he said, “and now I hope to be taken in the college draft and play pro ball.”
Of course, the rest is history. Chosen way down in the draft by the New England Patriots, he played 19 seasons there, missed one with an opening-game, season-ending injury, and played in nine Super Bowls and winning six of them.
Now, in his initial season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as he went from wintertime in New England to warmer weather in North Florida, he’s right back in the big show after getting the 5th-seeded underdog Bucs past the NFC’s top-seeded Green Bay Packers, 30-20, in what was the third straight road trip for a franchise that wasn’t much until now or until the 43-year-old Brady arrived.
With Michigan, it was late October when Brady took over the quarterbacking. He had begun the previous season (with Henson) in comeback wins over 6th-ranked Penn State and 9th-ranked Ohio State to get to 7-0. Behind him and Henson, the other wins came over Notre Dame, Rice, Syracuse, Wisconsin and Purdue, as Carr continued to employ both.
Except that in his senior year when he finally made the move to Brady, Carr now a reliable thrower with only six picks in 295 passes. Brady was able to get the ball downfield and become only the second Wolverine to throw for more than 2,000 yards. He got a big lift each time out from All-America offensive guard Steve Hutchinson of Coral Springs, Fla., who often cleared the way for Brady to operate.
Unlike the number 12 he wore with the Patriots and now with the Buccaneers, at Michigan he was number 10. His receiving corps became ranked among the nation’s best, and that also salvaged the team’s running game. Wolverine fans were happy when Michigan had the ball under Brady, who was named the 2000 Super Bowl MVP, the first for Michigan.
Up to that point, Nebraska had the most MVPs, 15, Oklahoma had 12, Miami 6, and Alabama 3, with Hall of Famer Joe Namath winning it in 1965 with Bama. In 1971 and ’72, Jerry Tagge of Nebraska was MVP. In 1972 and ’73, it was Rich Glover of Nebraska. In 1980 and ’81, J.J. Watts of Oklahoma was MVP, and Florida State quarterback Charlie Ward, the Heisman Trophy winner his senior season, was Orange Bowl MVP in 1993 and ’94, and instead of playing pro football, signed to play in the National Basketball Association with the New York Knicks.
After I filed my story for Associated Press, it took me about two hours to make it home from Dade to Broward County after finding the roads jammed outside the stadium, the Florida Turnpike bumper-to-bumper, and so I traveled the long way through the streets, through traffic lights and stop signs.
Oh what a night. Good game, nice weather, and my first chance to see Tom Brady in action.
Namath was there, but drank a little too much, was asked to calm down in the media room and VIP restaurant, even asked sportscaster Suzy Kolber for a kiss. Ken Stabler, another former Alabama quarterback, was there
but better behaved, Sunshine State Gov. Jeb Bush was there, as were a load of other celebrities who strolled along the grass field before the game.
And so was the halftime show featuring Gladys Knight, marching bands from five different states, cheerleaders, dancers, and a variety of other attractions back in the days of the then-finest Orange Bowls halftimes that lit up the stadium and the skies.
But as the Feb. 7th Super Bowl 55 lines up in Tampa, Fla., one name remains in the spotlight — Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr — but just call him BOAT (Best of all Time) or GOAT (Greatest of all Time).