With just over five minutes remaining and New England trailing by a touchdown, Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe was hellbent on doing whatever he could to keep the drive alive. So, after being flushed out of the pocket during a third-and-10 play, he saw an opening and began chugging down the sideline toward the first down marker.
What he didn’t see was New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis giving chase like a roaring 18-wheeler about to T-bone him.
“I had gained about eight yards and thought I could pick up the first down by lunging forward,’’ Bledsoe recalled. “But then Mo Lewis came out of nowhere and absolutely destroyed me. I never reached my intended destination.”
Backup quarterback Tom Brady was standing on the sidelines, not far from where the collision occurred. He said it was the loudest pop he’s ever heard on a football field.
Twenty years later, its impact continues to be felt. By Brady. By Bledsoe. By the NFL. By card dealers and collectors.
It’s not a stretch to say that heat-seeking-missile tackle during that Sept. 23, 2001 game in Foxborough, Mass. changed the course of football history. It nearly killed Bledsoe, while simultaneously launching a dynasty and a GOAT, whose influence on the gridiron and throughout the sports memorabilia business continues to be felt profoundly.
Although Bledsoe returned for the next series after his pummeling, it quickly became apparent something wasn’t right. His mind was so fuzzy he was having problems remembering plays he had been calling for two years. Brady was sent in to replace him, and although he didn’t stage a come-from-behind victory, the sixth-round pick from the University of Michigan did enough to convince Coach Bill Belichick that he was the quarterback who gave his team the best chance to win going forward.
Brady rewarded that faith by leading the Patriots to the first of six Super Bowl championships they would enjoy with him at the helm.
Bledsoe would be back in helmet and pads a few weeks after recovering from the concussion and internal bleeding that almost cost him his life. But he would never start another game for the Patriots. The following April, he was dealt to Buffalo. He spent five more seasons in pro football before becoming an award-winning vintner in his home state of Washington.
“I guess you could say that hit spawned some interesting what-ifs,’’ said Bledsoe, who had signed a 10-year, $103-million contract extension with the Patriots just before the 2001 season. “We had a stacked team that year, and I really believe we would have won it all if I continued on as the starting quarterback. And I might have gone on to win several Lombardi Trophies because I was only 29, still in my prime.
“Would Tom still have had the success he’s had if he didn’t get his shot when he did? Perhaps, given his talent and work ethic. But we’ll never know for sure.”
What we do know for sure is Brady clearly took advantage of his carpe diem opportunity. He seized that day and the last two decades, for that matter. And as a 44-year-old now in his 22nd NFL season, the man known as TB12 continues to amaze. So far, he’s been able to evade Father Time’s attempts to sack him.
Last season — Brady’s first with the Tampa Bay Bucs — was among his best. Tom Terrific wound up completing 65.7 percent of his passes for 4,633 yards and 40 touchdowns while capturing a record seventh Super Bowl title. The ageless wonder has shown few signs of slowing down, throwing for 4,000 or more yards in four consecutive seasons. In addition to a record number of Super Bowl rings, Brady also is racking up a record number of passing records. He’s already the all-time leader in touchdown passes. His 581 total coming into the season was 169 more than Aaron Rodgers, the closest active player on that list. And Brady started 2021 needing just 1,155 passing yards to surpass Drew Brees’ all-time mark of 80,358.
“People love debating who’s the GOAT,’’ said Bills Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly. “Well, I don’t know how you can even debate it when it comes to QBs. Tom’s got the rings. Tom’s got the records. And, barring injury, he’s got a great opportunity to get more of both.”
Last February’s Super Bowl between the Bucs and Chiefs was supposed to be a changing of the quarterback guard. Patrick Mahomes, 25, was coming off seasons in which he had won a league MVP award and his first Super Bowl title. His time had come. But sometimes age and experience trump talent, and it certainly did during that game at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, as Brady completed 21-of-29 passes for 201 yards and three scores in a 31-9 romp against the Chiefs.
“Before that one, people went back and forth over who had been the real architect of the Patriots dynasty,’’ said Jesse Craig, director of business development at PWCC Marketplace. “Was it Belichick or was it Brady? Well, Brady put an end to that discussion by winning it all in his first year with a new team. He was the main reason. Not that his legacy needed any enhancing. It already was through the roof. But that one just made a legendary career even more legendary.”
On the field. And among collectors.
GOAT’s command hefty prices among investors and hobbyists, and Brady’s cards and memorabilia have been ascending like a Ray Guy kiss-the-clouds punt in recent years.
“The market obviously has been going crazy, especially for these guys regarded as the greatest of all-time,’’ said Chris Ivy, director of sports auctions for Heritage Auctions. “The cards and memorabilia for guys like Brady, Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Wayne Gretzky are commanding top dollar. Brady’s impact on the hobby has been significant and could become even more significant as we go forward.”
His cherry-on-top-of-the-sundae performance in the last Super Bowl certainly didn’t hurt.
“It was similar to what we saw with Michael Jordan this past year,’’ Ivy said. “Jordan got a boost with the ‘Last Dance’ documentary series. It brought him back into the public’s consciousness in a big way. And the Super Bowl did a similar thing for Brady. It enhanced the value of all his collectibles. Of course, this may not be Brady’s last dance. The Bucs have the core of their team back. They definitely could repeat.”
If they do, Brady memorabilia will continue to soar. In June, his autographed 2000 Playoff Contenders Championship rookie card sold for a then-record $3.1 million, and the football he used to throw his first NFL TD fetched $428,000.
“I give investment advice, and I’m inherently conservative, but I think there is very little downside to investing in his stuff,’’ Craig said. “In the long-term, the worst case scenario will be that you’ll have very steady growth. I’m very high on Tom Brady collectibles.”
A month after the record sale for the most coveted Brady card, Mahomes’ 2017 National Treasures Platinum rookie card fetched $4.3 million. Craig said the price tag for the Mahomes card was inflated by the fact it was a one-of-one, whereas Brady’s rookie was the highest rated of about 100 of his rookie cards issued in 2000.
“Mahomes’ card was a one-of-a-kind, and it contained the NFL shield from his uniform, so there was a scarcity advantage,’’ Craig explained. “If Brady’s rookie card had been a one-of-one, the price would have been through the ceiling. We’re talking something ridiculous, like $15 million to $20-million. I really believe that.”
Craig said the spike in Brady cards and game-used memorabilia should continue. In his estimation, a game-worn jersey from Brady’s rookie season or one from, say, his Super Bowl comeback victory against the Atlanta Falcons would command more than a million dollars.
“He’s already had a massive impact on the collecting industry,’’ Craig said. “And that’s going to continue.”
And what makes Brady’s story even more remarkable is how it almost didn’t happen. Two decades later, the reverberations of a hellacious hit are still being felt. Throughout pro football and the sports collecting industry.
— Nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the author of more than 25 books, including the recently published, “Remembrances of Swings Past: A Lifetime of Baseball Stories,” available in paperback and Kimble at amazon.com.