ANN ARBOR, Mich. — To learn a bit about Tom Brady the human being, Foxborough, Massachusetts, might be one of the last places on earth to go. Over the past 16 years, the New England Patriots have been awfully good at a lot of things. Stopping you from humanizing them is near the top of their list.
So you’re better off on the second floor of a college town pizza place 750 miles to the west, where a balding, middle-aged man wearing a younger man’s clothes — red Patriots hoodie, blue Michigan Wolverines sweatpants, a dark high school football cap — labors over NFL rosters and statistics in an attempt to enhance his weekly exchanges with the most accomplished team-sport athlete in America.
Jay Flannelly, 45, is tight with Brady, 39. Flannelly looks and sounds like a fellow son of Andover, Massachusetts, and Brady’s former offensive coordinator, Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien. If you put aside public profiles and bank accounts for a minute, you could argue that the football journey Flannelly has shared with the quarterback has been more prosperous than O’Brien’s.
Brady didn’t win any championships in his five years with the coach, but he did win four Super Bowls in his 20-plus years with the dishwasher/sporting goods worker/self-appointed Patriots scout. Even the most guarded of iconic athletes usually allow room for one outsized, Charles Barkley-esque personality in their skin-tight circles. Derek Jeter had a former minor league hellion named R.D. Long. Brady has Flannelly. He’s the character who reveals a ton about the superstar’s … well, character.
On first inspection, Flannelly doesn’t look like much. He’s 5-foot-9 and wears loose-fitting sweats for a reason — if he’s not heavy, he could still use a couple of weeks on Brady’s lunatic diet. But after five minutes in Flannelly’s company, it’s clear he’s not a man to be physically tested. He says a lifetime’s worth of street fights, bar fights and hockey fights, not to mention wayward hockey pucks, have zig-zagged 400 stitches across his face, give or take, and broken nine of his 10 fingers. These days, Flannelly likes to think of Brady as Wayne Gretzky and himself as a bodyguard and goon. During one of the last times they were together in Ann Arbor, at Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s recruiting palooza known as “Signing of the Stars,” Brady asked his buddy not to assault anyone while clearing him a path to his car.
“I’ve told him about Gretzky,” Flannelly said. He was thinking about the Baltimore Ravens in particular, and how they’ve often hit Brady cleanly, hit him late and trash-talked him back to the huddle either way. Flannelly told Brady he needed to carry himself against Baltimore like the Great One used to in Edmonton and jump in the Ravens’ faces — without drawing a penalty — whenever they violated his space.
“Just show up and raise a ruckus,” Flannelly told him. “Messier, Semenko and McSorley will fight for you.”
More on Gretzky and the Ravens later. But first, you should know that understanding Flannelly is its own navigation system for understanding his rich, famous friend. Flannelly was nicknamed the Beav as a grade schooler by a summer counselor and coach who thought he was forever in the middle of things, like the Jerry Mathers character in “Leave It To Beaver.” He grew into a rabid sports fan, into perhaps the only man on the Eastern seaboard who loves the New England Patriots and New York Mets, and hates the Boston Red Sox and New York Jets. Flannelly said as an 8-year-old he asked Jim Rice to autograph a baseball, and that Rice responded by throwing the ball over a building.
The Beav and Brady
The Beav spent time in Queens with his divorced father, and when he asked a few Mets to sign his ball, they acted with more common decency than Rice did. Now Flannelly writes a blog, Tomseaverfan.com, when he’s not breaking down Pittsburgh Steelers schemes and coach Mike Tomlin’s pep talks for a modern-day Tom Terrific.
Flannelly was a student assistant in the Michigan football program and a roommate of Jason Carr, son of the head coach, Lloyd, in 1995 when he first met Brady, a skin-and-bones freshman from San Mateo, California. Funny how things work out. Flannelly had been a backup wide receiver and defensive back at Andover High for legendary Massachusetts high school coach Dick Collins, who once suspended him for being quoted in the local paper, The Eagle-Tribune, calling an opposing offensive line “short and fat.” The Beav grew up wanting to throw touchdown passes for the Patriots, and here he embraced the kid who would someday live the dream for him.
Flannelly had been part of the on-campus recruiting team that nearly landed Peyton Manning for the Wolverines. Brady wasn’t that level of recruit. He wasn’t everybody’s All-American. As a third-year junior attending a Michigan autograph session, believing the first-string job was finally his, Brady was stranded near the stadium tunnel while 500 people lined up from midfield to end zone for 10 seconds of quality time with a freshman who was everybody’s All-American, Drew Henson. Flannelly recalled Brady signing no more than three autographs and staring at the ever-growing line to Henson.
“Tommy was looking at it the whole time,” the Beav said. “The whole time.”
Flannelly never left Tommy’s side near the tunnel that day, and Brady would be damned if he’d ever forget it. Whenever the quarterback was booed by Michigan fans or benched by Carr, Flannelly was there to offer counsel and support. They would play catch together at Elbel Field on campus, Beav and Brady, and Flannelly quickly discovered why his friend had been drafted by the Montreal Expos as a high school catcher.
“His hands are incredible,” the Beav said. “I had to have thrown Tommy 1,000 footballs over the years, and he never dropped one.”
When they’d go out to watch a game at Mr. Spots or another local hangout, Brady would sometimes wear a 49ers jersey — he’d idolized Joe Montana — and Beav would almost always wear his Drew Bledsoe jersey. They played on the same intramural basketball team. Flannelly was the last man on the bench, and the one and only time Brady ever screamed at him was the one and only time the Beav didn’t start launching jumpers at the end of a blowout. “When we throw you the ball,” Brady shouted, “we want you to f—ing shoot it.”
One intramural opponent was heckling Brady about Henson, and on the quarterback’s instructions, the Beav ran the frat boy into a vicious blind pick set by Brady while his coach, Lloyd Carr, watched from the stands. No, Michigan wasn’t an easy place for Brady to spend five years. “And he still remembers how hard it was,” Flannelly said, “and how I had a small part in helping him get through it.”
The Beav was an NFL intern at the 2000 draft, and he said he called Brady an hour or so after he was picked in the sixth round by the Patriots, No. 199 overall. As a part-time New Yorker who had attended St. John’s to acquire the grades needed to enroll at Michigan, Flannelly told Brady he’d seen a little of Hofstra’s Gio Carmazzi, who was taken by Brady’s childhood team, the Niners, in the third round. Flannelly said he liked what he saw. Brady didn’t have much of a reaction to that. Flannelly said his friend sounded equally thrilled and relieved to have been finally drafted.
On cue, Brady also sounded fiercely determined.
“I’m going there to take Bledsoe’s job,” he told the dishwasher who dressed in Bledsoe jerseys.
Flannelly knew Brady didn’t know much about his Patriots, so he wrote up a summary of about 25-30 guys on the roster. This guy is a good run-stuffing safety, that guy is weak in pass coverage, Terry Glenn is a talented receiver but seems a bit soft — that sort of thing. The Beav shipped out his breakdowns within a week of the draft, and the 199th pick was impressed with what he read.
On Sept. 23, 2001, Brady replaced an injured Bledsoe in a fateful loss to the Jets. Two days later, the Beav bought a Brady jersey to replace his Bledsoe jersey. And every regular season and postseason week since, outside of 2008 (Brady missed virtually the entire year with a knee injury) and this year’s Deflategate suspension (Brady told the Beav to sit out those weeks), Flannelly has emailed or texted his guy thoughts and suggestions about the upcoming opponent. Flannelly has watched All-22 coaches film, studied tendencies and injury reports and stat sheets. He’s big on matching up Brady with coordinators; in other words, he viewed bygone meetings with the Broncos not in a Tommy-versus-Peyton context, but in a Tommy-versus-Wade Phillips context.
The Beav is realistic. He knows the Patriots have the best coaching and scouting staffs in the business, and that Brady might’ve been merely too polite over the past 16 years to tell him to stop flooding the zone. But he also knows Brady as the ultimate creature of habit, and as a relentless competitor who might scan hundreds of the Beav’s emails and texts just to find one semi-useful nugget that would help him on one Sunday snap.
“He doesn’t need my ‘reports,’” Flannelly said. “He likes that I do it. … It’s part of his routine.”
And nobody messes with Tom Brady’s routine.
The quarterback has offered up a few words of appreciation for every Beav pregame and postgame analysis, with one exception. After the Ravens physically pounded the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game four years ago, and after Bernard Pollard TKO’d Stevan Ridley on a violent strike to the head, Flannelly said he wrote to Brady a scathing rebuke of the Patriots for not confronting the same Ravens safety who had ended Brady’s season in the 2008 opener with a lunging shot to his left knee.
“Tommy was mad,” Flannelly said. “By not responding, he did respond. That was code for, ‘Beaver, I don’t want to think that way.’ … I watched that tape eight times. I was madder about that game than I was for either Super Bowl loss to the Giants. That’s the angriest Tom has ever been at his teammates. He wouldn’t say it, but Tom and I have an unspoken body language and I could see the look on his face. He was sitting there going, ‘Nobody on this bleepin’ team is going to do anything about this.’”
That’s when Flannelly insisted Brady assume the Gretzky role and react to perceived overaggression from Baltimore like he would in New England’s divisional playoff victory two years later. In that game, Brady responded to what he thought was a late hit and then turned irate after Timmy Jernigan poked him in the eye, compelling some Patriots to get actively involved in the scrum.
Two weeks later, before Super Bowl XLIX, Flannelly delivered what he called his all-time best scouting report on the Seattle Seahawks. He said he’d watched 25 Seahawks tapes over a three-week period and had decided, among other things, that their defense was too inflexible, and that Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola could effectively use their quickness underneath against Seattle’s big hitters in the secondary.
His worst report? The one he sent Brady before last year’s AFC Championship Game in Denver. “And I spent 20 hours on that one,” Flannelly said. “I thought I knew the Broncos inside out, and I didn’t.”
His most talked-about report? That one’s easy. In an exchange revealed in a Deflategate dump of Brady emails, Flannelly wrote to the Patriots quarterback in 2014 — after New England had blown out Denver in Foxborough — that Manning “needs things to be perfect to succeed, weather, his system, etc.” Brady didn’t refute the thought before answering, “We are some hard working grinders beav. That’s what our team is all about. Our best is still ahead of us.” A second Brady email to another friend predicting that he’d play another seven or eight years while Manning would be cooked in two inspired the Patriots quarterback to text an apology to his chief rival.
Brady also repeatedly apologized to Flannelly for the disclosure, and the Beav found out why in the coming weeks. Flannelly said he had people knocking on his door at all hours. He said old acquaintances resurfaced on social media looking for signed Brady memorabilia. He said a man offered him $50,000 for access to the quarterback and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who was hired, in part, because the Beav persuaded Brady to call him and recruit him back to his alma mater.
It’s OK, Flannelly said. The headaches were well worth it.
“I am just as amazed as the next guy that No. 12 talks to me still,” he said. “But that’s him. I think he thinks, ‘Why would I not talk to Jay? He stood with me when I was nothing.’”
The face behind the face mask
It’s hard to fathom a time when Tom Brady was “nothing” at Michigan, but consider this scene: A prominent athletic department associate once found himself with a souvenir game program in one hand and a Sharpie in the other while standing near the Wolverines’ bus. The man wanted to keep his souvenir program looking shiny and new, and he was hoping for a signature from an NFL-bound player. He struck up a conversation with Brady but didn’t initially ask him for an autograph because he didn’t think the kid had a future in the pros. The man only caved and asked Brady to sign because doing otherwise would’ve been rude.
The world had changed by the time Brady showed up for Harbaugh’s recruiting show last winter, co-hosted by Jeter’s Players’ Tribune. Brady was swarmed that day, as if he were Drew Henson at that Michigan autograph session way back when. Jeter? He was cast in the role of a young Brady, all but ignored near the tunnel.
In the fall, while serving his four-game suspension, Brady was adored all over again by a Michigan crowd thankful he’d returned as honorary captain for the Colorado game. His old college teammates, the ones who call him Tommy, were all happy to hear it. They were happy to know Tommy didn’t need any more convincing about how people in Ann Arbor felt about him.
Brady remains in touch with a number of those Michigan guys. Aaron Shea, Pat Kratus, Jay Feely, Jason Kapsner, a few others. To this day, even the quarterbacks who were beaten out by Brady, Kapsner and Scott Dreisbach, speak of him as a neighborly, fair, fun-loving teammate, as a giver instead of a taker.
“He had a magnetic personality, and everybody was drawn to him even when he was third string,” said Feely, a 14-year NFL kicker. “He’s one of the most generous, kind people you’d ever meet. He doesn’t have a big circle of friends, especially now, but those that are in the circle, to them he really wears his emotions on his sleeve. And it blows you away sometimes. He’ll come right out and say, ‘I love you,’ and as a man it takes you aback a little bit.”
Brady does almost no substantive public talking about his own emotions and thoughts, so it is left to his friends to occasionally crack open some of those windows. They all agree that Brady was railroaded in Deflategate, and that part of his motivation to win another title centers on his desire to settle a score. The accusation and punishment, Shea said in October, “hurt Tommy a lot more than he’ll let anyone know.”
Again, Brady doesn’t open up about Brady, leaving it to those he trusts to fill in the blanks. They say he hates the Jets and hates being called the greatest quarterback of all time because he knows others have been more talented. They say he likes Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Cam Newton, among others. They say Montana remains his idol but that he slightly prefers Steve Young’s company. They say he isn’t the biggest fan of some current starters, and if you guessed Philip Rivers and Jay Cutler, you might be getting warm.
They say his relationship with Jay Flannelly tells you something about the face behind the face mask.
The Beav washed dishes at the Pizza House for nine years and now works at Moe’s sporting goods store. He is single and without children. Although Brady has offered to help fix him up (presumably with his supermodel wife’s help?), Flannelly figures no woman would tolerate him staying up until 3:30 a.m. studying the Steelers’ blitz packages. Besides, he joked to Brady, “I’m married to you.”
He feels that way for good reason. Flannelly said he was addicted to painkillers in the early 2000s, when he moved from the Boston area back to Ann Arbor, and that he was taking up to 75 or 80 Percocet pills a day at his lowest point.
“Tommy was very supportive,” Flannelly said. “All I had at one point. … He just checked on me. A lot. A lot of, ‘Love you Beav. You will be OK.’ … He realized how bad I was when I moved back from Boston. That was a call for help and he recognized that.”
Flannelly said he has been clean now for 14 years. He’s not sure what in the world he’ll do after Brady retires, but he’s hoping he doesn’t have to find out for another six or seven seasons.
Meanwhile, the Beav will keep wincing every time his guy gets hit like he did against the Texans in the divisional round of the playoffs, and he’ll keep trying to learn something about the Steelers that might help for one snap on Sunday night in Foxborough.
“A lot of what I do is common sense,” he said. “Who’s their nickel? Who covers the slot? Can they rush with four? How do they stop the run? I’m just another set of eyes, and I know what Tommy wants.”
What Brady wants, more than anything, is a record fifth Super Bowl victory. He has taken Jay Flannelly along for this historic 16-year ride, week after week after week. That reveals a lot about the competitive athlete, and maybe even more about the man.