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For Number 12, a gilded age

A super talent, but how Tom Brady's changed

Tom Brady has come a long way from his rookie weigh-in photo (left) to become one of the NFL's top quarterbacks as well as a model for an Esquire photo shoot. Tom Brady has come a long way from his rookie weigh-in photo (left) to become one of the NFL's top quarterbacks as well as a model for an Esquire photo shoot.
By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / September 7, 2008
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In his wilderness days as an NFL nobody, Tom Brady often stopped at a roadside café on his ride from work to his vinyl-sided, cookie-cutter condo town house in Franklin. No one recognized him but the kid behind the counter.

"He was all about the ham and cheese [grinder] and onion rings," Alex Kontoulis, the counter guy, said at his family-owned Omega Pizza a few miles from Gillette Stadium. "That's all he ever needed."

The man who would become the greatest quarterback and most paparazzi-stalked sports celebrity in New England history washed it all down with an orange soda.

"He really was just an average Joe," Kontoulis said. "Now he's a legend. He's Hollywood."

As the Patriots open a new season of hope and opportunity today, their leading man returns to football as a figure almost entirely transformed from the unassuming, and ferociously talented, number 12 the region fell in love with as soon as the spotlight found him, in 2001, his first Super Bowl season. He was the rare superstar with a convincing common touch, the oddly approachable, albeit absurdly handsome, boy next door.

Seven seasons later, the talent remains unrivaled, but almost all the other adjectives have changed.

Brady comes back to Foxborough's artificial turf from one of the most rarefied offseasons imaginable. With the world's wealthiest model at his side, he has been juggling the unrivaled pampering of money and privilege and the jangling discomfort of serving as daily prey for the gossip mongers and the stalkarazzi.

And for the first time in the Brady Era in Boston, the iconic quarterback begins a season trailed by a word rarely associated with him: uncertainty. Nursing some sort of injury to his foot (As is the pattern with the Patriots, no one will say what the problem is.), Brady missed all four pre-season games, all losses in which the team looked ragged and leaderless. Brady also opted out of the team's voluntary offseason workout program for the first time since he arrived as an unheralded backup in 2000. It seems a small matter, but it was always part of his charm - that the quarterback would also show up as a grind-it-out workout warrior.

Brady, in short, has been more visible to television viewers this year on shows like "Access Hollywood" than ESPN's "SportsCenter."

The last time he touched a football in game action, Brady heaved a desperation pass to Randy Moss - an incompletion - with 10 seconds remaining in a devastating 17-14 loss to the New York Giants Feb. 3 in Super Bowl XLII. The loss spoiled an otherwise perfect season for the Patriots. For Brady, was it also an intimation of mortality?

"You have to be concerned," said Bill Mercer, a Patriots diehard and one of many everyday people in Greater Boston who crossed paths with Brady on his spectacular journey from obscurity to global celebrity.

"I would have liked to have seen him in at least one preseason game," said Mercer, a grocery manager at the Fruit Center Marketplace in Milton, where Brady liked to shop before his life changed.

Ready to go
Fear not, Brady has assured Patriots fans. He told reporters last week he would be prepared to face the Kansas City Chiefs today in Foxborough.

"Throwing so many footballs over the course of my life, it's not like I need to learn to throw a football," he said.

Every NFL player takes time off after a brutally long season. But only Brady chills with the world looking over his shoulder, the gossip machine trying to chart every nuance of his romance with Gisele Bundchen, the Brazilian beauty who became the face of myriad brands, from Victoria's Secret and Max Factor to Apple computers and Ipanema Flip Flops.

See images of Tom and Gisele smooching on South Beach and canoodling in Rome. See them lolling in the grass with baby John, Brady's son with actress Bridget Moynahan. See Tom surfing in Costa Rica, grocery shopping in California, spiriting Bundchen away from tart-tongued photographers trying to get a rise out of them in New York. Finally, when Tom and Gisele tire of it all, see them pulling hoods and scarves over their faces as if they are shielding themselves on a perp walk.

Brady's discomfiture with the ugly side of fame is palpable in the images.

"He's a very, very private person," said Terri Angelis, Brady's former neighbor at Marina Bay in Quincy. When residents tried to engage him in conversation, Angelis recalled, Brady often pointed to his ear, indicating he was listening to music or talking on the phone, and proceeded silently past them.

Brady's contempt for cameras wanes, however, when he can influence the shoot. He has hosted "Saturday Night Live," played himself on "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy," cameoed in the movie "Stuck on You," and appeared with several teammates on a Wheaties box. He has graced numerous magazine covers, including this month's Esquire. There he is resplendent in Gucci's finest wools and silks, his hair swanked up by his personal stylist, Pini Swissa, and his wrist adorned with a Movado limited-edition Tom Brady watch (retail price: $2,500).

His taste in food has also evolved considerably from the Omega Pizza days. As he gushed last year to Details magazine, he has learned in his travels that the steak Fiorentina in Florence is "oooh, the best."

As a former Catholic seminarian's son, he, however, has tried to balance his great fortune with a measure of spirituality - expressed in his trademark, salty way.

"Look at the attention I get: It's because I throw a football," Brady told Esquire. "But that's what society values. That's not what God values. God could give a [expletive about football], as far as I'm concerned."

The course of a person's life can be traced in many ways, and Brady's trajectory is remarkable by almost any measure.

Professionally, he went from an afterthought in the 2000 NFL draft, the 199th selection (134 picks after the San Francisco 49ers chose soon-to-be-cut signal-caller Giovanni Carmazzi), to become the only quarterback in NFL history to win three Super Bowls before his 28th birthday.

In short order, Brady has advanced from the frat party circuit at the University of Michigan to the ranks of the fabulously wealthy; he is midway through a six-year, $60 million contract with the Patriots, which he supplements with an estimated $9 million annually in endorsement deals.

Has the whole package
Factor in his dimpled-chin dashing looks, his charm and intellect, and he has reigned for years as one of the most eligible bachelors in sports. Ordinary people whose lives have intersected with his have watched Brady romance his way from Tara Reid to Moynahan to Bundchen, all the while preserving much of his independence and some of his everyman ethos.

"It's amazing," said Bill Sarro, who owns the Fresh Catch restaurant in Mansfield, which Brady frequented early in his Patriots career. "I partied with him and Bridget after the Super Bowl in Houston [in 2004] and he was as excited about getting Snoop Dog's autograph as Snoop Dog was about getting his. Tom doesn't seem to change. He's still an average guy."

Nothing is average, though, about his real estate portfolio. Chart his life by his property holdings, and he has zoomed from the Franklin town house, which he bought from teammate Ty Law in 2000 for $265,000, to Boardwalk on the Monopoly board.

Brady this year extended his holdings to the left coast. He and Bundchen reportedly paid more than $11 million for a vacant lot in Brentwood, Calif. The property, in a gated community with striking ocean and mountain views, abuts a $24.5 million estate owned by heirs to the Hilton fortune and is a few doors down from an $11.5 million mansion occupied by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver.

"Tom will become one of the many extremely high-profile people who live here," said Jay Handal, who owns San Gennaro Cafe in Brentwood and serves on the Greater West Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. "But does it mean that he has made it because he can live here? I think Tom Brady already made it. The house doesn't make the man. The man and his spouse make the house."

The Brentwood site complements Brady's 74th floor condo at New York's Time Warner Center, which overlooks Central Park (he bought the unit in 2004 for $14 million and recently placed it on the market for more than $18 million). Bundle his New York and California properties with his Beacon Street town house, which he bought in 2006 for more than $6 million and spent several million to renovate, and Brady has gone far from the modest Chestnut Ridge condominiums in Franklin.

"We really don't see him here anymore, unfortunately," Sarro said at Fresh Catch, where Brady once found happiness in the coconut shrimp, 2-pound lobster, and filet mignon. "His life has definitely changed."

Long way from deli days
Brady's climb toward the real estate stratosphere began when he upgraded from Franklin in 2003 to an $808,000 town house at Marina Bay. Soon, he was a regular at the marina's waterfront restaurants as well as the Fat Belly Deli in Dorchester, often arm-in-arm with Moynahan. He even partied at the deli after one of the Super Bowl parades.

Those days are over, though. Brady sometimes visits his sister, Nancy, at Marina Bay - his family and Bundchen celebrated his 31st birthday there at Siros with him last year - but he has not been spotted at the Dorchester deli since he moved from Quincy in 2005 to the historic Burrage House mansion in the Back Bay. He bought the Commonwealth Avenue condo for $4.1 million and sold it last year for $5.28 million.

"He's pretty much out of our neighborhood now," said Kenny Blasi, who owns the Fat Belly Deli and often prepared Brady chicken sandwiches with sauteed onions. "He's in a new world, and it seems like a whirlwind."

At 31, Brady is entering the autumn of his playing career, though he has yet to show any sign of his skills diminishing. Sports Illustrated featured him last week on the cover of its NFL preview issue and predicted he would guide the Patriots to their fourth Super Bowl championship in seven years.

Should the Patriots succeed, Brady will ride the duck boats, then likely bid Boston goodbye again in the offseason. His life may remain a feast, but for many of the ordinary folks who befriended him on his journey from Franklin to fame, there will be an empty seat at the table.

"I liked him a lot," Kontoulis said. "I wish I could see him again."

Bob Hohler can be reached at hohler@globe.com.

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