Editor’s note: Chris Howard is a former running back for the University of Michigan. He was the starting running back for the Wolverines’ 1997 co-national championship team.
The Rose Bowl was over. So were the cheering and celebrating on our team bus because we all were dead tired. But Tom Brady was sitting next to me, just looking out the window, as we were driving back to the hotel.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“Between me and you,” Tom said, “I think I’m going to transfer.”
Here we were, 21-16 winners over Washington State with a 12-0 record. Here it was, Jan. 1 1998, the day that would cap Michigan’s first perfect season since 1948. Here I was, the starting running back on a likely national championship team. And here he was, Tom Brady, the backup quarterback, talking about leaving.
“Why?” I asked.
Tom mentioned some other reasons, but ultimately it came down to the hype about Drew Henson coming to the program. Henson was this highly touted quarterback, not to mention such a good baseball player that the New York Yankees would draft him that June.
“So you’re going to transfer over a kid that’s not even here yet?” I told Tom. “You don’t even know if this kid is any good. You know the system, you’re the next man up. It’s your job unless you give it to him. Then you’re going to transfer and have to sit out a year and learn another system.
“If you transfer, you aren’t the kid I thought you are.”
Easy to have second thoughts
Twenty years later, Tom Brady will go down as the greatest quarterback ever. He has won five Super Bowls with the New England Patriots and is back in the NFL playoffs Saturday. Anyone who says they knew Brady was going to be one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game is lying.
I didn’t know much about Tom when he first came to Michigan in 1995. Back then, we didn’t have media like we do now. We didn’t know anything about recruits or incoming freshmen until they arrived on campus and we saw them at practice for the first time.
As much as football is about team and togetherness, you still kind of stick to your own position group or to your own race or to your own group of friends. We didn’t spend time together off the field, although he came to one of our parties, which was hilarious, seeing Tom and Aaron Shea, who both are white, at an all-black party.
Tom wasn’t what I thought a California kid would be like. He had a short haircut and always seemed serious. He was always his harshest critic. You could tell the coaches were really hard on Brady, and he would have a tendency to hang his head low when he made a bad play. He would let a bad play turn into two bad plays. He was so determined, so intense. You just wanted to see him be loose and have a little fun.
At this one practice, he throws the ball into the flat to a running back, and the back makes a helluva run — runs over a few people, breaks some tackles. The back gets up, he is hyped and he gets into it with one of our defensive guys. A mini-scuffle breaks out, and next thing you see is Brady coming over the top, jumping into the pile. It was the liveliest I had ever seen him. You would have thought he had completed a 60-yard touchdown, but it was, like, a 10-yard gain.
Brady redshirted his freshman year and threw only five passes in 1996, the first going for a pick-6 against UCLA. Tom threw just 15 passes in 1997 as Brian Griese’s backup. I’m sure Tom was happy we won the Rose Bowl, but he didn’t know if he was ever going to play. Anytime you leave your family and travel across the United States to pursue your passion and things aren’t going the way you thought they would, you start to lose confidence and hope.
Tom isn’t the only one who had thought about transferring at some point. I wanted to transfer after freshman Clarence Williams moved ahead of me on the depth chart behind Tim Biakabutuka in 1995. I stayed. Even though Clarence started ahead of me at first in 1996, I stayed. That struggle made 1997 magical. That feeling of winning that Rose Bowl my senior year was incredible.
Tom was always part of the team and he had great friends, but the rumors about Henson were starting to get to him. Right after the Rose Bowl was the wrong time to decide to leave.
“Just sleep on it,” I told him.
You gotta have faith
I was at an event celebrating our national championship later that year when Tom came up to me and handed me an envelope.
Inside the envelope was a letter.
Inside the letter was a small silver pebble.
On the pebble was a Chinese inscription.
“What does it mean?” I asked.
“Faith,” he said.
Faith. He wasn’t giving up on starting at Michigan.
“I’m not going to transfer,” he said.
He thanked me for what I had told him that day on the bus.
‘Glad you stayed’
In 1998, I was drafted into the NFL. Tom beat out Henson for the starting job that season, and they split time in 1999 before Tom eventually won the job outright. New England drafted Tom in the sixth round in 2000, and what he has accomplished since then is unprecedented.
The reasons those NFL scouts overlooked Tom in the draft were the same reasons Michigan fans wanted Henson over Brady. Everyone was overlooking him and wanted the new shiny toy in Henson. That was all the fuel Tom needed. The lessons he learned at Michigan still push him. It’s great that he stayed. What he went through made him more determined. Nothing was given to him. He had to take it, fight for it and fight to keep it.
As for how much I had to do with Tom’s final decision? At that moment, he just needed some reassurance from someone who could relate to his situation. I think anyone on the team would have told him the same thing. I’m sure I’m not the only person he asked.
I haven’t seen Tom since the day he gave me that envelope, 20 years ago. If I could say anything to him about it now, I would tell him, “I’m glad what I said resonated with you and glad you stayed.”
I do have one regret, though.
I wish I still had that damn letter and pebble.