Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck first noticed it a few years ago, at a party in Southern California during the Quarterback Challenge competition. Tom Brady arrived late, and when he did, heads turned, even those of Hollywood stars and other football luminaries. "People were star-gazing at Tom," Hasselbeck recalls. "We've all been to parties where you're having a conversation with someone, and they're looking over your shoulder for someone. At that party it's Tom they were all looking for."
The NFL is a tough party to crack. The older guys don't embrace young players until they've done the job at the toughest times in the toughest games. But they all like Brady. In fact, when you talk to veteran players about him, you get the feeling that they wish they were on his team. "I think he'd be the ultimate teammate," says Steelers back Jerome Bettis. Dallas receiver Keyshawn Johnson makes the same point, and even flirts with heresy: "He's the Joe Montana of this era."
Brady merits the comparison with St. Joe because he has consistently played at the highest level. At age 27 Montana was 7--2 in playoff games, with two Super Bowl wins; Brady at that age was 9--0 in playoff games, and had three Super Bowl rings. Comparing them is also apt because neither was a first-round blue blood ( Montana was drafted in the third round, Brady in the sixth), and both handle their fame with humility. " Brady doesn't feel he has to tell people he's smarter or better," says Johnson. "He just shows it. And the thing about him I like most: He still takes coaching. He's still learning."
Brady has another trait that instantly gets props from vets: toughness. "I got a great hit on him this year, right in the ribs," says Miami linebacker Zach Thomas, "and he went down. But he got right back up like he hadn't even been hit. After the game he said, 'Nice shot.' That's what I respect. Tom's the kind of guy I'd never cheap-shot."
At the Pro Bowl last year Brady told Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward how much he admired that Ward, having risen from a late-third-round pick to be the leading receiver in Steelers history, always played with a chip on his shoulder. "Where Tom came from really humbled him," says Ward. "And I respect him more because of that. He won't let the limelight change him, which can happen to someone at a young age."
At a young age. That's what you've got to remember--the guy just turned 28. "Three Super Bowls at that age," Johnson says. "Un-freakin'-believable. And with his attitude, he's not done. I bet he's got three more in him."