Patrick Graham had just been hired by the Patriots as a coaching assistant in 2009, his first job in the NFL. One offseason morning, he was in the weight room in Foxborough on a stationary bike with his head down when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
"I look up and — boom! — it’s Tom, and he was glowing and stuff," recalled Graham, now the Giants’ defensive coordinator. "He was like, ‘Hey, I’m Tom,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I know.’ I didn’t even say my name."
The greatest quarterback in NFL history can have that kind of effect on people.
He also can have that kind of effect on teams. There have been plenty of opponents over the years who have lost games to Tom Brady — mostly with the Patriots and now with the Buccaneers — because they never had a chance to win. They were in awe, thinking about the records and the rings and the moments they were facing.
Young teams especially, their rosters filled with players who have no memories of an NFL without Brady winning championships, can fall into that trap very easily.
Of course, that pendulum can swing the other way, too. Giants coach Joe Judge said there were times during his eight-year tenure with the Patriots when teams — and he pointed to the Rex Ryan-led Bills teams in particular — were overconfident and "too over-focused on just a couple of people."
"There were a lot of times it was kind of almost too much stuff pregame," Judge said. "You just kind of understood they’re not really tuned into the game. They were just kind of worrying too much about some kind of matchup or something they may have heard or read about in the headlines that week. They’re not really focused on the game. Normally when I see that from teams, you know they’re not locked in for 60 minutes."
The Giants will face Brady when the Buccaneers come to MetLife Stadium on Monday night. And yes, they are a very young team. And yes, they have plenty of proper respect and admiration for Brady.
But what they also have is a balance between the two, a team that shouldn’t be intimidated by his mere presence — nor distracted by it — because many of them played or coached alongside him in New England.
To them, he’s not a legend.
Safety Logan Ryan played with Brady for New England and also has the distinction of catching Brady’s final pass with the Patriots. That he did it while wearing a Titans uniform in a playoff game last January, returning the interception for a game-sealing touchdown, made it that much sweeter for Ryan . . . and exponentially worse for Brady.
"A big play in both our careers," Ryan said this past week. "He reached out to me afterward. I had dropped one earlier in the game and he said: ‘Why couldn’t you drop them both?’ I said: ‘Even though I like you, I can’t drop them both.’ We have much respect for each other."
Ryan and Graham are not alone in their connections with Brady. Judge brought plenty of staffers to the Giants by way of New England; his staff here includes Bret Bielema and Kevin Schuplinski, both of whom were assistants on Brady’s former teams. There also are players who lined up beside Ryan, including safety Nate Ebner and running back Dion Lewis.
Having that kind of intimate working relationship with Brady does not make one immune to his abilities. Ryan said playing against him is "the ultimate test" for an opponent.
"He’s like the final boss in Mario or whatever video game you might play when you’re on the last level and they have hammers and cannonballs and everything going off in the game," he said. "He presents every threat to you possible. You have to stay super-locked in. As a competitor, I feel like he brings the best out in me because I know I have to be my best in order to compete with him. I love playing against him because it’s the greatest challenge in football, definitely mentally, but physically as well."
But Ryan also knows Brady’s secret: that he doesn’t win all those games by himself.
"The biggest thing I can tell [my teammates] is that it’s his guys," Ryan said. "It’s the guys around Tom Brady that he knows how to utilize."
Graham agreed. He even threw a little barb at the 43-year-old quarterback.
"It’s not just Tom you’re playing," he said. "That’s the thing when you think about this quarterback. It’s a young people’s game. He gets the ball out to those young guys. He gets the ball out to those guys. He knows how to distribute it and get it out there. Not taking anything away from him, he’s a playmaker himself. But he understands, get the ball to the skill players."
So the Giants will try to win not by spending energy trying to beat the best quarterback in football history. Instead, they will look past Brady, beyond his aura and accomplishments.
And just try to beat the Bucs.