Originally published Feb. 2, 2008. Updated Jan. 30, 2015
Like millions around the globe, John Kirby will be glued to his high definition television on Super Bowl Sunday, hanging to every Super play, re-play and malfunction, costume or otherwise.
What sets Kirby apart is like a rabbit sensing danger, he’ll scour every sound – just like he does every other Patriots’ game that Tom Brady is under center.
“Sometimes I’ll hear his cadence – ‘Red 80, Red 80’ – and it will bring me right back to the field, right back to high school,” Kirby said.
Kirby isn’t some un-balanced nutcracker, trying to re-invent his Glory Days, dreaming that the world’s most famous quarterback is flinging him the ball.
Actually, Brady indeed zipped Kirby passes at Serra (San Mateo, Calif.) from 1992 to 1994. And, in fact, Kirby was Brady’s favorite target their senior season connecting 42 times the same year they shared countless laughs in trigonometry class.
“Boy, those were good times,” Kirby said.
So, when he hears his old friend’s voice, in the heat of competition against the NFL’s finest, it sends Kirby, who played two seasons at the University of Hawaii, spinning back into time, to a fun, carefree and even triumphant day.
Brady, now 37, will set himself apart Sunday when he makes his sixth start in a Super Bowl in the 49th annual game, this year at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. against the defending champion Seahawks.
Kirby is the assistant athletic director and freshman football coach at Serra.
“I hear him audible and it reminds me of our own little code we started on the JV team,” Kirby said. “When he saw a DB playing too tight, Tom would pull on his face mask and it would change a short route into a streak. I can still feel that anxious feeling when he did it because I knew the ball would be coming to me and he’d put it right on the money. And he did time after time. Just like he does now. … Everything you see and hear now is what we saw and heard in high school. It’s just kind of surreal to see it now on TV. To see it on such a gigantic stage.”
Maureen's little brother
It’s hard to fathom for all those former players, coaches and teachers at Serra who this time of year, when the Patriots make their annual Super Bowl spin, get requests from unlikely sources.
Kirby, Serra’s receiver coach and a student teacher, said besides Bay Area newspaper and television reporters, he’s heard from the
New York Post
, Boston Globe
and Washington Post
the last two weeks.
It’s not like he and the Serra contingent didn’t notice Brady’s Terry Bradshaw right arm, Magic Johnson work ethic, Matt Damon good looks or George Clooney charm in those days.
“But who could have predicted this?” said former Serra athletic director Kevin Donahue said. “Certainly, he was destined for success. He was the All-American boy. Down to earth. Well grounded. But how in the world can you predict someone will be one of the greatest of all time at anything?”
Well, Donahue does have some experience.
From 1979 to 2009, Donahue was the AD at Serra, which has also produced NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann and home run king Barry Bonds.
If anything, locals predicted Brady would make a run at Bonds’ numbers, not be compared to his childhood idol Joe Montana. A catcher, Brady was an 18th-round pick of the Montreal Expos in the 1995 amatuer draft.
“I expected him to be a good college quarterback but if anything I thought he’d be a major league baseball player,” Kirby said. “He was known as a baseball player.”
Brady entered Serra never having played a down of tackle football.
He was something of a Little League legend, often associated with his sister Maureen, an All-American softball pitcher for Hillsdale High (San Mateo) who later played at Fresno State. His two other sisters also played sports collegiately, Julie at St. Mary’s College (soccer) and Nancy at Cal (softball).
The youngest of four children and the only boy was proud of his sisters, but also driven by them, said Dean Ayoob, the school's current athletic director who was a senior at the school when Brady was a freshman.
“From what I recall, a driving force for Tom was to not be known simply as Maureen’s little brother,” Ayoob said.
Face in the crowd
Other than having good size, he didn’t stand out much when he was one of eight quarterbacks who tried out for Serra’s freshman team. He was a backup to one of his best friends Kevin Krystofiak and rarely played for an 0-8-1 squad.
“I think he got into a play or two as an outside linebacker,” then Serra varsity coach Tom MacKenzie said. “Honestly, I barely remembered his name back then. He was sort of a face in the crowd.”
When Krystofiak quit the next year to play basketball, the door opened wide for Brady. MacKenzie, who coached at Serra from 1979 to 2000, paid full attention once he saw Brady’s strong arm. At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds as a sophomore, he also had excellent size.
“He was really adept at throwing the fade pattern,” MacKenzie said. “Right on the money. It was God given. In 31 years of coaching I’d never seen someone able to throw like Tom Brady. He was our future, someone we needed to develop and cultivate.”
He started on the JV team as a sophomore and that’s when he and Kirby started hooking up.
In their season opener against Mission San Jose, Brady hit Kirby on a 12-yard curl pattern for the game-winning touchdown with 30 seconds to play.
“His first-game ever, we’re down five with two minutes to go and he led us on a game-winning drive,” Kirby said. “It was awesome. It’s just like he does all the time now. Whenever he was in the huddle, he always seemed in control. He never panicked. He was always motivational, not negative. If we were way down he’d say, ‘C’mon, let’s get this going.’ He never yelled or blamed.”
He was supremely passionate about the game, however. Donahue recalled Brady stewing in the end zone that season following a loss to rival St. Francis (Mountain View).
“He had tears in his eyes,” Donahue said. “He wasn’t being a baby. He just hated to lose.”
According to Perry Carter, a JV football coach and the school's Director of Advancement, Brady passed for about 200 yards a game his sophomore season. He was an assistant during Brady's JV and varsity senior season.
“He just flat-out out-worked every one,” Carter said. “He was a student of the game and he stayed after every practice to throw extra passes.”
His arm was never in question. His footwork and speed was another matter.
MacKenzie knew for him to reach the next level, Brady needed work below the waist.
Brady knew also.
“Most teen-agers will avoid at all cost what they aren’t good at,” MacKenzie said. “Tom Brady was the opposite. He’d take to heart what he needed to improve on.”
MacKenzie developed workout and quickness drills that Brady followed religiously. One, called the “5-dot drill,” he turned into his own.
He took the jumping and quickness exercise of MacKenzie and added nuances that he implemented daily for the next two years. It’s part of the reason, MacKenzie believes, Michigan came calling for Brady which led to his now almost iconic billing.
MacKenzie even has a memento of the drill, trucked away in his office.
“One day (during high school) Tom came in and I asked him to write down some of those new drills and I’d incorporate them with what I was doing,” MacKenzie said. “He wrote them down on some binder paper and I still have it in my files for me to keep forever.”
He won’t sell it on eBay?
“Never,” MacKenzie said. “That would be a travesty.”
With golden arm and hard-earned and new found athleticism, Brady threw for 3,514 yards and 33 touchdowns the next two seasons. The Padres, playing out of probably California’s toughest league, the West Catholic Athletic League, went a combined 11-9 and didn’t make the playoffs.
No matter. MacKenzie said. Coaching Brady was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, lesser having to do with football.
“He was just always so well-liked and respected by his team and faculty,” he said. “He could always be counted on to be at the right place at the right time doing the right things. He did it all without being a goody two shoes or a suck-up.”
He was no party animal either, according to Ayoob.
“Everything I heard was that the first thing he did each morning was work out,” Ayoob said. “It seemed like he never wasted time. That’s why he was so successful.”
But he was never a dweeb or phony, Kirby said. He was funny and witty, but not a prankster.
“Just like the way he responded to that woman at the press conference (in 2008) who asked to marry him,” Kirby said. “He always had a good answer. He always had the right response.”
And that, all parties agree, is what makes him so impossible to sack from his pocket of stardom.
“Everything I see in him now is what I remember about him back then,” Kirby said. “He never saw himself as a high school quarterback star. He didn’t let the attention get to him then. If anything, he tried to stay out of the spotlight, just like now.
“I think that’s why we’re all so incredibly proud of him. It’s really unbelievable not only that he’s reached such status but that he’s the same old humble Tom that we knew.”
The notoriety hasn’t hurt his pocket book. Or the school’s.
After winning his second Super Bowl MVP, he donated the Cadillac that came with the award to Serra, which auctioned it for $375,000. The money was eventually used for school renovations.
This came after winning his first Super Bowl MVP when he spoke at a school rally and signed more than 200 footballs to help with another fund-raiser.
“He sat there for more than two hours signing everything and anything we needed,” Donahue said. “He said, ‘if it’s for the Padres, of course I’ll do it.’ “
Who knows how much his autograph will be worth if the Patriots win their fourth Super Bowl on Sunday.
It’s hard to imagine that his star power can grow any larger.
Kirby said that in some ways he feels bad for Brady because his private life is gone, dragged through the mud and Paparazzi.
That’s another reason why he enjoys watching Brady on the field, winning championships, screaming audibles, re-kindling memories.
“When he looks down the line of scrimmage and I see him looking at Wes Welker and Randy Moss it reminds me of how he looked at me,” Kirby said. “And that feels pretty good.”