ORLANDO, Fla. – Late last month, a mother and her two daughters spent a weekend together, dinner on Saturday and story exchange Sunday, and like every time they do this, discussing the future brought them back to the past.
In a week, the New England Patriots would play in yet another Super Bowl, and of course Tom Brady came up in conversation. He always does.
“He’s the bridge,” Pam Rehbein said in perhaps her favorite place: her living room with Betsy and Sarabeth, Pam’s 32- and 28-year-old daughters. “He really is.”
“I hope he plays till he’s 45,” Betsy said.
Brady, in this room and within this family, is more than a quarterback playing for his sixth championship. He is a seemingly ubiquitous reason to share memories of Dick Rehbein, the former Patriots assistant coach who in 2000 helped convince Coach Bill Belichick to draft the unheralded Brady.
Rehbein died unexpectedly during training camp in August 2001, before Brady had so much as started a game and six months before New England’s first Super Bowl. Rehbein, who was 45, left behind Pam and their two daughters, who in the years since have used Brady as a vehicle not just to celebrate their father’s achievement but to learn about a side of him they never knew.
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“It’s how we keep him alive,” Sarabeth said.
Rehbein was a soft-spoken man, but he would tell anyone about Brady, the kid from Michigan. Boy, was he slow. Gosh, was he skinny. But, man, was he smart and reliable and fearless.
“This is the kid,” Rehbein told Kyle O’Brien, then an intern in the Patriots’ personnel department. “I just believe in this kid. I really believe in him as a person.”
Brady was witty and quick, but his college football experience was confusing. For a while at Michigan, he split practice snaps with Drew Henson, and Coach Lloyd Carr took an unusual approach to declaring a game starter: One of them would start the first quarter, the other would go in for the second quarter, and whoever played better would play the second half.
Rehbein took note that Brady won 20 of the 25 games he started and led the Wolverines to five comeback victories in 1999. But he ran like a newborn horse, and his passing mechanics needed an overhaul. So only one scout came to see Carr about Brady, and that scout, Bobby Grier, happened to work for the Patriots, who happened to have a quick and witty and open-minded quarterbacks coach named Dick Rehbein.
Rehbein liked a project, and Brady was a blank canvas. “He was just excited about possibilities,” Pam recalled.
According to New England lore, the Patriots were interested in drafting a reserve quarterback in the late rounds, and at one point before the draft, Belichick asked Rehbein to choose: Louisiana Tech’s Tim Rattay or Brady, as if he really had to think about it.
“He loved the kid,” said O’Brien, now the Detroit Lions’ vice president of player personnel.
Rehbein called his wife each year during the draft. In April 2000, the phone rang after the sixth round, and Pam answered. “We got him,” Rehbein said.
– – –
Rehbein and Pam had traveled the NFL circuit, Green Bay to Minnesota to New York, and one year Rehbein found himself struggling to breathe.
A chest X-ray revealed an enlarged heart, and that, along with a few other experiences, changed his perspective. Coaches’ children, he and Pam noticed, often grew up without their dads. NFL coaches pour their lives into football, and Dick and Pam saw that occasionally lead to drug problems or disciplinary issues, so no, they decided that would not be them. Rehbein ate smartly, went for long runs, left stress at the team facility.
“I don’t want to be a guy that’s 45 years old and clutching his heart at his desk someday,” he told the Green Bay Press-Gazette in 1990.
When Belichick called in 2000, asking him to leave the New York Giants to join his Patriots staff, the reason he said yes wasn’t because of ambition but rather because Foxborough, Massachusetts, offered a small-town environment in which to raise his daughters.
Betsy occasionally would walk into the kitchen late at night to find her dad drawing plays using a coaching stencil – “C.O.O.L.” stamped on the side, standing for “Coaches of offensive linemen,” further proof that football coaches are, deep down, in-denial nerds – and Dick would look up and ask about art projects or school.
“I loved the dad that I saw,” Betsy said, though back then she was too young to realize her view was incomplete.
During the summer of 2001, when Betsy was 16, he pulled some strings and got her an internship in New England’s public relations department.
On good days, Rehbein and Betsy would have lunch together, and she would catch a glimpse of her father when he would pull Drew Bledsoe or Brady to the table and tell him, still gently, how he had screwed up that day. But sometimes Dick was too busy, and he would visit Betsy’s desk with a banana and an iced tea, saying he needed a rain check. Other times, her pager would go off and display reading her dad’s secret language: “143,” the callback screen read, and this was Dick’s code based on the number of letters in “I love you.” He paged Betsy almost as often as he called Pam, always “143” and nothing more, and she came to appreciate the efficiency in it.
One day Rehbein was spending time with 12-year-old Sarabeth, celebrating that she had passed a test. They went to the gym, and he passed out on a treadmill. He woke up immediately, and a short time later a doctor said he was suffering from cardiomyopathy, a disease that weakened the heart.
The girls were told he would be okay, and one thing the sisters have in common is that they’re trusting. One thing they don’t is how they process memories: Sarabeth visual and collecting mental photographs, Betsy recalling precise words.
“That day is so fuzzy,” Sarabeth would say years later, though she could nonetheless remember watching “Mr. Ed” in her dad’s hospital room and his gray sweatpants. Betsy remembers only that, when she left the room, her dad said, “Love you, Boo Boo,” one of her nicknames.
A doctor scheduled a stress test for the next day, and Rehbein told his co-workers it was routine and that he would be back at training camp soon. A while after the test was scheduled to begin, the phone rang at home, and Pam answered.
This time she heard the doctor’s voice. Something had gone wrong during the stress test. Dick was gone.
Pam, shaken but trying to muster strength, hoped to tell Betsy in person. But with her working, how would she get her home? Pam decided to call O’Brien, the Patriots intern, who would do what Pam asked without asking questions.
So she called the main switchboard and prepared to ask for O’Brien, but a familiar voice surprised her: “Hi, this is Betsy with the New England Patriots.”
– – –
Sarabeth withdrew from football, the game a cruel reminder of what she had lost. But Betsy enveloped herself in it.
She had spent her 16 years surrounded by the NFL, and there was comfort in the routine. She spent Sundays at Foxboro Stadium, refusing to miss a home game.
At Rehbein’s funeral, the Patriots had presented the family with two helmets, one each signed by the entire New England and Giants teams. On the rear of the Patriots helmet, written in the tiny deferential scribble of a backup quarterback, is Brady’s signature.
Betsy was at the stadium when Brady, in relief of the injured Bledsoe, started a game for the first time and stole a win from Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. She was there cheering when Brady defeated the New Orleans Saints, New England’s first of six consecutive wins to end the regular season. She was there freezing when the Patriots hosted a divisional playoff game against the Oakland Raiders.
That game would become famous for two reasons: It was played in heavy snow, and Brady was sacked and lost control of the ball. After a long review, officials determined New England would retain possession because of what now is known as the “tuck rule.”
Anyway, that’s not Betsy’s prevailing memory from that game. While officials sorted out the confusion and effectively altered football history, Betsy looked at the scoreboard clock and saw 1:43 remaining, and she filed that away like the newspapers she would collect after Brady’s biggest moments.
“Brady gets the nod” one of the headlines read; “Brady the chosen one,” announced another. And after New England defeated the Raiders and upset Pittsburgh, the Rehbein family traveled to New Orleans to watch the Patriots play the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl. When they arrived at the Superdome, they found their seats in section 143.
“He’s still here,” Sarabeth would remember thinking.
– – –
On Sunday, in homes 200 miles apart, Dick Rehbein’s daughters will turn on the television and watch Brady play in the Super Bowl.
They have children of their own now: Betsy with two stepsons and a daughter, Sarabeth with an 11-month-old son. Using the same techniques they once embraced, they are teaching their children about “Papa Angel” by telling Brady’s origin story and the little-known assistant coach who helped start all this.
“The most tangible legacy we have,” Sarabeth said. “He is who he is, and that allows us the easiest conversation about who [Dick] was in football.”
“And in life,” Betsy said.
When Betsy packs Rilee’s lunch before school, she slips in a note and writes “143” at the bottom. Sarabeth carries her father’s old play stencil with C.O.O.L. still on it, a talisman and shield, to important meetings and job interviews.
For a long time, Sarabeth has printed articles about and photographs of Brady, stashing them for when young Teddy is old enough to ask questions and understand. For now, he will have to make do with the Brady toddler jersey Aunt Betsy bought before he was born.
They’re banking as many conversation starters as possible because they know the clock is running. Brady, energetic and lethal as he remains, is 40, and he can’t play forever.
“For as long as he’s on TV, the stories will continue to be told,” Betsy said. “The fear is that one day, when he’s not in the league, will my kids forget? Will they not remember?”
The sisters are dreading the end already.
“We want him to keep breaking those records,” Betsy said, “so his name never disappears.”
There’s at least one more year, one more Super Bowl, and the families will gather once again in their favorite places, using the quarterback on television to bridge the present with the past and asking the children whether they know the story of how the man on screen got here.