FOXBORO -- There are moments that define every NFL player’s career. There are moments that stick out as unforgettable timestamps and unmistakable landmarks in history.
I remember sitting in the living room with my then-1-year-old daughter, Janie, watching Super Bowl XXXVI on Feb. 3, 2002.
I remember John Madden advising from the TV booth on Fox with just over a minute remaining that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick should sit on a 17-17 tie and play for overtime.
Then Troy Brown happened.
As big as his punt return against the Steelers was a week earlier in the AFC championship in Pittsburgh, what happened with 29 seconds left in the Super Bowl always will stick with me as the defining moment of a career that will be honored on Saturday with his induction into the Patriots Hall of Fame.
Brady had completed three short passes to J.R. Redmond, moving the ball from the New England 17 to the 41. After an incompletion, Brady and the Patriots had second-and-10. Brady -- in the shotgun -- dropped back to look over his over options. What happened next set up the greatest moment in Patriots history.
I had the opportunity Thursday in Foxboro to ask Brown about exactly what he remembered about his 23-yard catch that took the Patriots to the Rams' 36 and helped initiate the birth of a dynasty that lives on to this day.
Brown takes it from there.
“It was just everybody being extremely calm,” Brown said Thursday. “There really was not a lot of panic for the situation that it was. I think a lot of that had to do with the way Tom came into the huddle to start that drive. He came into the huddle, he gave us the two plays and he didn’t have a look of fear in his eye. I’ve always said it’s important when a lot of people react to the way their leader acts.”
Brown can laugh about it now, but even I didn’t remember how that drive began. Brown returned the kickoff following the game-tying St. Louis touchdown. He managed just 15 yards on the return from the New England 2.
“He came in, we were on the 17-yard line after my big return,” Brown said sarcastically with a smile. “[Brady] came in just as calm as he could be. He was a young guy himself with a banged-up ankle. We got the drive off to a pretty good start, hitting Redmond a couple of times and getting out of bounds. That entire time nobody showed any signs of panic or desperation; we were in it together.
“I couldn’t believe I was that wide open. The plays before they were in sort of a man-type defense and it was giving us a bit of trouble trying to get the ball downfield, so we kept hitting J.R. with dump passes and he did a great job of breaking some tackles and getting out of bounds on one of them and stopping the clock. They decided to switch it up for a second, and when they did, we hit it for a pretty good chunk to get us in good position.”
After Brown ran out of bounds at the St. Louis 36 with 21 seconds left, I remember staring at the TV, mouth ajar, and saying to my daughter what millions of Patriots fans dare not even think. “The Patriots are going to win the Super Bowl.”
Sure enough, after a 6-yard connection to Jermaine Wiggins to the St. Louis 30 and a Brady spike to the stop the clock, Adam Vinatieri finished it off. The Patriots were dancing on the floor of the Superdome in New Orleans and my mind kept going back to Troy Brown.
Certainly, there are other defining moments for the Marshall product, including his return against the Steelers in the 2001 AFC championship game and “The Strip” in the 2006 AFC divisional playoff in San Diego.
With five minutes left in the game against the Chargers, the Patriots were down 21-13 and facing fourth-and-5 when Brady threw his third interception. Brown, making what Tedy Bruschi termed a "quick mental switch" from offensive to defensive player, instinctively ripped the ball out of Marlon McCree's grasp.
Reche Caldwell recovered the fumble, giving the Patriots a new set of downs. New England went on to tie the score with a touchdown and a two-point conversion, and then won the game on a 31-yard field goal.
Brown's career numbers are great on their own merit. He retired as the Patriots' all-time leader in receptions with 557, a record that stood until Wes Welker tied it last week in Tennessee. He accumulated 6,366 receiving yards over 15 years and caught 31 touchdowns.
Brown also is the Patriots' all-time leading punt returner with 252 returns for 2,625 yards and three touchdowns.
But sometimes legendary players aren’t defined by great statistics but by greater moments. Bill Belichick certainly feels that way about the man once cut by Bill Parcells before Brown's rookie year of 1993.
“Great career,” Belichick said this week. “I can’t think of anybody more deserving to go in than him. Special player -- came in very unheralded, worked his way up on the roster offensively. Returned kicks, ended up playing for us defensively, championships, played at a very high level and played his best football in big games.”
One of Belichick’s favorite Troy Brown moments was when Brown was called on to play defensive back and cover Green Bay All-Pro receiver Donald Driver, holding him to two catches and 42 yards.
“Troy was a great leader,” Belichick said. “Worked as hard as anybody, unselfishly, always did what we asked him to do from a team standpoint, whether it was block, catch passes, return kicks, cover kicks, cover receivers. He truly was a good player in all three phases of the game, an outstanding player offensively and in the kicking game. Always did it for the good of the team and he was a big reason why we won a lot of games while I was coaching while he was here. You can never really replace a guy like that. He’s just special. Very deserving.”
And to think the career might not have even happened had Bill Parcells not had a change of heart after cutting Brown just before the 1993 season-opener.
"It was something I deserved," Brown recalled Thursday. "I didn’t play very well in the preseason. I had the good fortune of talking to Bill [Parcells] for a long, long time at the National Football League Hall of Fame in Canton when Curtis Martin got inducted. We talked and we chatted for about an hour and talked about all those things and all those good days. He was really proud of the way things turned out for me after all that stuff, down to being cut. He was really happy about it, and I’ve always had a tremendous respect for Bill Parcells and the way he went about doing things. He’s a tough guy and he had his beliefs and he stuck with them, but that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t try to prove him wrong. It made me a better player, I think. It made me a better person and everything else. Being cut is not fun because I was out for over half the season that year. I came back and I lost my number -- I used to be Irving Fryar [No. 80] and I came back as Stanley Morgan [No. 86]. It wasn’t fun. He kind of beat me up a little bit when I got back."
Brown retired after the 2007 season. That means only three players on the current roster -- Brady, Logan Mankins and Vince Wilfork -- played with him.
“Leadership, you’re talking about a leader on and off the field,” Wilfork said Thursday when asked about Brown. “I mean, a guy, he’d give you the shirt off his back. He’s just one hell of a person. Not just football player or athlete, but as a person, he’s a great, great man, a hell of a father. You hear people talk all the time about what it means to be a Patriot. Well, he’s a walking Patriot. That’s every example of what this organization stands for, that guy Troy Brown.
“Playing DB, specialist, receiver, he played it all on the field. But as good as he was on the field, he was even better off the field. I think that’s one of the things that a lot of people remember Troy, and that’s one of the first things I think about.”
True enough, Vince. Everyone has his or her own fond memories of a Patriot who always had a smile on his face.
So, when Troy Brown gives thanks and praise on Saturday evening to all those who made his journey possible to the Patriots Hall of Fame, he may or may not mention that fateful play in Super Bowl XXXVI. But one thing is for certain -- it’s a play for which Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Patriot Nation will be eternally grateful.
Now to the Trags Bag for a few more memories from those aforementioned fans.
@PariotsExtra Best moment has been the class that he shown his entire in New England. The young guys need to learn from him.
@classic_palms stripping the ball after Brady threw a pick in AFC divisional game against San Diego. Sums up player he was.
@RaQuanO Favorite @RealTroyBrown80 moment when he stripped the CB of the ball after an INT in that Chargers playoff game in 2006