Like an elk roaming a North Idaho mountainside, outdoorsman John Friesz could spot a rookie from a mile out.
Between the inherent new-guy questions and mannerisms, Friesz, the former Coeur d’Alene High and Idaho quarterback who enjoyed 10 NFL seasons before retiring in 2000, was mindful of their plight.
He experienced it in 1990 as a sixth-round draft pick who carved out a starting job with the San Diego Chargers in his second season.
Friesz, who won the Walter Payton Award in 1989 after leading the Vandals to back-to-back Big Sky Conference titles, was a relatively obscure talent void of a big-money contract and predraft hubbub.
In the twilight of his career with the New England Patriots, Friesz noticed a rookie quarterback in a similar situation: Tom Brady.
The contrast between today’s Brady – a 43-year-old NFL and fashion icon who will appear in his 10th Super Bowl on Sunday when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers face the Kansas City Chiefs – and Year 1 Brady is quite stark.
Brady, a sixth-round draft pick out of Michigan, was about as physically impressive as the car he drove to training camp.
“The guy looked like a late draft pick. Nothing special,” said Friesz, a Hayden resident. “He threw a nice ball, but a lot of people at that level throw a nice ball. … He drove a beater car, it looked like an old Nissan B 10, and bragged about buying a refurbished Dell laptop. Things were a lot different for him then.”
The Patriots kept four quarterbacks in 2000, including former Washington State star and four-time Pro Bowl selection Drew Bledsoe and backups Friesz, Michael Bishop and Brady.
Brady tended to gravitate toward the veteran Friesz because of their similar long-shot backgrounds and workman’s approach.
They often discussed nuances of the game, staying in the league, locker room politics and who downloaded the most songs onto their computers from the peer-to-peer sharing network of Napster.
“He worked very hard,” Friesz said. “He asked questions that rookies don’t typically ask. You knew there was something different about him. He was on different level, mentally.”
Buried on the depth chart, Brady still hated losing.
“I remember we had lost a game at Cleveland, and we were sitting by each other on the bus,” Friesz said. “He says, ‘I just don’t get it. Why doesn’t anybody seem to care?’ I had to explain that it is much different than college and high school. People are more out for themselves here.”
Friesz had 38 career starts between his time with the Chargers, the Washington Football Team and Seattle Seahawks, passing for 8,699 yards, 45 touchdowns and 42 interceptions.
He appeared in one game with the Patriots in his final two pro seasons under Bill Belichick, who looked to Bledsoe, a Walla Walla High School graduate, to carry the offense.
Bledsoe hazed Brady, but the rookie did what few rookies do: return fire on the face of the franchise.
Each quarterback exchanged small pranks on each other, Friesz said, to the point of legitimate annoyance.
When Brady wedged a life-size advertising cutout of Bledsoe holding a Pepsi inside a revolving hotel door that was stuck inside all day for passersby to see, the ex-Cougar made sure he got the final laugh.
A member of the Patriots had a friend from the FBI with access to invisible dye powder used for banks in the event of a robbery. Once it’s wet, it turns dark.
When Brady was away from his gear, Bledsoe stuffed the dye into his socks and, by the time practice was over, his shins, feet, socks and cleats were ink-soaked.
“Everyone was laughing at him or pointing at him, even Belichick,” Friesz said. “(Brady) was so pissed. When he stormed off for the showers, his feet left near-perfect prints all the way there into the carpet. The tile in the shower was even stained.”
Friesz, a 53-year-old husband and father of three, rarely talks about his time in the NFL.
He enjoys hunting and fishing and the North Idaho life, and still keeps tabs on the Coeur d’Alene High and Idaho football teams, where his son, Carter Friesz, was a redshirt freshman quarterback last season.
Watching Brady develop into arguably the game’s all-time best quarterback over a 21-year period hasn’t entirely surprised his former teammate.
“The reason he is still playing is because it’s very important to be successful every single day,” Friesz said. “There’s a lot of guys who win a Super Bowl, maybe two, get a big contract and know they’re going to the NFL Hall of Fame. Their edge is off.
“I don’t think Brady has ever lost that edge.”