Super Bowl LIII is this weekend in Atlanta and we’re having a party as we do whenever the New England Patriots enter the fray. Of course, the dominant stories this year are whether Pat’s coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady can add a sixth Lombardi Trophy to their display case in Foxborough, or will 32-year-old wunderkind coach Sean McVay and defensive player of the year Aaron Donald, defensive tackle for the Los Angeles Rams, find a way to upset the reigning NFL dynasty and maybe begin a new one of their own.
But another question I have is, who in sports history is analogous to Tom Brady, someone everyone whiffed on – 6th round draft pick, the 199th player chosen – who went on to become the GOAT? Let’s take a look at some other GOAT candidates in other sports and compare.
In basketball, Michael Jordan is widely recognized as the greatest player ever, going six for six in NBA Finals and popularizing the game worldwide. But though cut from his Emsley A. Laney High School team in Wilmington, North Carolina as a sophomore, MJ was a game-winning shot-maker for coach Dean Smith’s 1982 NCAA champion North Carolina Tarheels before becoming the third overall first-round pick in the 1984 NBA draft. He may not have been as dominant as Wilt or Kareem as a youngster, but he wasn’t’ dismissed by any stretch, either.
In baseball, Babe Ruth twice won 23 games and three World Series titles as a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox in the 19-teens before the infamous trade that led him to become the greatest hitter the game has ever known for the rival New York Yankees.
In cycling, Lance Armstrong began competing as a triathlete at age 16 and won the national sprint-course triathlon championships in 1989 and 1990. Then in 1992, Armstrong began focusing on cycling, and won the World Championship in 1993, before becoming a seven-time Tour de France champion. (This is not the time to discuss PEDs)
In boxing, Muhammad Ali was an Olympic gold-medallist as a light heavyweight in Rome 1960 and Sugar Ray Robinson won all 85 of his amateur fights before he turned pro at age 19 and going 128-1-2 from 1940 to 1951.
In tennis, none of the several men’s GOAT candidates – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Pete Sampras, Rod Laver – were nobodies before their ascent. And Serena Williams on the women’s side was a dominant champion her entire life.
In golf, we have either Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods to choose from as GOAT. Nicklaus won the U.S. Amateur in 1959 and 1961 and finished second at the 1960 U.S. Open, two shots behind Arnold Palmer. He then turned pro at age 21 and earned his first professional win at the 1962 U.S. Open, when he defeated Palmer by three shots in an 18-hole Monday playoff. And Tiger was celebrated on the Mike Douglas TV show at age five as a golf prodigy! Come on, everyone saw these two guys coming.
In soccer, Brazil’s Edson Arantes do Nascimento (Pelé) began playing professionally at age 15 and joined the Brazilian national team at 16. Yes, Pele was a transcendent player from the get-go.
In swimming, 23-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps qualified for his first U.S. Olympic team in Sydney 2000 at age 15, the youngest male to earn a berth on the U.S. Olympic swim team in 68 years.
In hockey, whether you like Wayne Gretzky or Bobby Orr for GOAT, both were touted as hockey geniuses from their days in youth hockey.
And in the marathon, we have Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya who won a world championship at age 18 at 5000 meters on the track in Paris against world beaters Hicham el Guerrouj and Kenenisa Bekele before embarking on his GOAT career in the marathon.
Only Tom Brady among sporting GOATs was consistently overlooked/underappreciated, whether at Junípero Serra High School in San Mateo, California, where he couldn’t start for the 0-8 JV team; in college at the University of Michigan where he began as number seven on the QB depth chart and struggled to get playing time behind men like ex-NFL QBs Brian Griese and Drew Henson; and in his early pro career with the Pats, where he backed up all-pro Drew Bledsoe in his rookie season before coming in for an injured Bledsoe in year two to lead the Patriots to their first of five Super Bowl titles against the St. Louis Rams. Since then Brady has proven to be the greatest quarterback and perhaps overall American football player ever. In that sense, he occupies a unique position in the world of sports.
Now the question is whether he can add a sixth Super Bowl title on Sunday against the Rams in Atlanta. As always, it should be brutally nerve-wracking to watch.