HOUSTON -- A little kid loitered in the players' parking lot after a 49ers' game at Candlestick Park, shivering in the cold so that he might shake the hand of his idol Joe Montana.
At the time it seemed like such an innocent pursuit. Looking back at his childhood brush with greatness, Tom Brady has to laugh. It's funny how things look so much different, depending on your vantage point.
Brady saw the world through the wide eyes of a child then. Now he views it largely through dark shades.
The kid who was thrilled to shake Montana's hand metamorphosed into the star quarterback who'll lead the New England Patriots against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Seeing celebrity from the other side now, it's not at all like Brady envisioned.
"I aspired to great things on the football field," Brady said the other day. "I wanted to be in the spotlight on the field but not off the field."
He might as well have been asking for the moon minus the stars. At 26, Brady is in position to become the youngest NFL quarterback to win two Super Bowls. All those years of chasing after his favorite Bay Area sports figures, Brady never stopped to consider that one day, if he became a star, he would be in the public's cross hairs and how that would make him feel.
It was one of the few things that Brady, a methodical man, neglected to anticipate.
In school Brady was the kind of test-taker who'd write an essay when a one-sentence answer would suffice. His preparation was meticulous. So when it was his turn two years ago be a football star, Brady was ready.
The celebrity that followed his MVP performance against the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI hit him like a pop quiz. Brady didn't have the answers to fans following him home, females flashing him at bars, strangers wanting to be his best friend. He didn't know the correct way to navigate around the prospective prom dates and autograph seekers and bouquets of flowers and batches of cookies that materialized on his doorstep.
So tantalizing from afar, fame looks a lot different when you wake up next to her every morning. Brady was living the life of his and every other red-blooded American male's dreams and all he felt was trapped.
It reached the point last year, Brady said, where "I wasn't going out. I was sitting in my house all day. I didn't know how to say 'no' to someone so I'd go out and just feel like I was dodging bullets all the time."
He wanted to learn how to make this high-maintenance relationship with the public work. But what was he supposed to do, scour his local bookstore for some self-help tome? There's a reason you won't find on any shelf Fame and the Men who Hate It or Celebrity for Dummies.
The target audience would be much too minuscule.
Great athletes are a mere drop in the gene pool. So Brady did what he had done as a kid. He sought out Montana.
Through a friend, Brady arranged to dine with the Hall of Fame quarterback in July. Months before former 49er coach Bill Walsh would say Brady's accuracy and delivery reminds him of Montana, Brady was drawn to Montana by the similarities he saw in their personalities.
Each is the kind of guy who'd rather sit at the back of a room with his buddies and crack jokes under his breath than seize the stage and entertain a bunch of strangers. "I'm more similar to him, personality-wise, than I am to a lot of other guys in the league," Brady said.
Over lunch, Brady picked Montana's brain about how to live a genuine life in the artificial bubble of celebrity. It was reassuring to Brady to hear Montana say that after all these years, he remains ill at ease with the attention he attracts when he's sitting at an airport or dining out with his family. Brady also took much comfort in the fact that Montana wonders to this day why anybody would want his autograph.
"A lot of times I think I might be a little naive," Brady said. Like Jim Carrey's character in The Truman Show there are forces driving his life about which he is oblivious. Finding out Montana feels the same way, Brady said, was reassuring. "It makes me feel like it's OK," he said.
Montana offered Brady the same advice that Walsh once had given Montana. "I told Tom the two things you have to worry about are if you lose your sense of who you are and if you don't spend time on football," he said.
So far, so good. Nobody on the Patriots outworks Brady and he is very clear on who he is.
"I am not the best athlete in my own family," Brady said.
In this case it was more than Brady's humility speaking. His three older sisters excelled in sports. Maureen was an All-America softball pitcher at Fresno State, Julie was an All-Conference performer in soccer at St. Mary's and Nancy competed in softball at Cal.
"They are tough, all three of them," Brady said, beaming. "We had our battles."
This is how tough Nancy is: She was drafted to be her brothers' real-life left tackle. At his request, she moved from the Bay Area to Boston to stand between him and a blitzing public.
It hasn't escaped the notice of his family that Brady is much more relaxed now that his sister is dealing with the people who want a piece of him. "Tom, by nature, is not one that likes confrontation," said his uncle, Brother Christopher Brady. "Nancy's helping run interference for him. She's helped him reclaim his private life."
One request recently did manage to slip past Nancy Brady. First Lady Laura Bush sent word through Patriots owner Robert Kraft that she would like Brady to be her guest at President Bush's State of the Union address.
Brady didn't stop to ask why. He shaved the bird's nest of a beard that he had been growing and high-tailed it to Washington. His uncle said Brady's family found out he was there at the same time the rest of America did -- when the President declared that professional athletes have a responsibility to America's youth not to abuse steroids and the cameras panned to Brady.
Or "Little Bush" as Patriots defensive end Willie McGinest promptly dubbed him. The nickname probably won't play too well in Bradyland. "Within the family there's a lot of Democrats," Brother Christopher said.
It never occurred to Brady that by attending the State of the Union address he might become propaganda at the hands of the Republicans. Of course it didn't. Brady is so completely without guile, he can't believe any Montana comparisons are about him.
"Wow," he said. "Everybody wants to make comparisons, but I think that is crazy."
Somewhere some kid this week will stand shuffling in his sneakers, waiting to shake Brady's hand or wangle an autograph. He wants to be like Brady because everybody knows Brady has an awesome life.
Brady will smile. He might even blush. Who is he to disagree?