By RJ Young
When Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback and seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady gave up his retirement on March 13 – just after the NCAA Tournament draw was revealed on Draft Sunday – perhaps no one was less surprised than New Jersey Generals head coach Mike Riley.
Former professional QBs who have played for Riley include Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh (NFL), Heisman winner Doug Flutie (NFL), former Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett (WLAF), Sean Salisbury ( CFL) and Fresno State head coach Jeff Tedford (CFL).
That’s before we entered the college ranks with former USC Trojan Rob Johnson and Oregon State flaggers Derek Anderson, Matt Moore and Sean Mannion.
For that reason alone, all eyes will be on De’Andre Johnson and Luis Perez, Riley’s two quarterbacks, when the United States Soccer League starts Saturday.
But none of those quarterbacks compare to the one Riley almost signed — twice.
In 1993, Riley was USC’s offensive coordinator, and then-head coach John Robinson gave him the California Bay Area as one of the regions he was responsible for recruiting. .
“And over time,” Riley said, “I saw a quarterback that I really liked from Sierra High School, Tom Brady. And so, we started the recruiting process.”
Riley traveled to San Mateo, Calif., almost weekly to see Brady, who didn’t even start at QB on his high school team at Junipero Serra, an all-boys Catholic high school.
Indeed, as a rookie in 1991, Brady was a backup quarterback on a team that lost every game played that season. The first action he saw in a high school game was at linebacker, and according to Riley, he read fits like they were written in Braille.
Brady’s high school coach said he played the position like he was running in slow motion, according to Seth Wickersham’s “Better to Be Feared.” But Riley saw the physical traits that would define Brady as the greatest quarterback the game has ever seen.
In fact, Riley was the only scout to see Brady play during his senior year of high school in 1994.
“I like guys who are really natural pitchers,” Riley said. “That’s what struck me with Tom Brady in high school. He just naturally threw the football. It didn’t seem to be difficult for him. There was a movement efficiency that was special.
“And those guys who can kind of throw naturally and move and throw naturally, even if they’re not runners, that’s one of the things I’m looking for – how easily the guy can get the ball, can step back and get the football out of his hands.”
Mike Riley on recruiting Tom Brady out of high school
Mike Riley shares his story of recruiting Tom Brady out of high school while coaching with the USC Trojans and why he was heartbroken when it didn’t work out.
Riley did not complete his evaluation process there. He also considered Brady’s character, his courage, his ability to handle pressure and his family. And Brady’s family rated Riley as well.
“Galynn and I, to this day, probably have as warm an regard for Mike Riley as we have ever had for any coach,” said Tom Brady Sr. told the Omaha World-Herald. “Just a wonderful guy. I would happily entrust my son to Mike Riley anytime.”
Sure that he and the Bradys loved each other, Riley felt good about Brady signing a national Letter of Intent to attend USC.
“I felt really good about Tom’s interest in USC,” Riley said. “The fact that he visited, I think, many times during, you know, unofficially while we were in the recruiting process. I had been to his house, scouted a game, I went through this whole process and felt really good about it.”
But he was upset. After completing another home visit to the Bradys, Riley arrived on campus to learn that Robinson had accepted a verbal commitment from Quincy Woods at the end of the recruiting round.
“So, I’m going home, I’m going to the office,” he said. “I had just come back from the tour with Tom and I walked in and talked to Coach Robinson about the tour. And he said, ‘Well, we just got a commitment from another quarterback- Chicago back. We have no room for Brady.’ And of course, I had probably spent a year and a half on this case. I was really surprised and disappointed.”
Perhaps Riley’s saddest trip was getting on a plane in Los Angeles, driving to San Francisco, and telling the Bradys that USC had to withdraw its offer.
Brady was recruited by USC, UCLA, Cal, Illinois and Michigan. After UCLA signed Cade McNown and Brady finally committed to Michigan, Riley felt relieved. At least he wouldn’t have to play Brady at Cal.
Brady went on to go 20-5 as a starter in Ann Arbor. But most people still thought Drew Henson, who Brady shared playing time with as a senior, was a much better prospect. And a senior quarterback who couldn’t hold the starting job for an entire season in college has done nothing to instill confidence in his ability to play at the sport’s top level — let alone become a franchise quarterback.
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Meanwhile, Riley became head coach of Oregon State in 1997 and was hired as head coach of the San Diego Chargers in 1999. After an 8-8 season with an aging Harbaugh at QB, in the draft of the NFL in 2000, the Chargers were on the market. for a quarterback late in the round, they could grow.
Riley still believed in Brady’s potential, and he told him that before the draft. She had missed him once and didn’t want to miss him anymore.
The Chargers had three sixth-round picks in 2000. With their first in that round, Riley wanted to take Brady at No. 184 overall.
Bobby Beathard was then the general manager of the Chargers, and he would eventually be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame after a 33-year career that included 10 division titles, seven conference titles and four Super Bowls.
Just before the Chargers’ first pick in the sixth round, Beathard reviewed Brady’s film.
The Chargers selected former Virginia linebacker Shannon Taylor.
They didn’t pick again until No. 203, and at No. 199 the New England Patriots selected Brady.
Riley couldn’t believe it. He had lost Brady again.
“Editors in many places have a lot of opinions,” he said.
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In 2001, Brady had the chance to play against Riley and the Chargers in his third NFL start. The match proved to be a pivotal moment in history for Brady and Riley.
The Chargers were 3-1 and preferred to beat a New England side to a 1-3 start. With 8:57 left at Foxborough, the Chargers led the Pats 26-16 when Brady returned to the field to lead the offense.
“He took them on two sets of goals,” Riley said, “tied us up, then took his team down and won in overtime.”
The Pats won 29-26 in a game in which Brady completed 33 of 54 passes for 364 yards with two touchdowns. New England finished 12-2 and beat the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl.
“So that’s my experience of recruiting and possibly getting drafted and then playing against Tom Brady,” Riley said.
Riley laughed while recounting his bad luck in his quixotic struggle to train Tom Brady. But I like to think that even Miguel de Cervantes would agree that Riley is a damn good story.
Of that, however, we can be certain: Mike Riley knows this from quarterbacks.
RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast “The #1 Rated Show Starring RJ Young.” Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Youngand subscribe to “The RJ Young Show” on YouTube. It’s not on a StepMill. You can watch the “The #1 Rated Show Starring RJ Young” on Youtube or subscribe on podcast platforms including Apple podcast.
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