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May 31, 2012* This feature story appeared in the last issue of Blue White Illustrated.
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By Lou Prato
Special To Blue White Illustrated
Kyle Brady didn't realize it at the time, but five years ago he saw firsthand the adaptable and aggressive offensive coaching philosophy that will mark Penn State's first football season in 47 years without Joe Paterno calling the shots.
Brady, arguably one of the two best tight ends in Penn State history along with Ted Kwalick, was then in his 13th NFL season, but this was his first year with the New England Patriots. There was another new man about his age on the offensive staff, and both of them were learning what football was like in the orbit of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
"Coach O'Brien was just breaking into the NFL, and he was soaking everything in," Brady said, referring to Penn State's future head coach, Bill O'Brien, then an offensive assistant on the Patriots' staff. "He's a very intelligent guy and knew an immense amount about football before his arrival. Like any person in their first year, he didn't say a whole lot, but he had an input into our offensive schemes and in the quarterback [meeting] room."
Brady also remembered O'Brien's personal side. "He really went out of his way to acknowledge me in particular," Brady recalled. "I was a new guy up there, too, even though I was an established veteran. I'd pass by and he'd say, 'Hi, Kyle, how you doing today?' He'd give you a warm greeting, and we had a few conversations at lunch or wherever. He seemed like a genuine, down-to-earth guy."
The 2007 season was Brady's only one with the Patriots and his last in the NFL, as he retired after its conclusion. New England's offense was not built around a two-tight end passing attack that year as it was in 2011, O'Brien's first year as offensive coordinator and play-caller. But Brady's description of the Patriots' offensive philosophy is reminiscent of O'Brien's recent comments about the offense he's planning to institute at Penn State.
"Having [quarterback] Tom Brady there, I highly doubt they revamped the offense when Bill O'Brien took the reins," Brady said recently from his home outside Jacksonville, Fla. "I imagine they allowed O'Brien some leeway. That's something Coach Belichick is very good at, letting his coaches call the plays - especially on offense, because he's such a defensive-minded coach - [and] being creative, figuring out personnel and positional mismatches going into a game.
"They're a very good game-planning team. When they go into a particular week and they're facing an opposing team's defense, it's basically a chess game. They'll look at their personnel and say, what can we exploit with the strengths of our personnel and the weaknesses in their personnel? And they break it down not only by down and distance but by coverage tendencies and even on how a team will match up against certain personnel packages."
As an example, Brady cites last season's highly productive two-tight end passing offense featuring 6-foot-6, 265-pound Rob Gronkowski and 6-1, 245-pound Aaron Hernandez: "Typically, when teams go with a tight end set, the opposing team's defense will put a heavier, less-mobile, run-oriented defense in the game because traditionally two-end sets have been heavier with two tanks in the game that try to grind the ball down the field. But when you've got two guys as athletic and with as much ability as Gronkowski and Hernandez, you can put them in the game and your whole playbook can be wide open. Gronkowski can beat safeties on that type of coverage. So, if you have receivers outside, they can be covered by cornerbacks, and when you get Hernandez on a safety or a linebacker, it presents serious mismatch problems. You can run the ball from that set, you can pass the ball, you can just about do anything."
Brady said he would have relished the opportunity to play in O'Brien's system. As O'Brien explained it recently, one tight end position is designated the "Y" and is "a bigger guy [whose] No. 1 job is to block, and then run short and intermediate passing routes." The other tight end plays the "F" position and "is a move guy, little bit better pass receiver."
"Any tight end would dream of playing in that offense [and] having that many opportunities to get the ball," Brady said. "And they're using them creatively, moving them around a lot. I know Hernandez, in particular, was more often the guy playing in that H-back type of role, moving into a slot position and motioning. As a tight end, you want to have that role as blocker and runner, and it's even more fun when you get used in very creative ways."
Brady, who played in the NFL at 6-6, 278 pounds, said that in his final season he was definitely a "Y," but at various times in his career he played both positions. Brady was a first-round draft choice of the New York Jets - the ninth overall selection in 1995 - after an All-America season at Penn State. He was a four-year starter, but it wasn't until he signed with Jacksonville as a free agent in 1999 that his receiving skills were truly utilized.
In his four years with the Jets, Brady averaged 27 receptions and 237 yards a season. His best year was his last, with 30 catches for 315 yards and five touchdowns. In his first year with the Jaguars, he caught 32 passes for 346 yards. The next year, Brady had a career-high 64 receptions and 729 yards. During his first four seasons in Jacksonville, he averaged 44 receptions for 480.5 yards.
"There were a couple of years in my early years with the Jaguars where I had the opportunity to play both roles," Brady said. "Coach [Tom] Coughlin gave me my best opportunity to flourish as a dual-role tight end. He believed in me not only as an in-line blocker, which at that point in my career I kind of already had proven, but he believed in me as a receiver, in my ability to get open and have a big impact on the passing game in all different types of routes - short, medium and long. Not many tight ends are catching the ball for 40 yards down the field. Even long balls to receivers are usually caught more like 25 to 30 yards downfield. He gave me the opportunity to get downfield, try to get past the linebackers and make the catch."
It was after his year with the Patriots that Brady knew it was time to retire and get on with his life.
"The wear and tear of a 13-year career started getting to my body," Brady admitted. "The average NFL career is only four years, and there are a lot of reasons for that, not just injuries. Sometimes you don't fit into a new system, or they find a guy to replace you because it's cheaper. But if you've been a player up on the front where you're banging every day in practice and banging in every game, it wears on you once you start getting into the double digits in years. It's not like you're a kicker or a quarterback where you're really not taking many hits other than on game day. You're in the trenches every day, battling it out, two-a-days and all that stuff, and it really takes a toll on your body.
"Some of the signs of wear and tear were really starting to show during that last season. I missed a good bit of the preseason with a knee injury, and then I did some damage to my shoulder that was pretty significant and I still live with now [because] it wasn't really even repaired. I always said to myself in the course of my career that I wanted to maintain a sensitivity and awareness of when it was time to move on, and not try to deny those signs when it becomes apparent it's time.
"I feel thankful that I got out of it with relatively few serious injuries and the wear and tear isn't as bad as some guys my age who already have had joint replacements. But I feel it every day in my knees, my ankles, my hips, my shoulders - every day."
Asked if it was all worth it, Brady laughed and said, "Maybe you ought to ask me that in 15 to 30 years to see how much pain I'm in then."
Yet, despite his aches and pains, Brady has no regrets about playing in the NFL. Of the 324 Nittany Lions drafted into the NFL since the first one was taken in 1940, only eight have played longer than Brady, and that includes two kickers (Matt and Chris Bahr), a quarterback (Brady's teammate Kerry Collins) and one other tight end (Mickey Shuler Sr.). Although he never made the Pro Bowl, Brady was steady and dependable. He played in 195 games, starting 175 of them, and finished with 343 receptions for 3,115 yards - an average of 10.3 yards per catch - and 25 touchdowns.
"When I was a real young kid, it wasn't my dream to play professional football. I did always dream about being a professional athlete, but I thought my best opportunity would be in professional baseball because that is what I flourished in as a youngster," Brady said. "It wasn't until I got older and started to physically develop and grow and fill out that it became apparent that probably football was going to be my best opportunity to excel, and go to the next level, to college and eventually the pros. I think it was in high school when it finally dawned on me that maybe I can go pretty far with this if I work hard. So it became a dream, and I was able to fulfill it.
"I just wonder if one day I'll look back and think maybe I should have left a little sooner, without quite so many years, so much mileage on the wheels so to speak, because each year you wear down those joints more and more. It has to have effects down the line on your body physically. But I enjoyed each year, and each season was unique. The competition and the camaraderie were tremendous, and that's what I enjoyed the most and now miss the most."
Brady was 36 years old at the time but was uncertain what he would do next. Since joining the Jaguars in 1999, he had lived in the Jacksonville area. He was now married with two small children but had never had an off-season job while playing in the NFL.
"I had not been in the job market for 13 years," Brady said. "I had a college degree [in exercise and sports science] and you're marketable, but how marketable are you when you've been playing football for 13 years, especially in this economy? When a lot of guys finish their NFL careers, especially when they've had long careers, they sort of go through a transitional period where they jump from one job to another, not real sure what their next calling is in life, not sure what the next thing is that they want to do. I saw that repeatedly, even among some of my former teammates, and I thought instead of doing that, why not go back to college?
"I talked to a lot of people and got some opinions. Two graduate degrees that stand out and seem to be very flexible, and are degrees you can use that are more useful down the line in life, are the law degree and an MBA. After really thinking about it a lot, I thought to go ahead and get the law degree, because even if you don't want to formally practice law, just to have that knowledge of the law with regard to business pursuits or whatever you might get into, it's good knowledge to have."
In 2009, Brady tried to combine law school with working football weekends for the Big Ten Network but it wasn't feasible. "They wanted me back for 2010, but the amount of time it took to get ready for a weekend of football was pretty significant, and there just weren't enough hours in a day to do both," Brady said. "We have classes Monday through Thursday, and in your first year you have classes on Friday and it was something I just couldn't manage."
However, after Brady graduates in the spring of 2013 from the Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, he feels he still could have a future in sports broadcasting.
"There are a number of guys who have law degrees who are currently doing very well," Brady said. "Steve Young is one of them and Chris Collinsworth is another. I actually think going through the law school experience can make you even better as a speaker. Often you're put in pressure situations, like mock trials or when you're called upon to mediate or arbitrate, where it takes being adept with words, and I think you can actually polish your skills as a speaker."
Brady grew up in the Harrisburg area and once thought he would eventually go back to live in his hometown. But he now has roots in Jacksonville. He bought his first home there in 1999 and met his future wife that same year. Kirstin Jacobsen was working on her MBA at Tennessee and visiting her sister when the two met at a youth group meeting. They married in 2000 and now have a son, Kellen, 7, and daughter, Brooke, 4. Until the kids get older, Kirstin is a stay-at-home mom. That means Kyle sees a lot of his family, because when he's not in class, he's usually home studying.
When asked one final question about his most memorable play in his five-year career at Penn State, Brady hardly hesitated. "There's a series of plays that stick out and I think all Penn State fans remember: those 14 plays against Illinois - 94 yards to get to the end zone."
It's now known in Nittany Lion lore as "The Drive." An undefeated season was on the line in Champaign with 6:07 remaining and Penn State trailing, 31-28. The No. 2 Lions had trailed 21-0 at the end of the first quarter and had fought back against one of the best defensive teams in the country. Brady caught two key passes, as Collins confidently guided Penn State to the winning touchdown. "That was just a special and unique group, not just of athletes but of individuals," Brady said. "I can remember that series like it was yesterday. Here it is 18 years later and I still get chills thinking about it."
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