Bill Belichick might never have met Tom Brady if not for a man named Dick Rehbein.
Rehbein was born in Green Bay, became a Division II All-America center at Ripon College and was cut by Packers coach Bart Starr in training camp his rookie year in 1977. He later coached under Starr through 1983 before working as an offensive assistant for the Vikings (1984-91) and Giants (1992-99).
In 2000, Belichick hired Rehbein as Patriots quarterbacks coach. One of Rehbein’s first duties was to scout a batch of quarterbacks that included a gangly, heavy-footed kid from Michigan.
“You could just tell that Dick and Tom had a close relationship,” said former NFL tight end Jermaine Wiggins, whose career included stints with his beloved hometown Patriots (2000-01) and Vikings (2004-06).
“They worked so well together. Dick really had high expectations for Tom.”
Belichick was looking for a young backup to Drew Bledsoe. Many believe it was Rehbein’s draft-room persuasiveness that pushed Belichick into picking Brady in the sixth round in 2000.
A year later, after Brady replaced the injured Bledsoe in Week 2 and was leading the Patriots toward the first of their five Super Bowl titles, Belichick hinted as much when he said Rehbein was “the guy that’s most responsible for Brady.”
Unfortunately, Rehbein didn’t see any of this. Didn’t see the first playoff win in the famous “tuck-rule” game. Didn’t see the first Super Bowl win over the heavily favored Rams. Didn’t even see Brady’s first start the week after Bledsoe suffered a serious injury on a hit by the Jets’ Mo Lewis.
On Aug. 6, 2001, Rehbein died. He was 45.
“I remember when the news hit us that day how shocking it was,” Wiggins said. “A guy we knew and worked so closely with, it was like, ‘You’re here one day at practice and then you’re gone the next day.’ ”
Rehbein had a heart condition called cardiomyopathy. He collapsed while running on a treadmill Aug. 5. He was taken to the hospital and held overnight.
He reportedly called then-offensive coordinator Charlie Weis the next morning to tell him he would make the 7 p.m. team meeting. But his heart stopped later that day.
Wiggins couldn’t have predicted Brady would be going for his sixth Super Bowl title against the Eagles at U.S. Bank Stadium on Feb. 4.
“But I did run the scout team with him his rookie year, and the thing I took away from Tom immediately was his competitiveness and confidence,” Wiggins said. “I came over from the Jets in 2000 after spending my rookie year on the practice squad. Tom’s the fourth-string quarterback [behind Bledsoe, Michael Bishop and John Friesz].
“But even when a guy is just running the show team, you can always tell something about him in how he competes in practice.”
Brady is 27-9 in the postseason. His first playoff game was Jan. 19, 2002, against the Raiders in the snow in the final game at old Foxboro Stadium. The “tuck rule” turned a Brady fumble into an incomplete pass, which set up Adam Vinatieri’s tying 45-yard field goal, which set up Vinatieri’s winning 23-yarder in overtime.
Wiggins was targeted 13 times in that game. He caught 10 balls for 68 yards.
“You play with a guy and you never really know what level he’s going to get to,” said Wiggins, who now does a morning radio show on HOT 96.9 in Boston. “You don’t realize you’re playing with the guy who is going to go down as the best football player of all-time.
“For me, that’s the crazy part because I still see Tom when I go to games. I still see him as the guy I ran show team with in 2000, even though he’s this god around here. But when I talk to him, he’s still the same guy. The same Tom. He hasn’t changed, even though everything around him has changed.”
Who knew things would change for the better for that young fourth-string rookie? A man named Dick Rehbein.