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I asked Tom Brady, 'Why are you famous?'
NFL quarterback's humble response, plus his private deference to the military
Barbara Walters set me up with movie star Ben Affleck at the White House Correspondents’ dinner. Affleck and I talked a while through dinner, but he didn’t get my politics or my sense of humor.
In an effort to save the evening, I asked a handsome celebrity I didn’t know to go to a party after the formal dinner. I learned later that his name was Tom Brady, and he was a successful football quarterback.
Now as Brady announced his final retirement at 45 years old, I’m reminded of when I met him after he had won multiple Super Bowls but was not yet the GOAT.
I saw a very tall, handsome man shaking hands and taking photos with fans among the tables after the 2004 White House Correspondents dinner had ended. He looked uncomfortable and somewhat lost.
The annual Washington press dinner has Hollywood celebrities that aren’t always A-list and easily recognizable (like Affleck), so I assumed the man in the tuxedo and tie was one of those D-listers. I walked over to him.
“Hey, are you going to the Bloomberg afterparty?” I asked with my neck bent all the way back to see his face. I’m 5’2” and even in 3” heels, I came up to about his shoulders in the tuxedo.
“I was supposed to, but I don’t know where to go,” he replied.
“It’s up the street at a house. Do you want to walk with me?” I asked. “I’m Emily.”
“Tom, and that’s great, thank you,” he replied.
I had an ulterior motive. There are always parties after the press dinner, but the one hosted by Bloomberg media was the most exclusive. I have never been invited. I was finagling a way to get in as a guest.
“Let’s go this way,” I said, directing Tom to the ballroom exits. People still stopped him for photos, but he looked happier that he had an escape now.
We went outside, up the stairs, took an escalator and left out the front of the hotel doors. No one bothered him. We had about three blocks to walk to the mansion with the party. I was trying to not stumble in my heels. It was cold in a formal dress.
As we got close, we could see the line to get into the party started about a block away from the house. There were clearly more people waiting in line than had been invited. I wasn’t sure my scam of getting in on his ticket would work.
“Hey, you wait here in line a minute. I want to see something,” I ordered.
“Okay,” Tom replied.
“Well, we won the Super Bowl.”
I walked the length of the line and found a red carpet and a row of TV cameras and reporters interviewing the famous people who entered the party. No one was checking their names for tickets and guests. This would be my only way into the exclusive afterparty.
“Is this where to bring the celebrity guests?” I asked a woman with a clipboard who seemed to be in charge. “I have one back in line.”
“Depends who it is,” she said.
I didn’t know if my celebrity was red-carpet worthy, but I had gotten this far and figured I’d try. I went back to the line and found Tom.
It’s Tom Brady
“Come with me, we’re going to the red carpet entrance,” I said.
“I don’t think I should do that. No one asked me to do it,” he replied. He wasn’t moving.
“I think it’s where you’re supposed to go,” I insisted. He looked at the people behind him in line. They hadn’t noticed him.
“I guess…” he said, following me slowly up the line to the red carpet.
I walked directly to the woman with the clipboard. She looked over my head and exclaimed, “Tom Brady!”
(This still meant nothing to me because I’ve never watched football. I know that I should have heard of him in general pop culture, but I hadn’t at this point.)
“I play quarterback”
I realized my chance of getting into the party depended on sticking with this man. So I pretended to be his publicist. I had worked in TV news – behind the scenes — at NBC and ABC, so I knew how this system worked.
Walking the red carpet with Tom Brady
I scanned the TV cameras which have stickers on the side with the name of the TV network or show. I walked over to “Entertainment Tonight” and asked: “Do you want Tom Brady?” The man said yes.
“Tom, Tom, come here,” I yelled at him while cameras bulbs went off all around us. He walked to me. “This is ‘Entertainment Tonight.’”
The reporter immediately put his microphone up to Brady and started interviewing him, while I moved to the next camera.
“Tom, I need you here with ‘Access Hollywood,’” I said. He followed my direction.
We went all along the red carpet doing every interview. At the end of the TV cameras, a bunch of still photographers stood close together.
“Tom, I need you here,” I said pointing at a spot on the carpet in front of a step-and-repeat sign for Bloomberg. I backed out of the shot and let him pose. It took just a few seconds. Here’s one from that night:
“This way,” I said to Tom as I headed to a side door of the house. I was trying to figure out where they would ask for tickets. I didn’t see anyone outside.
He followed me. I opened the door and went in first. Inside the house, there was no one asking for tickets. I made it!
Why is Tom Brady famous?
“Thank you so much for helping me,” Brady said as we entered the private party. “That was so nice of you. I really appreciate it."
“No problem,” I replied. “Let’s go get a drink.”
As we walked through the house, D.C. reporters who know me looked surprised and confused as Brady and I passed them. I didn’t want to risk any of them busting me for not being on the guest list, so I kept walking.
We got two drinks at the bar and stood there alone. No one approached him yet.
“So, why are you famous?” I asked, looking up as far as I could see his face.
“I play football,” Tom replied.
I paused while I tried to think of a follow-up question.
“Do you play for a team I’ve heard of?” I asked. The music was loud at the party, and since he was so much taller than me, it was a somewhat awkward conversation. (I googled later, and he is 6’4”.)
“The New England Patriots,” Tom responded.
“Never heard of it,” I said. “Do you play a position I might know?”
“I play quarterback,” he replied.
“I know that one!” I told him. That was actually the only football position I knew, so this was good for conversation flow.
“Are you any good?”
“Well, we won the Super Bowl,” said Brady.
“No way! Good for you,” I said smiling.
“More than once,” he added. I suddenly realized I was starting to look weirdly out of touch, as opposed to just a D.C. political wonk who doesn’t follow sports.
“I probably should know this,” I said, cringing a bit.
“You’re fine,” said Brady, smiling nicely.
Using Tom Brady
I had achieved my goal of crashing the exclusive party, so it was time to let Brady fend for himself. Frankly, if he had been a couple of inches shorter so I could hear him, I would have hung out with him longer.
“Well, I’ve enjoyed meeting you. Are you okay to get around here now?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m all good. Thanks again so much for helping me.” We kinda did a one-arm hug, but mostly I just crushed my head against him. I went off and enjoyed the party.
I checked on Brady once and found him outside with the smokers, including Affleck. Brady wasn’t smoking. I asked if he was okay. He said he was and thanked me again. I left him there.
The next day, friends called and said they had just seen me on entertainment TV shows on a red carpet. I had never been on TV before so that was exciting. They asked how I know Tom Brady. I said I just found him lost among the dinner tables.
It never occurred to me to take a photo with him.
Tom Brady is back
Brady came back to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner the following year. I saw him across the dining room but didn’t say hello because this time he had staff. He looked less approachable with the two men in tuxes with him. Plus, I had gotten a ticket to the Bloomberg party as a plus one of someone who was invited.
Later, at the Bloomberg party, I walked by Brady at the entrance. He immediately recognized me.
“Hey, great to see you,” he said and we did a half-arm awkward hug.
He turned to his staff. “She really helped me last year when I didn’t know where to go and how to get in this place,” he told them. I held out my hand. We shook.
“Do you need anything this year?” I asked.
“I’m all good,” said Tom, smiling.
I was embarrassed to ask for a photo with him, but I knew I had one chance at having evidence of all this now. He happily agreed. The person who took it cut me off at the neck, so I never liked the photo. (I have searched for hours today to find it — every digital photo site I’ve ever used — and can’t. If I ever find it, I’ll update this story.)
War heroes at a DC cocktail party
As I walked away from Brady, the U.S. Army general who had led the war “surge” in Iraq, waved me over.
“Hey, Emily!” Gen. Raymond Odierno said, smiling. “I saw you just talking to Tom Brady. Do you think you could introduce my son Tony to him?”
I knew Gen. Odieneo (who sadly passed away in Oct. 2021) because he was the military advisor to the secretary of state after his time in Iraq. I was the deputy press secretary. We both went on every overseas trip with the late Secretary of State Colin Powell and former Secretary of State Condi Rice.
Odierno looked the part of the wartime four-star general that he was in 2005. He was 6’5” with broad shoulders and was totally bald. His appearance at meetings with world leaders was intended to give the nonverbal impression that the powerful U.S. military was behind whatever the secretary of state was asking for in peace.
However, Odierno’s personality was outgoing and friendly and warm. He would sit with the staff on long flights and tell us stories. I called it “Odierno Story Hour”, and I’d go along the aisle to notify everyone that it was starting.
We asked him to tell the story over and over about capturing Saddam Hussein in a hole. He told us that the first helicopter at the site was too full to put Hussein on it, so Odierno ordered the former leader of Iraq tied to the outside to bring him into custody. The vision of the murderous dictator being scared of falling to his death was fantastic. But his favorite story to tell us repeatedly was how he got his wife Linda to marry him.
Gen. Odierno, meet Tom Brady
That night, Odierno brought his war hero son to the White House Correspondents’ dinner. Army Captain Anthony Odierno lost his arm in combat in Iraq. His dad was in charge of the war at the time when he got that call.
“Tony” had just finished rehab. He was as tall as his father. They both were in uniform with their broad chests covered in colorful medals.
When General Odierno asked me to introduce Tony to Tom Brady, I said of course. I gestured for the Odeirnos to follow me as I went back to Brady who was in a small group with his staff.
“Tom, Tom….” I tried to get his attention. The Odiernos stood behind me in their uniforms. Tom didn’t see me below him. The staff wasn’t helping me. I pushed in closer.
“Hey Tom, I want to introduce you to two war heroes,” I yelled as I gestured to the father and son to come closer. “This is General Odierno. He captured Saddam Hussein and ran the war in Iraq. And this is Captain Tony Odierno who is a combat war hero.”
Tony stood back a little in awe. Gen. Odierno put out his hand and said, “Tom, We are big fans. You are great…”
Brady stopped him. “No please, I want to thank you for your service and for all you’ve done for our country.” He put his hand out and shook their hands.
Tom continued to honor them and their accomplishments. But I can’t report exactly what Tom or the Odiernos said because I couldn’t hear most of it –even though I was standing under them. It was like they were on a different radio frequency for extremely tall people at a party with loud music. But I could tell from their body language that Brady continued to deflect their admiration back on them. I was just thrilled that I had found a famous person who loved and respected the military.
The Bible says our good deeds only count when we do them in private. Tom Brady's simple retirement message on his cell phone — directly to his fans — reminded me of his honoring war heroes when no one else could hear him.
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