The True Story Of Tom Brady’s First-Ever Completed Pass, By The Guy Who Caught It
So who is the young man seen circled in the top row of the photo above, looking all spiffy (collared shirt!) for his freshman yearbook photo? Hint: He would go on to make some very memorable Stetson Cologne ads.
Oh, and there's the three Super Bowl MVP awards, four Super Bowl rings, and of course Deflategate. Some make a case for Tom Brady being the best quarterback in the history of the NFL, but he'd be the first to admit that he wouldn't be in that position without great receivers. Brady's legacy will forever be inexorably linked to names such as Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Julian Edleman. But there's one receiver who holds a special place in the pantheon whose name you don't know.
Bill Harke, also circled above, was also a teammate of Brady's once upon a time, and can claim one thing that the others cannot: He was on the receiving end of Brady's first-ever complete pass in organized football. And as you never forget your first love, a quarterback never forgets his first completion.
Before Michigan, Brady played at Serra High in San Mateo (which also gave the world Lynn Swann and Barry Bonds), breaking numerous prep records as a junior and senior. But today we're taking you back even further in time, when the photos above were taken; Brady's freshman year of high school.
He arrived at his first day of football practice in Sept. of 1991 as an unknown quantity, having never played a down of organized football. Brady had been a youth baseball standout, and indeed he went on to become an all-league catcher at Serra, being drafted by the Montreal Expos. And on the first day of freshman football practice, his coaches took one look at the ponderous, somewhat chubby youngster and said "lineman."
Because of his work ethic and throwing ability, Brady actually gravitated to backup quarterback, but he started as a linebacker. He didn't have what one would call "wheels," unless the wheels in question were attached to a dump truck. He didn't play QB much, and in fact, completed only one pass his entire freshman season.
It was an inauspicious beginning, but never before has the term "first in a series" been packed with more meaning. This is the story of that pass. Harke, now a professional golf caddy who works on both the PGA and LPGA Tours, sat down with me and recalled that magical day when he grabbed Completion No. 1.
"It actually comes up a lot," said Harke, who lives in Half Moon bay, a coastal community in Northern California not far from where he grew up and went to high school. "When people ask when I went to Serra and I tell them I graduated in 1995, they always ask me if I know Tom Brady. One thing leads to another and I always end up telling the story."
First of all, Harke says that he's not even sure he was supposed to be on that team. "I was pretty small then, 5-foot-4, 100 pounds at the most. After tryouts I didn't know if I had made it," he said. "The way they announced the cuts is, they handed out pink slips in home room the next morning. I didn't get one, so I showed up to the first practice. I think they made a mistake, but when I showed up the coaches just kind of decided on the spot to let me play."
The team wasn't exactly a juggernaut. The Serra freshmen went 0-8-1 that season, and were shut out three times. "Tom was a linebacker, and also our third-string quarterback," Harke said. "Our first-string quarterback was Kevin Krystofiak, who was pretty fast and athletic. It was the fourth game of the season before Tom ever got to play quarterback."
That game, against St. Francis, also happened to be the first time Harke set foot on the field in a game. "The first time I got to play also happened to be Brady's first series at quarterback," Harke said. "We were behind by 20 points or something, and they were emptying the bench. I had always worked my ass off in practice, so they decided they'd let me in for a couple of plays. So I get into the huddle, and the first play they call to me. "I remember thinking, 'It's coming to me?' There wasn't a lot of time to think about it.
"I just did this little out pattern, and Tom threw it right in my numbers for seven yards. I caught it and ran out of bounds." Tom Brady's first pass, and first completion. It would also be Brady's only completion that season. And as it turned out, it would be the only reception of Harke's football career.
"On the next play, they called an end-around to me," he said. "And I lost 11 yards. So my career stats were minus-4 yards total offense."
Harke remembers the play so vividly because it was the only game his mother attended that season. "She was always afraid that I would get hurt," he said. "Finally my dad convinced her to go to one of my games, and it was that one. I remember that at the moment I caught the pass, my mom shrieked in terror; she thought I was going to get killed. That's the only thing I heard, and it's the reason I ran out of bounds, I think."
Krystofiak, now a partner in an insurance firm in San Francisco, says that he doesn't remember that play specifically. "I don't know why I wasn't playing then," Krystofiak said. "I just remember that we weren't very good that year. Tom had a great arm, but he couldn't move very well. We all thought his big sport would be baseball."
Krystofiak gave up football following his freshman year to concentrate on basketball, where he became an all-league point guard. That opened the door for Brady to become the starting quarterback his sophomore year. "The great thing about Tom is that he's still that same guy, he hasn't changed a bit," Harke said. "The same person he was in high school. Just a great, down-to-earth guy. I've seen him a few times since high school, and he's really friendly."
Harke also has a friend, another caddy, who caddied for Brady at a celebrity tournament at Pebble Beach, in California. Although Harke has never talked to Brady about that first pass, the friend knew the story, and brought it up when he saw Brady at the tournament.
"The guy asked Brady, 'Is it true that Harke caught your first pass?,' " Harke said. "And Brady said 'Yeah, it's true. I remember it.' It's pretty cool that he acknowledges that." But Harke does have one regret. "The coaches gave me the game ball after that game," he said. "And I have no idea where that is now. Tom Brady's first completion, and I have no idea what I did with it.
"Well, it's not like I'd be selling it on eBay or something," he said. "It'd be on my mantle. But who knew at the time that ball would be worth anything? Amazing how things turn out."
UPDATE: Bill Harke Sr., the dad, emails me. "Great story, but I have to dispute one fact. Seven yards? The completion was for more like five yards, at the most."
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