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Super Cool Super Hero

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Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady doesn’t ruffle easily. Only an hour before the biggest game of his life he was so relaxed he fell asleep. Even with the game against the St. Louis Rams on the line and only 81 seconds left to win it, the quarterback for the New England Patriots felt “a sense of calm come over me,” recalls Brady, 24, crediting that confidence to his supportive parents. “I knew my dad was leaning over to the person next to him, saying, ‘Everything’s under control.'”

Sure enough, Brady became the youngest NFL quarterback ever to win a Super Bowl by leading his underdog Patriots to a riveting 20-17 upset victory over the heavily favored Rams at the New Orleans Superdome Feb. 3. His thrilling last-minute, nine-play drive to position the Patriots for a game-winning field goal showcased the eerie poise that Brady, an unheralded backup at season’s start, has demonstrated since taking over for injured Patriots star quarterback Drew Bledsoe in the second game. “Anyone who knows Tom wasn’t surprised,” says David Terrell, a teammate at the University of Michigan and now a Chicago Bears wide receiver. “He’s always been a winner; he just got his chance to show it.”

Brady may be an animal on the gridiron, but off it he seems too full of virtue to be true. The 6’4″, 220-lb. ex-altar boy from San Mateo, Calif., had a 3.3 grade point average in college, calls his parents every night, likes signing autographs for fans, loves kids and instead of a luxury ride drives a Dodge pickup truck. “Mothers call up and ask if he can meet their daughters for ice cream,” says Patriots defensive end David Nugent, who rooms with the unmarried Brady in a three-bedroom condominium townhouse near Foxboro, Mass. “But he’s just kept a completely humble attitude.”

Tom Brady Sr., 58, an investment banker, and wife Galynn, also 58, instilled the same sense of decency and confidence in their athletic daughters Maureen, now 28 and employed in a contractor’s office, Julie, 27, an office manager at her father’s firm, and Nancy, 25, a management recruiter. All four excelled in sports, competing one year in a total of 315 games. As for baby brother Tom, “we doted on him, but that only lasted so long,” says Julie. “We used to compete for absolutely everything, and we pushed him all the time.” In fact, it was in his youth that Brady first learned all about pressure cookers and cutthroat competition. He and his sisters waged fierce nightly battles for control of the TV remote. “I wanted to watch sports, and they loved soap operas,” remembers Brady. “I hated the soap operas.” His sisters usually won.

Another trick the overprotective trio liked to play: hiding phone messages left by Tom’s girlfriends. “That’s why I moved 2,000 miles away to college,” he says, “so I could get a date.”

A high school football star, Brady won 20 of the 25 games he started at the University of Michigan, despite occasionally being replaced by his promising backup quarterback. Drew Henson. “The more he gets knocked down, the harder he competes,” says his former Michigan coach, Lloyd Carr. “You can’t underestimate Tom.”

But the NFL did just that. Drafted by the Patriots in the sixth round (he was the 199th player chosen), he completed just a single pass in 2000. “He was frustrated with his playing time, but he’d say, ‘It’s not the coach’s fault, it’s not my teammates, it’s me; I’m not working hard enough,'” says his teammate Nugent, adding that Brady spent the off-season shoring up weak spots in his game. “So when he got the opportunity to play, he was ready.”

Now Brady should prepare for a sizable bump up from the $298,000 league-minimum salary for second-year players he earned this season. Not that mounds of extra cash—or all those ardent female admirers who send him fan mail—are likely to go to his extremely level head. Brady is dating California public relations account executive Laura Kinsman, 25. They were introduced a year ago and have been together for six months. “Tom is totally down-to-earth,” says Kinsman, who accompanied Brady and his folks to Walt Disney World the day after the game. Then Brady and his parents went to the Patriots’ parade in Boston Feb. 5. “More than anything he loves his family,” says Kinsman. “They are just so good to each other.”

With that kind of squeaky-clean image, his post-NFL plans come as no surprise at all. “He says he’d like to be a U.S. senator one day,” says sister Julie. Why not? So far, he’s got the New England vote locked up.

Alex Tresniowski

Bob Stewart and Alice Jackson-Baughn in New Orleans, Anne Driscoll in Boston, Noah Isackson in Chicago and Kristin Harmel in Orlando