From the moment Michael Bishop met Tom Brady in 2000, he knew they would get along well. The two young men had similar backgrounds, interests, senses of humor, and roles as backup quarterbacks with the New England Patriots.
Bishop was a 24-year-old second-year player from Texas who was known for his flashy, dual-threat play during a sensational college career at Kansas State. Brady was a soon-to-be 23-year-old rookie from California who practiced a more traditional drop-back style during an unremarkable career at the University of Michigan. Bishop was a seventh-round NFL draft pick in 1999, while Brady was a sixth-round selection a year later.
So yes, Bishop and Brady were technically competing with each other and trying to impress Bill Belichick, New England's first-year coach, but they understood that the chance of either of them getting any meaningful playing time was slim to none. The Patriots had Drew Bledsoe, the team's franchise player and starting quarterback since his rookie season in 1993. Bledsoe was entrenched, although Bishop and Brady were ready in case anything happened.
"We both said that if we get a chance, we're gonna take it, we're gonna run with it and hold on to it and not give it back regardless of what's going on," Bishop said.
By now, every sports fan knows what happened next: When Bledsoe sustained a serious injury during the second game of the 2001 season, Belichick turned to Brady, beginning a Hall of Fame career and what arguably is the most successful coach-quarterback relationship in NFL history. On Sunday, Brady and Belichick will shoot for their fifth Super Bowl victory when the Patriots face the Atlanta Falcons in Houston.
Still, Brady was not always seen as a sure thing, not even among the diehard New England fans who now view him with reverence. In fact, during and after the 2000 season, some vocal Patriots supporters were clamoring for Bishop to replace Bledsoe.
Today, Bishop isn't bitter at how things turned out. He lives near Houston, and plans on being in the stands at Super Bowl LI, rooting hard for his old team. But he can't help but wonder, just a bit, about what might have been.
"If I would've received the same opportunity, who knows what would happen?" Bishop told VICE Sports. "Maybe the roles would've been reversed, but at that time, they made a decision. But for me, I know I did everything that I could do to put myself in the position to be able to play there or possibly become a starter. I didn't make those other decisions, so I had to roll with the punches.
"It happened to a good guy. [Brady] was the next guy up, the next guy in line, and he stepped to the plate. I commend him for being able to step to the plate."
For a time, Bishop was seen as the potential heir apparent to Bledsoe, or at least someone the Patriots could trade for a serviceable veteran or draft pick. After winning two national junior college titles at Blinn College in Texas and leading the school to a 24-0 record in two years, Bishop enrolled at Kansas State in 1997. That August, before he won the starting job, he told reporters his dual-threat skills compared favorably with then-Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway and former Nebraska quarterback Tommie Frazier, who led the Cornhuskers to two national titles and finished second in the 1995 Heisman Trophy voting.
During his two years as Kansas State's starter, Bishop's confidence never wavered. In 1997, the Wildcats finished eighth in the final Associated Press poll and went 11-1, the best record in school history. Bishop ran for 566 yards and nine touchdowns and threw for 1,557 yards and 13 touchdowns during the season, and saved his best game for last, throwing for four touchdowns and running for another in a 35-18 Fiesta Bowl victory over Syracuse.
In 1998, Kansas State won its first 11 games and entered the Big 12 championship game ranked second in the polls, only to blow a 27-12 fourth-quarter lead against Texas A&M that cost the school a shot at Tennessee in the BCS national title game. The Wildcats instead went to the Alamo Bowl, losing 37-34 to Purdue as Boilermakers quarterback Drew Brees tossed a game-winning touchdown pass with 30 seconds remaining.
Despite the two-game losing streak to end his college career, Bishop had an outstanding senior season. He ran for 748 yards and 14 touchdowns, threw for 2,844 yards and 23 touchdowns, improved his completion percentage to 55.6 percent, and had only five interceptions. He finished second behind Texas running back Ricky Williams in the Heisman Trophy voting, the best showing in school history.
Other high-profile programs later copied Bishop's dual-threat approach, and coaches such as Urban Meyer visited Kansas State coach Bill Snyder to learn the Wildcats' offense.
"A lot of people talk about Cam Newton, Michael Vick, and all those guys," Bishop said. "What those guys did, I did five, six years prior to what they did. At the end of the day, I finally started getting some credit.... When it's all said and done, I felt great about what I was doing. I think that the rest of the world, as far as the NFL, wasn't ready for my of play. I think that might be a main factor why I didn't get the opportunity that I wanted."
While Vick (2001) and Newton (2011) were top overall NFL draft picks, Bishop lasted until the final round of the 1999 NFL draft. At the time, league executives weren't fond of dual-threat quarterbacks. They questioned Bishop's relatively low completion percentage, and didn't think he would be able to elude tacklers and avoid injuries like he did in college.
Nevertheless, Patriots coach Pete Carroll spoke highly of Bishop on the day the team drafted him. "When we talked about restructuring our quarterback setup, part of that was to get a guy who could give us a change of pace and to give us a different kind of attack when we go to a young quarterback," Carroll said, according to a Hartford Courant article. "We were able to do that with Mike Bishop. Anybody who has watched Kansas State this season and watched the progress they made and the tremendous offense they put together, it was all built around Bishop."
As a rookie, Bishop didn't play in the regular season and was inactive in 15 of the Patriots' 16 games. With Carroll out and Belichick in the next season, Bishop competed with Brady and veteran John Friesz to back up Bledsoe. During New England's preseason opener, Bishop threw a 25-yard touchdown pass and ran for a 22-yard touchdown, prompting Thomas George of the New York Times to write, "Bishop showed why everyone around the Patriots has been excited about his early play in training camp," and that he "exhibited poise and leadership with flair."
At the end of the first half of an October 8, 2000, game against the Indianapolis Colts, Bishop threw a 44-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to Tony Simmons, which was voted as the NFL's play of the week. He didn't have any other highlight plays the rest of the season. He appeared briefly in eight games, completed three of nine passes for 80 yards, threw an interception, and accumulated negative-one yard on seven carries.
Bishop's lack of playing time irked some fans and media members who had grown tired of Bledsoe's plodding style and occasional mistakes. Meanwhile, no one seemed to care that Brady played even less than Bishop. He appeared in only one game, completing one of three passes for six yards in a 34-9 loss to the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving.
When Bledsoe continued to play late in the season with an injured thumb, a poll on the Patriots' website revealed that 76 percent of respondents preferred Bishop as Bledsoe's replacement. Kevin Mannix, a Boston Herald football columnist, wrote in early December that Belichick should give Bishop a chance.
"The scrambling second-year man brings the element of the unexpected, the potentially entertaining," Mannix wrote. "He may not know the entire offense, but he's learned enough to move ahead of Tom Brady on the depth chart.
"The way this offense is struggling, what better time to give Bishop a Cliff's Notes version of the playbook, one that's tailored to his particular skills. Then let's see if he can make some plays. Given the rest of the lineup, putting Bishop at quarterback instead of Bledsoe could actually give the team its best chance of winning."
Bishop and Brady lived 15 minutes from each other and bonded over their shared experiences.
"You kind of hang with the people that you're comfortable with, the people that you're on the same page with," Bishop said. "There were a lot of times me and Brady laughed, joked, hung out away from football because we felt like we had something in common. We both wanted to play football, we both loved the game, we both were just looking for an opportunity."
In early 2001, the Patriots sent Bishop to play in NFL Europe. He wasn't too impressive in six starts for the Frankfurt Galaxy, completing 49.7 percent of his passes for 1,090 yards, 11 touchdowns, and seven interceptions. By summer, Brady had surpassed Bishop on the depth chart. The Patriots also signed Bledsoe to a record ten-year, $103 million contract.
After New England signed veteran Damon Huard, Bishop became expendable. He was waived in August, and didn't last long in Green Bay after the Packers claimed him. Bishop later had tryouts with the New York Giants and the Miami Dolphins, but wasn't signed and never played in the NFL again.
"I never have doubted that I could play at the NFL level," Bishop said. "For some strange reason, I didn't get that opportunity. Maybe I was too athletic? That could be a bad thing that I was too athletic. Maybe people were afraid of my of play, but at the end of the day, that's what I was blessed with so that's what I knew. I knew how to win games with my of play. Both of my college coaches, they knew that we could win games with my style of play, too."
Although NFL teams didn't show much interest in Bishop, he continued to play for several years in the Canadian Football League and the Arena Football League before retiring in 2011. Today, he's more remembered for his time at Kansas State than with the Patriots, though he does own a Madden NFL game that serves as a reminder of his athletic potential.
In Madden NFL 2001, Bishop was ranked ninth among NFL quarterbacks in the "throw power" category and tenth in the "speed" category, even though he had barely played in the league.
"Every once in awhile, you put it on and you sit back and you have fun," Bishop said. "I actually had a guy come to me like three weeks ago. He was telling me, 'I have the game that you were on.'... It's something that you can always cherish."
Bishop currently trains quarterbacks, receivers, running backs, and defensive backs. He mostly works with them on their speed, agility, and footwork. He still talks to a few former Patriots teammates, and while he hasn't spoken with Brady in a few years, he roots for his former fellow backup.
"I'm always pulling for the Patriots because I feel like I was part of something big there," he said. "But I'm pulling for them as individuals, also, because they're all great men. When I think about the organization as a whole, having put on a No. 7 Patriots jersey in my past, it's still in the blood."
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