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Brady, Jim Harbaugh, and "The Beav" who brought them together

Jim Harbaugh pleads his case.
Flickr - http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

Former Michigan quarterback Tom Brady’s team, the New England Patriots, were knocked out of the playoffs last week. But his unlikely friendship with a 43-year old Ann Arbor dishwasher is still going strong. Michigan Radio sports commentator John U. Bacon heard this story a year ago, and it’s only gotten better since.

University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh started coaching the Wolverines last year, but he had a chance to come back in 2011. Former Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon had offered him the job, but it was half -hearted. Brandon didn’t visit Harbaugh, or even send his headhunter. Instead, Brandon sent his headhunter’s assistant. Harbaugh got the message, and turned it down.

Harbaugh decided to coach the San Francisco 49ers. So, when a good friend asked him if really wanted to coach Michigan or not, Harbaugh said, “I just wasn’t feelin’ the love.”

When the Michigan job opened up again in 2014, Harbaugh’s former teammates were determined that if he turned down Michigan again, it would not be because he “wasn’t feelin’ the love.” Their plan was simple: get just about every Michigan Man Harbaugh admired to call him and tell Harbaugh how badly they wanted him to come back to Michigan and return the Wolverines to glory.

They got about three dozen Michigan greats to call, including legends like Billy Taylor and Charles Woodson and Jon Jansen, and give him the message. But they weren’t sure how to get New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on board. Should they go through Brady’s team, his publicist, his agent?  No, it turned out, the best way to get to Tom Brady was through a 43-year old dishwasher at Ann Arbor’s Pizza House, a man named Jay Flannelly, a.k.a., The Beav – as in “Leave it to Beaver.”

Flannelly grew up in Andover, Massachusetts. He became a Michigan fan, simply because they weren’t Notre Dame. In 1995, he became a volunteer student assistant on the football team for five seasons, and that’s how he became lifelong friends with half the team, including Tom Brady.

“The minute Tom got here, we hit it off,” Flannelly told me. Some of the football players—against the specific orders of the coaching staff—formed an intramural basketball team, loaded with stars like Jon Jansen, Tai Streets, and Brady. When they were crushing teams, Brady would say, “Beav, just stand under the bucket, and we’ll feed you.” The Beave would play two minutes, take 15 shots – and get six points.

An hour after Brady got drafted in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft, with the 199th overall pick, Flannelly called Brady to congratulate him, and they’ve kept it up ever since. Every week, Flannelly still sends Brady an e-mail with a pep talk and a scouting report of that week’s opponent, and they catch up.

So when people wanted to convince Brady to show some Michigan love to Harbaugh, they knew the The Beav was the key. But the Beav knew he couldn’t talk to Brady after a loss, so he waited for a Patriots victory, and made his pitch.

On December 7, 2014, the Patriots beat San Diego, and The Beav sprang into action. When Flannelly gave Harbaugh’s number to Brady, and asked him to call, Brady wrote back, “Coach Harbaugh is exactly the kind of guy we need.”

Next day, Flannelly learned the two football legends talked for an hour. As one of Harbaugh’s old teammates said, “Never underestimate The Beav.” Now, I can’t say Harbaugh came to Michigan because Tom Brady called him. But, I can say, it didn’t hurt.

Flannelly still thought landing Harbaugh was a long shot, until he sent Harbaugh a text message on Christmas Day. Harbaugh texted right back: “Thank you, Jay. Happy Holidays to you and yours. Thanks for the kind words and sentiment. Jim H.’”

That’s when even the Beav was convinced that Harbaugh was heading home to Ann Arbor.  Since my book came out this fall, Jay Flannelly has become a national celebrity, featured on Boston radio stations, the New York papers, and even Sports Illustrated picked up his story last week. Never underestimate The Beav.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.