By Kyle Hightower
AP Sports Writer
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Jimmy Garoppolo spent the first two years of his NFL career firmly in the background of the Tom Brady Show, a role as the understudy least likely to be used.
If he needed any reminder of that status, he got it Thursday when he was greeted by cheers as he walked onto the field for his third NFL training camp. Only, the applause was directed at the guy he will be replacing for the first month of the season.
“Brady! Brady! Brady!” fans bellowed as Garoppolo and his teammates trotted on the field.
There was a fleeting moment last season when the spot Garoppolo now finds himself in nearly played itself out.
Brady had just launched a legal challenge of a four-game suspension handed down by the league for what it said was his role in a scheme to illegally deflate footballs used in the 2015 AFC championship game.
Garoppolo arrived at camp prepared to step in as the starter, though that evaporated a week before the regular season when the NFL’s punishment was overturned in court. Brady was allowed to play while his case continued to wind through the courts.
A year later, the final gavel sounded on “Deflategate” when a federal court reinstated Brady’s four-game suspension and the MVP quarterback reluctantly accepted his ban.
It meant that, this time, Garoppolo walked onto the field knowing that barring a major development over the next month, he will make his first NFL regular-season start when the Patriots open their 2016 schedule at Arizona.
As dizzying as the last year-plus has been, Garoppolo says he’s embracing the excitement of the moment.
“That’s why we play the game,” he said. “We play to get out there and get your opportunity, and when it comes you’ve got to be ready for it.”
To most Patriots fans, the 24-year-old is still largely a mystery.
Garoppolo has appeared in just 11 games over his first two years, completing 20 passes with one touchdown. It’s probably why the packed bleachers at Thursday’s practice erupted when he channeled his inner Brady during a drill by threading a pass in the back of the end zone to Rob Gronkowski. His former college coach, Dino Babers, compared Garoppolo’s release to that of Hall of Famer Dan Marino.
While he certainly wasn’t rooting for Brady to be sidelined, Garoppolo recognizes what is immediately ahead.
“It’s a great opportunity. You gotta go out there, take advantage of it,” Garoppolo said. “You don’t get many opportunities in this league. You might only get one, so you gotta make the best of it.”
Gronkowski said the only thing coach Bill Belichick has said about the quarterback situation is Garoppolo would start the first four games and Brady would take back over after that. Gronkowski said that clarity has helped void any uncertainty.
“We’re super confident in whoever’s in there and that’s what practice is for, that’s what training camp is for, for everyone to get on the same page,” he said.
For now, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said the plan during camp is to make sure all three quarterbacks get plenty of reps, with now specified first- or second-team designations. That was the case Thursday, with both Brady and Garoppolo taking snaps with likely starters.
Belichick says he wants all three quarterbacks on the roster to be game-ready, including rookie Jacoby Brissett.
“I think we have a good situation,” Belichick said. “We have three players we want to work with. Look, in some other years I’ve seen teams that probably don’t feel like they have anybody, or maybe they have one. … We’ll just see how it plays out.”
While it could be just a byproduct of the role he now is in, Garoppolo found a more than normal gaggle of autograph seekers and people wearing his No. 10 jersey as he left the field Thursday. It’s big change for a fan base that once had trouble pronouncing or spelling his name.
Will this new spotlight help with that?
“It’s a tough one,” Garoppolo said, “so we’ll see.”