BROWERVILLE, Minn. -- The first mention of this Midwestern blip on the radar appears on a sign 8 miles outside of city limits. Nestled in the heart of west central Minnesota, the chill of winter winds rips through these plains for months on end before giving way to picturesque summer days made for fishing and nights of breathtaking sunsets on the backdrop of a serene lake.
Located 25 miles from the nearest interstate, this place is the embodiment of Small Town, USA, where a three-block-long Main Street is sandwiched between now-closed Bud's Creamery Antiques and Steve's Country Foods.
You won’t find any stoplights here. If you're hungry, there's one place to eat: The Café, known for its shrimp burgers and chicken tender baskets. Just make sure to show up before closing time at 2 p.m. daily.
In a town of this size -- 753 people, to be exact -- locals are quick to spot an out-of-towner for simply failing to give a quick two-finger wave from the steering wheel while passing through.
There’s very little evidence that arguably the NFL's greatest quarterback ever has ties to this area. In fact, for the past 18 years, this has been the setting of one of Minnesota’s best-kept secrets. At the end of the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 21, a national audience became privy to Browerville's claim to fame. All it took was Tom Brady relishing in his memories of milking cows as a kid to put this town on the map.
This Sunday, Brady will lead the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII in downtown Minneapolis, 133 miles from where he spent summers as a kid running around his grandfather's farm. This rural town is where his mother Galynn (née Johnson) was raised and then married in 1969, and it remains home to a handful of maternal relatives, including his grandmother, aunts and uncles, and a host of first, second and third cousins.
The support for the New England quarterback runs deep through Brady’s hereditary ties to the area, but this isn’t some vast Patriots oasis in the middle of Vikings country. Around these parts, the Gjallarhorn echoes loudly. But this weekend, many are willing to put their team allegiances aside and cheer on someone with local roots.
Milking cows and raising a little hell
Step inside "Pickle's Palace," the only place in Browerville where you'll find memorabilia of Brady and the Patriots interspersed between mounted deer heads, neon beer lights and antlers made into wall art.
Paul Johnson, Brady’s first cousin, earned the nickname "Pickle" as a kid when his parents gave him an acre of land on the family farm to harvest his own cucumbers and sell the pickles he made from them door to door.
"Tommy wasn't born into a celebrity family. It was a completely different experience to get all this notoriety. What I like about it is it hasn't ruined him."Paul Johnson,
Tom Brady's first cousin
Every Sunday for the past 14 years, this giant shed, complete with heated cement floors and La-Z-Boy recliners, has served as the Johnson family's personal Patriots lair, a place where they gather to watch the man they affectionately refer to as "Little Tommy."
Decades before Brady embarked on a quest to win his sixth Super Bowl ring, the Patriots quarterback and his family traveled from San Mateo, California, to Minnesota every summer to visit his mother's side of the family. Gordon Johnson, Brady's grandfather, owned a barbershop in downtown Browerville and a farm in the country. The latter was the site of many fish fries after long days spent on Hancock Lake catching sunfish.
Gordon and his wife also owned 24 dairy cows that helped them earn a living. During those summers, Brady, his three sisters, and Johnson and his two siblings would help their grandfather milk cows, somehow always seeming to find ways to turn "work" into fun.
"The kids would always screw around and pull it by hand, shooting milk at each other," Johnson said. "My grandpa would scold us because we were squirting away money."
When they weren't on the lake or in their grandfather's barn, the Johnson and Brady kids would ride bikes down to the gravel pit and play whiffle ball for hours on end in the front yard. As they got older, the cousins would cruise through the countryside and into town on motorcycles.
"We raised a little hell," Johnson said.
The youngest of Galynn and Tom Brady Sr.'s four children, "Little Tommy" was always getting into something. Gary Johnson, Brady's uncle and Paul's father, remembers Gordon giving his grandson a stern warning not to bother the temperamental mutt that lived on the property.
"My dad told him when Tippy's eating, you don't get up there and monkey with him," Gary Johnson said. "He just had to go try it and bang -- he got nailed pretty good."
Brady recalled the memory this week, one of two times in his life he'd been bitten by a dog.
"I gave the dog a bone and then went down to give the dog a kiss," Brady said. "And he bit right through my lip. So that was pretty rough."
The farm was the perfect breeding ground for an NFL quarterback who relished having endless space to throw whatever he could get his hands on, be it a football or a rock.
A couple broken windows here, a whole lot of childlike mischief there -- the Johnsons could never imagine what would transpire as they watched "Little Tommy" morph from an athletic kid to leading the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history last year.
"They were just average people like we are," Johnson said. "Tommy wasn't born into a celebrity family. It was a completely different experience to get all this notoriety. What I like about it is it hasn't ruined him."
'He hasn't changed a bit'
Trish Betsinger and her husband Pat bought The Café from its original owners 12 years ago. It wasn't until last week that she heard Brady used to come into the restaurant as a child.
Across the street at Browerville Liquor, manager Angie Benning notes her loose connection to the superstar quarterback, whose third cousin Craig Johnson taught her in fifth grade and currently teaches her son up the street at the K-12 school.
So many of Browerville's residents have similar ties to Brady through their own memories of seeing him during his younger years or to his relatives, who still live in the town and surrounding area.
During Brady's early years in the NFL, the Betsingers used to watch Patriots games at the house of Mark Johnson, who is Paul's brother. Dylan Betsinger, Trish's son, would recite the quarterback's stats from memory when he was 6 years old. Nearly two decades later, Brady still has a profound impact on someone he has never even met.
"When I was younger, I didn't really know what it meant to be as passionate about something as Tom Brady was," Dylan Betsinger said. "The older I've gotten, the more appreciation I've gained to watch a team be so successful and build a culture of winning and focusing on the future, focusing on what's next. I've learned from what Tom Brady has been able to do with his career and I've modeled that into my life. To have the passion to always want to win, to be the best and to never look back."
Brady hasn't been back to Browerville since Gordon's funeral in 2016, but his presence here is felt year-round, not just during Super Bowl week.
Over the years, Johnson said, Brady has gone out of his way to include his extended family in his journey. Photos of Johnson, his wife and kids, Kenley and Benton, are displayed inside their Patriots shed from the games they've attended at Gillette Stadium and the Super Bowl they watched Brady win in 2004.
All these years after those summers on the farm, the quarterback has remained true to those who were with him from the beginning.
"He hasn't changed a bit," Paul Johnson said. "He's still 'Little Tommy' to us. The same guy he's been all along."