On the fastest route, the drive from Raleigh, N.C. to Tallahassee, Fla., stretches 615 miles and takes 8 hours, 54 minutes. Brissett made it once. Transfers must sit out a season, and during the year off, NCAA rules prohibit players from traveling with their team to road games. During his limbo year at North Carolina State, he drove alone to Florida State, just to sit in the locker room and stand on the sidelines.
“Those kind of moments won the locker room,” N.C. State Coach Dave Doeren said. “There was never a moment when he had to prove himself to the guys.”
Brissett will likely take the field Thursday night at Gillette Stadium as an NFL mystery, suddenly one of the most intriguing men in the league. He will start at quarterback for the New England Patriots, the replacement for Tom Brady’s replacement, Jimmy Garoppolo, whose shoulder injury knocked him out Sunday. The Patriots have not indicated who will start, but the overwhelming likelihood is Brissett will face the Texans, if not take over until Brady can return from suspension in Week 5.
What’s not a mystery is why he wound up in New England. Coach Bill Belichick prioritizes players who prioritize football, and those who know Brissett know how deeply he cares for the sport and his teammates. Along with the Patriots, the Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints showed the keenest interest in Brissett as a draft prospect, Doeren said. Belichick scooped Brissett up in the third round, as much for his diligence and football intellect as his 6-foot-4, 235-pound, NFL-ready frame.
Work made Brissett an instant leader at N.C. State, and it won him respect this summer in New England. The product of it all will be cast under harsh light Thursday night, on national television against J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and the Houston Texans.
“The spotlight is not going to be something that scares him, I’ll tell you that,” Doeren said. “I’m sure he’ll have nerves. It’s not going to be something that is going to hurt him. It’s almost the opposite. The guy was the ultimate competitor. He loved the big stage. Some of his best games were our biggest games.”
Nothing could fully prepare a third-round rookie to hold the reins of the NFL’s most successful franchise with three days’ notice. Brissett, though, has unique experience that could help. He hasn’t quite been here before, but he’s been close.
As a freshman backup at William T. Dwyer High, Brissett replaced the injured starter in a playoff game against Booker T. Washington, the best team in the state and one of the best in the nation. Daniels expected little from Brissett, then a chunky, short 15-year-old. He completed all 12 passes he attempted and nearly led Dwyer to a comeback upset.
“It was like he had taken every rep that year and wasn’t fazed at all,” Daniels said. “We didn’t know what to expect. We were just as shocked as anybody at how cool and calm he was as a freshman.”
Brissett shot to 6-foot-4 by the end of high school and had his pick of scholarship offers. He chose Florida, where as a true freshman, another quarterback emergency struck, and he found himself starting at Louisiana State, inside the bourbon-reeking cauldron called Death Valley. The Gators were crushed, but Brissett didn’t crack.
“I’ve never seen the kid nervous,” Daniels said.
A coaching change after his sophomore season convinced Brissett to switch schools, and he won over his new team at N.C. State immediately. In the year he sat out, coaches named Brissett the scout team player of the year. Once he took over as start, he baked cookies for teammates. Every Thursday night, he took his offensive linemen out for wings. The night before games, he wrote an individual note to each one of his offensive teammates, describing what he looked forward to watching them do.
“There’s so many bad stories about people out there in sports that have done so many stupid things,” Doeren said. “This kid is the opposite. It was a true pleasure to be around someone that took the game as serious as he did. He just doesn’t want to be around things that don’t lead to him being successful.”
At Florida, Brissett struggled to accept a lost play and felt desperate to impress older teammates. During the year he sat out, he focused on how he could limit mistakes. In two seasons as N.C. State’s starter, he threw 43 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions.
“Once he became the guy who figured out how to go from a bad play on to the next play, his whole game changed,” Doeren said. “He just protects the football.”
That was another Patriot-like thing that attracted the Patriots. Another connection: Brissett grew up near where former NFL coach Bill Parcells lived, and Parcells took Brissett on as something of a mentee.
“He’s a Curtis Martin, Willie McGinest, Troy Brown type player,” Parcells told the Boston Herald shortly after the draft. “That’s the kind of guy he is. That’s what New England is getting. Those kinds, those Tedy Bruschi types, those players who’ve been successful — he’s very similar in his personal life to those kinds of guys.”
With New England, Brissett continued his quiet study. When Brissett entered Sunday in the second quarter, Daniels thought he saw him look nervous for the first time. He completed 6 of 9 passes for 92 yards, mostly screens and short passes as the Patriots sought to protect a big lead.
“He has a great demeanor about him,” Brady said Monday evening on Westwood One radio. “I love working with him. He shows up to work every day working hard. He’s very competitive, and I know our coaching staff will have him prepared and ready to go.”
After the game, Daniels called him to chat. Brissett focused on mistakes he made, blemishes to correct this week. “He’s his harshest critic,” Daniels.
Doeren sent Brissett a text, telling him to seize the moment. Brissett shot a quick message back. Doeren does not expect to speak with him again until after Thursday. Doeren said Brissett is a 23-year-old who does not spend much time on his phone, proving such a creature does exist.
With the Wolf Pack on its bye week, several support staff members and a former teammate plan on traveling to New England to watch him in person.
“We’d all go up there if we could,” Doeren said. “He was a warrior for us, now. Everybody likes him. Everybody respects him. When you play as hard as he did, when you take life as serious as he did, there isn’t a person at N.C. State who isn’t pulling for him.
“It’s his moment. I’m fired up for him that he gets it.”