Kellen Heard has two career sacks. Both came in the same game, and both were against Tom Brady. “I actually had three that game,” Heard says, “but they only gave me [credit for] two.”
Heard, who is now 35 and has been retired for four years, played in just 26 NFL games across two seasons. But his most memorable contest came in 2012 when he brought the GOAT down twice (or, uh, three times). “It was crazy because out of all my games in my career,” Heard says, “I stood out [against] the greatest.”
Tom Brady has been sacked 650 times in his career. Many of those have come at the hands of Hall of Fame talents like Michael Strahan, Julius Peppers, and Jason Taylor. And plenty have come against great defenses like this year’s Saints unit, which Brady will face on Sunday in the divisional round of the playoffs. But many of Brady’s sacks belong to guys like Heard, players who bounced around the NFL for a few years without much fanfare. These players’ careers aren’t generally remembered by anyone outside of their friends and families, but by bringing down the greatest quarterback of all time, they’ve managed to etch themselves into the fabric of football history.
“My life’s been a blessing,” Heard says. “I got something to tell my kids, my grandkids. You know what I mean?”
Heard grew up in Wharton, Texas, a town of 10,000 people about 60 miles south of Houston. He started playing football at just 7 years old. By high school, he was a four-star recruit on offense and a five-star recruit on defense. And in 2004, he chose to play football for the University of Miami Hurricanes. “You got to remember, when I came out, Miami was like Alabama,” Heard says.
Heard had academic issues at Miami’s business school and didn’t want his future to be in limbo. So he transferred to Texas A&M to be closer to family, and then eventually transferred again to Memphis for his final season of college football. He signed with the Oakland Raiders as an undrafted free agent in 2010 and landed on the practice squad. “Al [Davis] was hiding me [from other teams] because he knew I really could play,” Heard says. Eventually the Bills signed Heard to their active roster, and in 2011, he played in 15 games—including the New Year’s Day contest in which he got to Brady.
After the first sack, which came late in the game’s third quarter, Heard was so excited that he got up and did a little dance he calls “slinging that iron.” Then, after taking Brady down for a second time in the fourth quarter, Heard did it again.
“Me and my friend one day, we was working in the country doing some off-the-wall country boy stuff,” Heard says. “We had to do [our work] fast. I started just throwing stuff, and [my friend] was like ‘Damn, boy, you just slinging that iron.’ I always used to do a little dance when I was messing with him, like ‘Yeah, I was slinging that iron. You can’t mess with me. Get out here and go to work.’”
Heard never recorded another sack after that game, so the only time he got to sling iron was against Tom Brady. But Brady ended up getting the last laugh. The Bills had gotten out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter, but the Patriots came back to win 49-21.
“That’s Tom Brady for you,” Heard says.
Ropati Pitoitua didn’t dance when he got his first career sack against Brady. He just got up and started hitting his own head. “Yeah, I don’t know what the hell I was doing,” he says. Pitoitua, now 35, played his college ball at Washington State and was a defensive end for the Jets under both Eric Mangini and Rex Ryan. Pitoitua came into the league as an undrafted free agent and had been around for four years by the time he sacked Brady.
It happened in Week 5 of the 2011 season. The Jets were playing the Patriots for the first time since beating New England in the divisional round of the playoffs. On a second-and-15 in the first quarter, the Jets ran a blitz with middle linebacker Bart Scott, and Pitoitua got free into the backfield. Patriots running back Stevan Ridley went low on Pitoitua for a cut block, knocking him down. But Pitoitua got back up and managed to plant Brady into the ground.
Pitoitua tore his PCL on that play, but the pain wasn’t enough to ruin the moment. “I didn’t really think of it as Tom,” Pitoitua says. “At the time, I was like, ‘Oh yeah! Sack!’ And then I walked back to the huddle and I was like ‘Damn, that was Tom Brady.’”
Pitoitua now sells real estate in New Jersey, and he keeps his football life separate from his current life. He has three young sons, aged 6, 4, and 1. The oldest two like football but aren’t into the sport enough to understand Pitoitua’s career, or the magnitude of his biggest NFL accomplishment. “Since I stopped playing, I don’t even watch football like that,” Pitoitua says. “If [my kids] want to play, of course I’ll be there to help them out, but no, I haven’t really watched football with the boys yet.” And despite selling real estate in an area full of Giants and Jets fans, Pitoitua says he’s never told a client that he sacked Brady.
“I just leave it in my pocket,” Pitoitua says.
Like Pitoitua, Stefan Charles also got his first career sack against Brady. It came in Week 17 of the 2013 season. Late in the second quarter of that game, with his Bills team down 13-3, Charles decided to shoot the gap—the term defensive linemen use to describe running upfield instead of holding their ground. Shooting the gap is a risk. You can make a big play, but you can also end up way out of position. For Charles, though, it worked out about as well as possible.
“On play-action, you can either play the action or you can just go upfield,” Charles says. “I went upfield.”
Even with all the attention that first sack got Charles—Facebook posts from his friends, texts and calls after the game—he actually remembers the second time he sacked Brady more fondly. That sack came almost a year to the day after the first. It was Week 17 of the 2014 season, and the Patriots had already clinched the AFC’s no. 1 seed—but Brady was playing anyway. So on a Patriots’ second-and-3 midway through the second quarter, Charles barrelled through the New England offensive line and drilled Brady for a sack.
Charles has a photo of the play in his football shrine in his basement. “I’m pretty sure I facemasked [the offensive lineman] because in one of the pictures, I look like I got my whole hand in his face,” Charles says. “I ain’t going to lie, I choked that man.”
But it was worth it to have this story to tell.
“He’s the GOAT, man,” Charles says. “I just been watching him since I was a kid. ... That was my shot, so I gotta take it.”