The most recognizable man in New England – sorry, John Kerry, but you're only a close second – has just slipped in through the kitchen door, baseball cap pulled low over his blue eyes. You can feel the effort: Just be another guy in jeans and a Sox hat. Not a chance. Halfway down the bar, a woman looks up suddenly. "You're Tom Brady," she tells him, as if talking to an amnesiac. He reacts without irritation, but the smile in response is just a little pained.

The New England Patriots' quarterback is taking a break from an extra weight-lifting session at Gillette Stadium, just down the road. He's won two Super Bowls, but he's not cutting himself any slack. It's the work ethic of a man who has had to fight for every opportunity he's had on the way to megastardom.

Tom Brady never thought of himself as the player with the most talent. In his early days at the University of Michigan, there was Brian Griese, son of a legend, blocking Brady's way to the top. Once Griese left, along came Drew Henson, another young phenom.

Brady was selected by the Patriots in the sixth round of the 2000 draft, the 199th overall pick, and he didn't expect much. Drew Bledsoe was leading the offense, and nobody saw that changing anytime soon. When Bledsoe went down with an injury and the anonymous backup was shoved onto center stage – well, it was pure Hollywood.

But as far as Brady is concerned, he still has to fight for every yard. He knows perfectly well that both Super Bowl wins required last-second heroics from kicker Adam Vinatieri. And even though Brady beat the Panthers by setting a Super Bowl record with 32 completions and led the final-minute drive that put the goal posts within Vinatieri's range, he still wasn't satisfied. "Joe Montana would have thrown a touchdown," he said later, only half joking.

"I guess in a sense I've always had a chip on my shoulder," he says. "If you were the 199th pick, you were the 199th pick for a reason: because someone didn't think you were good enough. I've seen plenty of guys who are good players get cut. I wish maybe I had a little more peace of mind."

It's a funny notion for a guy with Tom Brady's mind. He doesn't have Daunte Culpepper's size or Michael Vick's speed or Brett Favre's arm. But he still has those two Super Bowl rings. So what's he got? Why does he keep winning? After 10 minutes with this guy it becomes pretty obvious. It's his head – the kind of innate intelligence and cool, cerebral grace that has turned an unknown backup into the NFL's winningest quarterback over the last three years.

And it's a head filled with far more than your average football player's. On this particular morning, in the corner booth of a local restaurant, for instance, it's focused not on pass coverages or bench presses or the near-impossible trick of repeating as champion. Nope. In his mind he's 3,500 miles away, in the sunlit halls of Paris's Musée d'Orsay, where he and his girlfriend, the girl-next-door-gorgeous starlet Bridget Moynahan, escaped to during the off-season. Tom Brady wants to discuss art.

"You walk into all these different rooms, and there's art on every single wall, and it's like your eyes just kind of lock in on one piece," he says. He opens up a Macintosh PowerBook and unveils his own exhibition. Onscreen are classic snapshots of the European Grand Tour: Big Ben, Venus de Milo, Mona Lisa, Windsor Castle. Brady scrolls past them until he finds the painting that so captivated him: Monet's Houses of Parliament, London, Sun Breaking Through the Fog, from the d'Orsay. "It's incredibly alive," he says, reaching out and running a finger over the computer's LCD screen. "The reflection of the sun off the water, the shadows of the buildings," Brady muses. "It's just…perfectly imperfect."

Take a 30-second timeout and try to picture Terry Bradshaw turning to Howie Long during the Fox pregame show and wistfully describing "the reflection of the sun off the water." Right. This Super Bowl MVP is not like all others.

On the surface, Brady's life is pretty perfectly perfect: Two rings, hot girl, worldwide fame. But the unusual decision to spend his off-season in Europe's museums turns out to be just what he needed: part of the master plan of a young man who wanted to take back control of his life.

"It was so overwhelming, that whole season," he says, recalling his instant celebrity after the dream season that ended with a stunning victory in Super Bowl XXXVI. "To win a game and check your voicemail and have, like, 37 messages. Or go grocery shopping, in the same place you've been grocery shopping for two years, and cause a scene."

Women left soup and marriage proposals at his doorstep. The gossip columns assiduously tracked his nightclub comings and goings. He was prominently linked with Tara Reid, and rumors surfaced about Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, and others. It was a neat, and some would have said impossible, trick: somehow simultaneously channeling both Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath.

Brady was a VIP guest at the Kentucky Derby. He met quarterback heroes such as Joe Montana, John Elway, and Dan Marino. ("They're like, 'Hey Tom, what's up?' And it's like, 'Whoa. I had to do dishes for a week to buy your poster for my room!' ")

But fame could also pose problems. "A lot of things that I used to do for fun just aren't fun anyone," he says, pondering the perils of stardom without a hint of rancor or self-pity. "I used to go out with my friends all the time, to the movies or to the mall or to Boston Common and hang out. Now that's hard to do. One day you realize everything's getting constricted – the walls are caving in. So you think, What can I do to open things up for me?"

What he did – after two years of riding the wave of celebrity – was sit down and make a list. Before the 2003 season even started Brady took out a pad and started jotting down goals for the off-season. He wanted to read more. He wanted to learn to fly a plane. He wanted to take a dance class with his sister. And he wanted to go to Europe.

"I thought, What do I do to challenge myself? To stimulate my mind? I love golf, but that doesn't do it. You can't go to see movies 24 hours a day. What I've learned is that, for me, I have to continue to learn."

While in London, Brady hung out reading in Hyde Park ("Sweet"), visited Warwick Castle, wandered through the British Museum, marveled at the Rosetta Stone ("Sick"). Hopping over to Paris, he met up with Moynahan. The two took in Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre. He experienced that universal feeling one gets while looking at, say, the 'Mona Lisa' and realizing that it looks just like the 'Mona Lisa.' In Venice, he stayed in the celebrated Hotel Cipriani. In Florence, he had the best steak of his life. In Rome, he met Pope John Paul II.

The best part? Nobody cared that back home he was being hailed as the next Joe Montana. One evening in Florence, Brady and Moynahan ended up at a communal table in a trattoria with two other couples, one from Singapore, the other from Belgium. The six had the kind of casual, chatty evening most of us take for granted, but for Brady it was a rare treat. "It was, like, one day after the other," he says. "I would think, Jeez, wasn't that a great day?"

Okay, so Brady sounds a bit like a breathless college junior just back from a backpacking semester abroad. But when he was a college junior at Michigan he was attending grueling practices, preparing to entertain the U of M masses on Saturday afternoons. No shock, then, that he took in Europe with the awareness and intensity of a young man on a mission to grow – every step of the way.

"Over there, they grow up knowing about their history!" he says, keeping the subject off the field. "Americans get caught up in really minute, irrelevant facts and details, but in the grand scheme of things, nobody's really going to care anyway. It's very much a relief. However important you think winning a Super Bowl is, ultimately it's nothing." This thought makes Tom Brady smile.

Crunching the Numbers on the Best Job in America

TYPICAL DAY AT WORK

7:30 am Taping and treatment

8:00 Plan offensive plays for next opponent

8:45–10:30 Practice

10:45–12:30 QB meetings

12:30–1:30 Lunch

1:30–3:15 Offense film review of previous game; watching film of upcoming opponent

3:30–4:15 Meet with media (deflect questions)

4:15–5:15 Team meeting

5:15–5:45 More treatment

6 pm–? Most QBs will stay at the practice facility and watch films or bring tapes home and watch another few hours a day, searching for hidden weaknesses in the defense.