At my age it’s damn embarrassing to have to admit that you’re gaga over a professional athlete but there’s no getting around it, my relationship to Tom Brady is analogous to a teen girl and Taylor Swift — without the crying. In fact, I had the recent epiphany that Brady is my favorite athlete of all time, which is saying a lot considering that I grew up outside of Boston, where Sports Gods grow on trees. Could anyone really supplant Yaz, the architect of the 1967 “Impossible Dream” Red Sox team that turned me into a lifelong baseball fan? Or Bobby Orr and Larry Bird, whose highlight reels of grace and sheer athleticism can still reduce me to tears? Or Normar Garciaparra, whose greatness at shortstop coincided with my own son’s interest in baseball, forever linking our family’s multi-generational love of the Red Sox? I think so, this is one time when reason triumphs over nostalgia.
To make the Brady-worship even more unlikely, I don’t even LIKE football, which is a brutal, self-important, flag-waving, militaristic, bullying enterprise. I hate the idea that we are watching men literally bash their brains out for our enjoyment and have stated on more than one occasion that when Brady retires, football will be dead to me. And what’s a little bit sad is that my life as a “fan” will probably die when Brady retires. How likely is it that a young new superstar of this magnitude will arrive on the scene to delight me into my sentience?
It’s an odd business making heroes out of athletes. Most of them are selfish, monomaniacal pinheads. Yet we invest our hopes and dreams in them. We admire our heroes because they embody a higher level of accomplishment than we mere mortals, and athletes, like singers and actors, are performers whose excellence is acted out in public and thereby are disproportionately worshiped relative to their contributions to society. Their physical achievements in running or throwing a ball are so astounding that they become a metaphor for all the other attributes of human experience. We can’t really admire the world’s greatest accountant because we can’t see him in action, but athletes are right out there in the open, failing, bouncing back, and achieving for us all to observe and judge.
But Brady is more than a great athlete – he’s a supernova across many areas. Yaz, Orr, and Bird were tremendous on the field, ice and court, but they were all inarticulate, introverted and uncharismatic in regular life. Not so with Brady. Here are some of the reasons he ascends to the top pantheon of sports gods:
His tremendous sports accomplishments. Based on what he’s done on the field alone, he’d be probably still be my top sports hero. He’s got those twelve division titles and three Super Bowl championships, and could easily have had two more rings except for a couple of freak plays by the NY Giants. In most statistical categories he ranks as the fifth or sixth more productive QB of all time, and those rankings will presumably improve over time. Whether or not he’s the greatest QB ever (which I’d argue yes), he’s definitely in the top five. Think about that. How rare is it to be a top five athlete in any sport?
But the stats don’t tell the whole story. Brady is one of the most thrilling quarterbacks of all time, with 33 Q4 comebacks and 44 game winning drives. With Brady on the field, it’s always possible the Patriots will come roaring back. I saw this in person myself on December 29, 2002, a must-win game against the Dolphins that should be legendary but is now widely forgotten. It was the last game of the season and the Pats needed a win to advance to the playoffs. With 5 minutes left, Miami kicked a field goal to go ahead 24-13. On the next drive, Brady marched them down the field to score a TD and two-point conversion to pull within three; the Pats recovered the onside kick and Brady got them close enough so that Adam Vinetieri could kick a field goal. Then in overtime he got them close enough to get a game-winning field goal. I’ve never gotten over the brilliance of those three drives. Except for those of us who were there at Gillette Stadium, no one really remembers that game because a few hours later, the Jets beat the Packers to tie the Pats in the standing and advance to the playoffs. The point is, though, that when the season was on the line, a very young Brady turned in a tremendous performance and gave his team another shot at a title.
On rare occasions I’ll watch other teams on TV and I always feel sorry for their fans because instead of Brady they have inferior, less capable QBs: guys who take 20 seconds to get a snap off when there’s only 50 second left on the clock, or who throw a game-killing interception, or who aren’t smart enough to read a blitz or gain a third-and-short first down with a quarterback sneak.
His personal life. Now this is where Brady really separates himself from the other athletic superstars and moves into fantasy-land. I really have no idea what kind of marriages Yaz, Bird and Orr had, but I do know that none of them married a super-model. You have to go back to Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe to find a sports marriage with more firepower than Brady’s, and Joe had already retired when he met Marilyn. What’s impressive is not just that Brady married a gorgeous woman, it’s that he married someone who is, like him, at the very top of her profession. Gisele actually out-earns Brady, making theirs a marriage of equals, rare among sports figures at any level. And by all accounts it’s a happy marriage, also rare among celebrity pairings. (I particularly love Gisele’s cute Instagram messages).
We shouldn’t underestimate how hard it is to function at the very apex of celebrity culture in a world of paparazzi, TMZ, social media, and 24-hour news networks. Yet he seems to thrive in it, gliding serenely from game to home to practice with the cameras constantly on him.
And who cannot be impressed with the way Tom and Gisele support each other, most famously after Super Bowl XLVI, when Brady’s receivers let him down and they lost so disappointingly to the Giants again. Heckled by boorish Giants fans after the game, Gisele turned on them and retorted “You’ve to catch the ball when you’re supposed to catch the ball. My husband cannot f**king throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time.” I’d like to think that my own wife would have my back like that under similar circumstances.
The Cinderella story. Perhaps even more amazing than Brady’s career is that it almost didn’t happen at all. He was a back-up quarterback at Michigan as a freshman and sophomore, then had to compete with another future NFL quarterback, Drew Henson, as a junior and senior before gaining the starting spot in the last half of his senior year. He was drafted 199th by the Patriots in the sixth round and started his career as the fourth backup to the then-famous Drew Bledsoe.
Bledsoe was one of those QBs that conventional coaches and unimaginative fans like – sort of a poor man’s Peyton Manning: tall, commanding, great passing skills, looks great but not a winner. If he hadn’t been injured in the second game of the 2001 season Brady might never have played at all. And here’s where you have to credit Bill Belichick. When Bledsoe was well enough to play again, he stuck with the young, inexperienced Brady, who at the time didn’t have the big QB numbers, but somehow found a way to win. With Brady at the helm, the Patriots went on to win their first Super Bowl and Bledsoe would be traded to the Bills at the end of the season.
(Bledsoe doing chart work for Brady)
This early lack of respect for his skills has fueled Brady’s determination to show the world they were wrong about them. And it makes the rest of us wonder about the role of luck in our lives. If Bledsoe hadn’t been injured, Brady might never have gotten a chance to show what he was capable of. How many other great talents are there in the arts and sports world who never get discovered? Or closer to home, what about great men and women who’d make fantastic spouses but never get the chance, or kids who never find the right teacher to inspire them? You don’t really like to think too hard about the role that chance and randomness play in our lives.
Brady as a Teammate: Let’s start with his team-friendly contract. Brady makes a lot of money but he structured his deal so that the Patriots would have more available cash to sign free agents and keep their star players. For most athletes, squeezing the last dollar out of their teams has always been their highest priority, as if a $225 million contract instead of one for $175 million will improve their quality of life. For many it’s an ego thing, where it’s important to make the most on the team or in the sport. For Brady, it’s more important to win. He also seems to understand that you can more money with endorsements on a winning team, so that for the overall bottom line, winning is the best route to the ultimate total income paycheck. And after listening to David Ortiz, Carlton Fisk and dozens of other Red Sox players complain about thir contracts, it’s such a relief knowing that Brady doesn’t threaten to leave for an extra couple million dollars a year.
Brady has also emerged as a team leader who prods, cajoles and inspires his teammates to higher achievement. In sports writing it’s always hard to tell where solid reporting ends and hagiography begins, but the persistent stories about Brady being a great teammate suggests they contain more than an element of truth. Brady is just one of the guys, they say; he doesn’t bristle when Belichick criticizes his performance in team meetings; he practices harder than anyone else; he treats every player on the team – from the superstar to the practice scrub – with respect; he gets so fired up when his teammates make a great play that he runs down the field to head-butt him; he has an amazing work ethic and doesn’t ask anything of his teammates that he isn’t willing to do himself.
Brady as a Personality. It all might be an act, and if it is, I appreciate the effort that’s gone into shaping Brady’s image as a modest, self-effacing guy. From the moment he stepped in from Bledsoe, Brady’s been under a microscope and he’s only faltered once: when trying to show that he was an ordinary guy, he told CG Magazine that he searched for Internet porn like everyone else. Since then, he’s kept his nose clean, but unlike that disciplined automaton Derek Jeter, who’s never said anything interesting, Brady at least displays a personality. He’s passionate on the field, self-deprecating in interviews, and generally good humored (here he is on “Funny or Die” and in his DailyMVP commercial: “Boomshackalacka”).
As if this isn’t enough, Brady has become a social media master, especially on Facebook. Again, maybe he’s hired a social media genius, but the personality that comes through is fun and normal. He’s definitely working hard to show that he’s not full of himself so the posts are remarkably self-effacing. There’s the video of him lumbering down the field to the Chariots of Fire theme song (see below), there are the GIFs of him trying to high-five unresponsive teammates, the photo of him on the film set of TED 2, the call-outs to the Celtics and the San Francisco Giants, his Ugg ad with his mom and another Ugg ad with his dad (see below). And then of course, there’s his resume out of college, a reminder that Brady once thought he wouldn’t have a job in football and might need to tout his internship at Merrill Lynch.
So now we head to another play-off season. With two more wins Brady will be in the Super Bowl for the sixth time, with a shot at a fourth championship. Of course play-off football is a crapshoot. They Pats were lucky to win in 2002 and unlucky to loose in 2008 so everything probably evens out over time. The point is that Brady has consistently taken the Patriots into the play-offs and given them a chance at winning it all. You can’t help but take it for granted but you never should. But if the Pats manage to win it all this year, Brady will be considered the greatest QB of all time and no one will take him for granted again.
To conclude, here are some great Tom Brady videos: