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IF BRADY IS SAD AND DISTRACTED, HIS COMPETITIVE RAGE SCREAMS OTHERWISE
His final career challenge is to compartmentalize football amid marital problems, but as exhibited Sunday in New Orleans, the G.O.A.T. remains psycho-obsessed with winning every game
So what prompts Tom Brady to throw another tantrum, heave another helmet, slam another defenseless tablet to the turf and incite a melee by jawing at Marshon Lattimore? Does he not realize he’s halfway through life, that his marriage is askew because he refuses to stop playing football, that he’s already the greatest to master his craft, and there’s no real need to chase an eighth Super Bowl ring when a record seven are in the vault?
Why the anger? Why the rage? Why would this man have any reason, at age 45, to be that incensed and aggrieved about anything on a field?
It’s time to ask: Is he possessed by demons? Is he such a prisoner to his competitive inferno, are there enough fire departments to extinguish it? Is this what the relentless pursuit of human perfection looks like, or is he just insane in the membrane? Maybe he’s hellbent on reminding his wife and an intrusive world that this is his charmed life, his magnificent career, and no one will tell him when to retire except the voice in his head. At least he can joke about it, reflecting a day later on his podcast, “I’ve had a pretty bad record against that tablet, unfortunately. I think I forgot the password and I couldn’t log in, so those things can be frustrating. Unfortunately, the tablet just happens to get in the way, and obviously that’s the reason things weren’t going great yesterday, so I had to take it out on the poor, meaningless tablet,”
Only he knows what’s going on upstairs. And only he can push the eject button, as Gisele Bundchen and half the feminist world continue to demand an end game from her once-beloved “Tommy.” But what we’ll always admire about Brady, an appreciation that crystalized Sunday in New Orleans, is his single-minded appetite to win every damned game even when he has accomplished everything imaginable in the NFL — even when his personal life is in tatters with “a lot of shit going on,” as he famously said. Amid the tabloid-heavy ordeal with his wife, who fed the gossip mill with a revealing interview in Elle magazine, we’ve looked for signs in recent days that Brady might be dialing down his full-throttle commitment to his 23rd season.
A hint came last week on the podcast, “Let’s Go!” — a must-listen in what surely are the final months of his immortal run in the sport. After what seemed an easy, painless victory over Dallas in the season opener, Brady said, “When you’re younger, your body is a lot different. And when you’re 45, your body changes a lot. What am I dealing with now? I woke up today going, ‘Holy shit, that was a few hits.’ And you look at your arm and you’ve got bruises and you’ve got cuts and the way it is — you go, ‘OK how much longer do I want to make this commitment?’ And I obviously made the commitment for this year‚ and everything is going to be like always — continue to evaluate all these different aspects of play.”
Another hint came over the weekend, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers agreed to give him every Wednesday off as a “personal day” the rest of the season. Attached to his 11-day leave from training camp, so he could take a pre-planned Bahamas vacation with his family as he and Gisele were in mid-rift, it fed a reasonable concern. How does a demanding cuss who always has emphasized the importance of preparation and dedication — every practice, every snap — suddenly justify leaving his team on its first day of extensive work for the next opponent? In a typical NFL work week, players have Tuesdays off. Brady will have two days away from the facility, back to back. Hmmm. Was he now a marital argument or two away from abruptly retiring in midseason? Seeing how his first “retirement” from the NFL lasted only 40 days last winter, wasn’t any outcome possible at this point?
Then came his meltdown in the Superdome, which should dispel all suspicions that Tom Brady no longer is Tom Brady, he of the hype videos and high-pitched sideline screams. If this is a sad and distressful time in his life, with three dear children to think about and miss dearly, it’s remarkable he can shut out the world for three hours and compartmentalize a football game. It was a game he and the Buccaneers won, by the way, thanks in large part to his fire.
If Brady was quiet-quitting, he wouldn’t have cared when Lattimore chirped at him and waved his arm dismissively in the fourth quarter of another tight game against the Saints, who had perplexed Brady in their previous three outings. Instead, he shouted down the cornerback — “F— you, bitch!” he appeared to say — which ignited a bench-clearing brawl that renewed longstanding animus between Lattimore and Bucs receiver Mike Evans. Any doubt that Brady’s teammates had grown tired of his missed practices ended then and there, when Leonard Fournette shoved Lattimore. Evans rushed onto the field from the sideline and knocked Lattimore to the ground. The skirmish led to the ejections of Lattimore and Evans.
“That’s Tom Brady,” Evans said. “What do you want me to do?”
Protect the wax museum piece, of course.
Finally, Brady had the Saints just where he wanted them. He threw a go-ahead touchdown pass to Breshad Perriman that sparked a 20-10 victory. Who knows where this season is headed? But if the Bucs take advantage of a weaksauce NFC and wind up in the Super Bowl, we’ll remember this as the day Brady’s teammates had his back … and the day Brady informed the world that his professional life is detached from his personal travails.
In his standard postgame video for social media, he congratulated the team for persevering. “Shout to the D coming up huge again. The ugly ones count, too,” Brady said. “And sorry for breaking that tablet. I think that’s gonna be another Twitter meme or something.”
The meme doesn’t matter. What’s meaningful is that Brady is still at the top of his leadership game. He called out Lattimore, and the Bucs woke up from a slumber that had him hissy-fitting in frustration in the first half. “It’s an emotional game,” he said. “I think a little better execution helps all the way around. Defense played great again, line fought hard, all the guys that were in there fought hard. A team we really struggle with, so it feels good to win … just emotions.” He elaborated a day later: “Remaining poised is really important, which I didn’t do a very good job of. I’ve gotta be really mindful of that going forward, getting my emotions in a good place, so it allows me to be the best player I can be. I think there’s an importance where, you can become too overly emotional, and I’ve gotta find a better place to be at so I can be at a better place for my teammates.”
Those emotions are difficult to manage, he admits, in another indication that this will be his final season. “I'm feeling more than things in the past for some reason," Brady said. “You know, I'm just really feeling intensely my emotions. And I feel like I always have that, but I think when you get close to the end — and I don't know exactly where I'm at with that, it's not like I have 10 years left. So all these (moments) I just am never gonna take for granted, you know?”
In that sense, he shares the compulsive urge that other sports greats have experienced in their twilights. “It's a love that Kobe (Bryant) had for basketball, that Michael Jordan had for it, that Tiger Woods had for golf, that so many athletes have for the sport,” Brady said on his podcast. “And the question is how long are you willing to commit with discipline, to doing the right things, to allow those things to take place over a period of time? And that's what guys' careers are judged on.”
Like all three of the aforementioned legends, to varying degrees, Brady also is dealing with a public airing of his marital problems. He and his wife have been living apart for weeks, amid reports of a Gisele ultimatum: Quit football, or the marriage is over. The buzz was ramped up when Bundchen reiterated her worries about Brady’s health in the Elle piece, posted last week: “This is a very violent sport, and I have my children and I would like him to be more present. I have definitely had those conversations with him over and over again. But ultimately, I feel that everybody has to make a decision that works for them. He needs to follow his joy, too.”
The timing of the comments didn’t calm the media storm, but they did provide context about the strife. She is following her journey, as well. “I’ve done my part, which is to be there for him,” Bundchen said. “I moved to Boston, and I focused on creating a cocoon and a loving environment for my children to grow up in and to be there supporting him and his dreams. Seeing my children succeed, and being fulfilled in his career — it makes me happy. At this point in my life, I feel like I’ve done a good job on that. I have a huge list of things that I have to do, that I want to do. At 42, I feel more connected with my purpose.”
Never should their problems be portrayed as football vs. family. It’s more about his impulsive need to keep stalking his dreams while risking his long-term health — despite unprecedented accomplishments that require no addendum, despite a 10-year, $375 million broadcast deal that awaits him at Fox. And how it clashes with her wish that he be “more present” with family while she pursues her “huge list.” It’s clearer now why Brady and his agent took a call last year from Stephen Ross, which resulted in a brief suspension of the Miami Dolphins owner for tampering. The Bradys recently built a $17 million estate in the northern reaches of Miami Beach, on exclusive Indian Creek Island. Wouldn’t it be much easier to be with 12-year-old Benjamin and 9-year-old Vivian if he played for a team nearby and didn’t have to commute from Tampa? His 15-year-old son, Jack, by actress Bridget Moynahan, lives in New York City. The struggle to do right by his entire family only has made Brady reflect about the past, all the family events that football has forced him to miss.
“I haven't had a Christmas in 23 years and I haven't had a Thanksgiving in 23 years," Brady said. “I haven't celebrated birthdays with people that I care about that are, you know, born from August to late January. And you know, I'm not able to be at funerals and I'm not able to be at weddings. And I think there comes a point in your life where you say, you know what? I had my fill and it's enough and time to go on, to move into other parts of life, which, you know, I push myself to the max and I, I got everything I could outta my ability and I hope that everybody gets everything they can out of their doing.”
It should be underlined that Bundchen hasn’t completely abandoned Brady, contrary to reports. “Let’s go @TomBrady! Let’s go Bucs!” she wrote on social media as his season began. But this is a very real and painful dispute for a couple and their children, not unlike the conflicts threatening marriages in all walks. Remember that the next time you think Brady has the perfect life.
The drama ahead is uniquely Hollywood, spilled by “sources” to Page Six, People magazine and other news sites that don’t normally cover sports. But if Tom Brady is the most prominent American athlete of the early 21st century, playing in the world’s most prosperous league, he should have known the clamor would follow him into his final season. Will he get past it and keep winning, as he did during his slow divorce from coach Bill Belichick in New England? For now, Tampa Bay is 2-0, with the next two games serving as prime litmus tests: at home against Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay, at home against Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City.
What I know is, as the Bucs were driving toward an early score Sunday, Brady placed his hands under center on third-and-short. The snap was clean. He fumbled it. The Saints recovered.
Would this have happened if he was practicing every day? And if this happens in January, in the final minutes of a playoff loss, will it all have been worth it?
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.