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MIRACLE IN PROGRESS, BRADY CAN DO WHATEVER THE HELL HE WANTS
Don’t let various flaps — an 11-day camp absence, Dolphins and Raiders flirtations — obscure the epic magnitude: A 45-year-old man, with a legacy almost bigger than football, continues to stalk more
If he wants to wear a platinum wig and ride dragons with the Targaryens, let him. If he wants to make forage expeditions and inspect the soil so his sacred nutrients aren’t compromised, let him. If he wants to join Dennis Rodman in Worm Diplomacy and help spring Brittney Griner from Russian captivity, let him.
If he wants to pre-game with margaritas in the pirate ship above the end zone at Raymond James Stadium, sure, let him.
Almost a month into his 46th year on a planet he has overtaken, yeah, Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. has earned the privilege to make choices as he sees fit. Do not cloud the magnificent absurdity of his career journey — defying the aging process, flouting practical human science like no athlete of his or any time — with comparatively trifling concerns. So he was away from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for 11 preseason days. So his agent listened when since-convicted tamperer Stephen Ross called about joining the Miami Dolphins as a quarterback and future part-owner. So he retired for 40 days last winter, before predictably un-retiring. So he let Dana White, the UFC goon, influence his thinking in 2020 free agency and, according to the dubious promoter, talk Brady and Rob Gronkowski into playing in Las Vegas before then-Raiders coach Jon Gruden inexplicably scuttled it.
Focus on the miracle in progress, please. There is just one story at play, an epic truly for the ages. At a time in life when most folks begin to ponder mortality, in a violent sport that leaves broken-down passers with memory loss and perpetual pain, Brady is back in the building and entering his 23rd NFL season. Illogical? Preposterous? Cosmic? Extraterrestrial? We need a new word for the man/cyborg who continues to chase Super Bowl trophies while reinventing the way we think about food and fashion and parenting, as $375 million awaits him in the Fox broadcast booth when — if? — he ever stops playing football.
“I’m very close to the end,” he says. But in the next breath, he says this might not be his last hurrah, ceding again to an unquenchable competitive inferno. As long as he takes care of his body — no gluten, no dairy, no soy, no coffee, no alcohol, no sugar, no processed slime — and the Buccaneers continue to take care of him, which has emerged as a major issue with an injury-crippled offensive line, there’s no telling how long Brady could play. It’s most reasonable, even when everything else here is unreasonable, to think he’ll announce his permanent retirement this winter.
The question is whether he’ll depart in fitting triumph, after an eighth championship, or if the greatest narrative known to his sport will end with an inappropriate defeat. He risked an improper ending when he decided to keep playing last season, after one-upping Bill Belichick with No. 7. Looking back, wouldn’t his tipsy trophy toss in the Hillsborough River have been the perfect way to go out? As a documentarian and budding movie producer, doesn’t he realize THAT was the famous final scene? But the thing about Tom Brady is, he doesn’t look back. All he knows is, six years after ESPN’s Max Kellerman predicted Brady soon would “fall off a cliff,” he’s coming off a season of 43 touchdown passes and 5,316 passing yards while nearly knocking off the Los Angeles Rams, the eventual champs, in the NFC title game. All he knows is, his No. 12 jersey still tops the licensed sales list of all NFL players. All he knows is, Madden NFL 23 still rates him as the best QB, ahead of Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and the rest. All Brady knows is, he relates to kids of all ages by mastering social media, making digital interaction work for him unlike Kevin Durant and various grumps, going so far to holler back at Kellerman: “I have a swimwear line now,” followed by a thumbs-up emoji.
See, though he gambled away the sweetest career conclusion, who’s to say he won’t be right once again? When he’s still the master of his craft, having spent every day disproving people since he was drafted 199th in April 2000, why would he doubt that another Vince Lombardi Trophy is ahead? Besides, he’s having too much fun. He is fortunate to have a wife, Gisele, and children who know he’s still happier under center than on Zoom calls with brand managers. Those days are coming, along with constant travel and more Fox meetings than he thinks. They can wait a minute.
“I fell in love with this sport when I was a young kid, and I still think there's a great love for it. I think I always will, unfortunately,” said Brady, chuckling in his most recent press conference. “Beyond it — I'm going to stay in football now (as a broadcaster), it's pretty clear. So, that'll be fun. I look forward to whenever that happens and whenever I decide to make that decision and retire.”
Yet he’s still open about how he must evolve as a parent. What became apparent, during his five-plus weeks of retirement, is how he must balance football with family life. “I got to figure out what it would look like, which was really interesting to me. It should be a smoother transition than I would have thought,” he said. To wit: Shame on those who freaked because Brady took a week off from camp, three weeks from Tampa Bay’s regular-season opener, for a pre-approved escape. Does such a move defy NFL convention? Certainly, but doesn’t he deserve the benefit of all doubt at this point? Some saw it as his latest prank in keeping the public guessing, but apply common sense. The best QB of all time, who has thrown 11,317 passes as a pro, cannot benefit from wasting his right arm with dozens more practice throws. The Bucs should be giving as many first-team reps as possible to veteran backup Blaine Gabbert and the potential heir, Kyle Trask. As noted by tight end Cameron Brate — a more important target in the wake of Gronkowski’s retirement — after Brady returned to practice Monday, “If anybody can get away with the 11-day break during training camp, it’s Tom. He came back, kind of firing on all cylinders again. We’re all excited he’s back and ready to move on.”
“He came back ready to take off where he left off,’’ linebacker Lavonte David said.
At this stage, Brady should be with his family when possible. Being gone a few days in mid-August, when he missed two games he wouldn’t have played in anyway, won’t impact the offense. Reportedly, he was at a resort in the Bahamas with his wife — and not filming “The Masked Singer” for his future TV employer, contrary to silly speculation. He can do what he damn wants. His future will be upon him before he knows it.
“It's very easy when you're 25 to know what you want to do next year. It's very challenging when you're 43 or 44 because there's other things that are pressing and other things that are really important in your life, like your kids and your wife and different relationships, things that have always taken a back seat to football,” Brady said. “I think that's just how it's gone for me. It's challenging, and I've got to work at those things.
“It's not like it was when I was 25, but I don't think any of us feel like we were when we were 25. Thankfully for good reasons, there's parts where I'm happy I'm not 25 and there's other parts where I wish I felt like I was like a little more like 25, but I have a very complex, tricky life in different aspects — I'm just trying to navigate it the best way I can.”
To call him an American treasure is understating his magnitude. He never has been in trouble with the law, only smearing his legacy with Deflategate, the tragically avoidable inflated-footballs snafu. He says he hasn’t spoken to Donald Trump in many years and, wisely, has no interest in entering politics. I don’t consider the Ross flirtation, while Brady still was under contract in Tampa, as anything but lending an ear to a thought: He’s building a home in south Florida for his family, right? His dalliance with White is weird, if the Raiders story is true — Gruden would be crazier than we thought, amid the leaked e-mails that destroyed his career, if he preferred Derek Carr over the G.O.A.T. Point is, in almost two dozen years in the searing public eye, Brady doesn’t do much wrong for a guy in the daily epicenter of storms that never happen. That’s as impressive as his rings and records.
“We've still got a lot to accomplish,” he said. “I’ve got a long life ahead and there's a lot of fun things to do ahead; I'm looking forward to what's ahead in football, but at the same time -- none of us are promised much beyond what we have now. This is the current moment, and I'm really excited about going out there to try to compete and win a championship.”
In his niftiest trick, we aren’t even sick of him. He has been overexposed for years, no doubt, but never to the point of Tom Brady fatigue. There’s a reason he’ll open the real season on “Sunday Night Football,” with tens of millions watching, as he breaks Jerry Jones’ heart in Dallas.
No one is bigger in America’s biggest sport. No one ever has been. No one ever will be.
Let him live his life.
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.