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THE INFINITE MIRACLE OF BRADY: WE EXPECT EVEN MORE AT 44
The more we question his motivation to keep playing football — what is left to accomplish, Tom? — the more The G.O.A.T. remains defiant and extends his career prime into an inconceivable third decade
The rest of us accept the inevitability of an ending — to a career, a life, a full head of hair. Tom Brady does not, which makes him not only the most inspiring and important athlete of our time but also the most preposterous. He plays football with the defiance of an overgrown bro-dude who believes he’ll live forever, shape-shifting the unimaginable, illogical act of middle-aged quarterbacking mastery into a mesmerizing norm.
We’re still tempted to have him whip off his jersey and prove he isn’t a cyborg, knowing he is favored to win an eighth Super Bowl a few months before he turns FORTY-FIVE YEARS OLD. But if we once were suspicious — inflated footballs, a dubious personal trainer, avocado ice cream — we now view Brady as an ongoing miracle. He could devour performance-enhancers for breakfast, lunch and dinner and it wouldn’t detract from what is now an eternal accomplishment: extending his cerebral prime into a 22nd season at the most vital and scrutinized position in team sports, at a time when the QB ballgame is about youth, explosion and dual-threat playmaking.
“When I suck, I’ll retire,’’ he said.
That quote is from 2014.
Since then, Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, Jr. has: (1) won the Super Bowl four times; (2) won more league and Super Bowl MVP awards; (3) obliterated the NFL record book; (4) conquered Bill Belichick in the who-meant-more-to-the-Patriots-dynasty debate; (5) deftly unfriended Donald Trump and jokingly mocked Joe Biden; (6) maintained a happy domestic life with a supermodel wife and the kids; and (7) turned his resilience and purpose into a lifestyle known as The TB12 Method, including a best-selling book that teaches “how to achieve a lifetime of sustained peak performance.’’ He is an American virtuoso, surviving to thrive, and more likable in Tampa Bay pewter than he was the previous 20 years. When he lost his final game in New England, as Patrick Mahomes was executing a league quarterbacking takeover, I wrote that Brady should retire. I was not alone.
Instead, he moved to Florida like other old people and won another Vince Lombardi Trophy, which he almost tossed into the Hillsborough River while blitzed on booze. “It’s 85 degrees. We’re drinking tequila all day,’’ Brady explained during one of his many Victory Tour media appearances. “I’ve got the Super Bowl trophy in my hand. I’m in my boat. I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m going to throw it to my boys (in another boat).’ So I throw it and the bottom of this trophy is sharp. It could have gone so bad.’’
It didn’t, of course. Nor were there complications when he had surgery to repair a torn MCL, having played on a balky left knee the entire season. Nor was he felled for long when he contracted COVID-19, um, days after the boat parade. While Mahomes was figuring out why the Super Bowl went so wrong, and while Drew Brees was limping into retirement and Aaron Rodgers was firing missiles at his Green Bay bosses, Brady spent the summer grinning and loving life. This would have been a perfect time to finally walk away, forever on top, having bolstered his standing as the G.O.A.T. of G.O.A.T.s. What more is possibly left to prove?
That’s not how Brady is wired. He refuses to impose an achievement cap and truly did mean what he said seven years ago: He will keep playing until he sucks. “Physically, I feel great,’’ he said, “the best I’ve felt really in a long time.” So why stop playing when the Buccaneers, returning all 22 starters on offense and defense and reporting a startling 100-percent vaccination rate in their building, easily could win yet another ring for a man who’s running out of fingers? His motivation is to quiet those who question his motivation.
How dare we equate his life to our lives? How dare we suggest that he is human and should accept fate like everyone else on Planet Earth?
“Hopefully, I’ll be here for a long time. For many years,’’ he said, referring to his adopted home.
As for advice he might dispense to young quarterbacks, the response was appropriately smug. “I wrote a book on it. I really did. It’s a good book, too,’’ he said. “It’s pretty easy to follow. You just have to have a little discipline.’’
“It’s amazing the fire that burns in him that makes him do this,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said. “There’s nobody out there competing any harder than him. It’s awesome.”
His inferno is no act. In Brady’s maniacal mind, he can improve on a championship season in which he threw 40 touchdown passes in the regular season, 10 more in the playoffs and was almost flawless — three TD passes, no interceptions — in winning his fifth Super Bowl MVP trophy. In the first week of training camp in late July, he slammed his helmet, punted the ball into an adjoining field and lit into teammates during a session when he was sacked twice and overthrew a receiver. “Got to make f—ing plays when you’re tired, fellas,’’ he barked.
This came after Brady admitted, rather oddly, that he still was bothered by a free-agency snub from another NFL team — likely, his hometown San Francisco 49ers. “I was thinking, you’re sticking with that motherf—ker?’’ he said, a possible reference to former teammate Jimmy Garoppolo. Why oh why would it matter at this point? Hasn’t the Tampa Bay move worked out pretty damned well?
“There’s private things for me that are going to remain motivational for me,” Brady said on his SiriusXM show. “They know who they are … it’s fine. Everyone has a choice to choose. I think what you realize is, there’s not as many smart people as you think. That’s just the reality. I think it’d be a no-brainer if you said, ‘Hey, you’ve got a chance to get Wayne Gretzky on your team, or a chance to have Michael Jordan on your team.’ . . . ‘Oh, we don’t need him, no thanks. We’re good.’ In my mind, I’m thinking, ‘OK, let me go show those teams what they’re missing.’ At the same time, let me go prove to the team that did bet on me, and the team that really showed they really wanted me, and committed to me, that I’m not going to let them down.”
So it wasn’t wise of a Dallas Cowboys rookie, Osa Odighizuwa, to share his view of Brady’s purported in-game flaw. “He’s not very mobile,’’ he said, flaunting that UCLA education. “I mean, you know, he’s been playing for 21 years. The dude is a little older, not too mobile.’’ He went on to reveal data from the front office for Thursday night’s season opener in Tampa: Brady can be rattled when rushers invade the pocket. “Get him off the spot, and they say his passer rating it goes down by 50,’’ Odighizuwa said. “So our role is super important as far as getting after him.’’
As it is, the Cowboys are risking a blowout after the positive COVID test of six-time Pro Bowl right guard Zack Martin, whose absence will further jeopardize the existence of the ever-delicate Dak Prescott, making his first appearance since suffering a compound ankle fracture last October. The Cowboys, like a few other NFL teams, aren’t managing the coronavirus well — contrary to the healthy and hygienic Bucs, who more or less have been vax-mandated by Arians. This, too, will be an advantage for the reigning champs in what Brady thinks will be a more challenging COVID season. “I actually think it’s going to play more of a factor this year than last year,’’ he told the Tampa Bay Times, “just because of the way what we’re doing now and what the stadium is going to look like and what the travel is going to look like and the people in the building and the fans.’’
So don’t expect Brady, no longer wearing a knee brace or sleeve, to dwell on a rookie’s scouting report. Besides, he prefers higher-level trash-talking. When the Bucs were honored at the White House, he stood beside President Biden and referred to himself as “Sleepy Tom,’’ then took a shot at Trump supporters with a crack: “40 percent still don’t think we won the Super Bowl.’’ He’s a wise guy on social media, where he is expansive about his personal life (losing his jet skis in a tropical storm) and impersonates teammate and longtime buddy Rob Gronkowski. After a recent joint practice with the Tennessee Titans, Brady went viral with a pro-Michigan takedown of Titans head coach and former Patriots teammate Mike Vrabel, an Ohio State product.
“Mike’s a real (expletive) when you get to know him. Obviously, I don’t like him,” he said. “There’s a healthy rivalry between us, even though he’s kind of fat and out of shape. Physically, he’s really declined to a pretty sad state.”
Said Vrabel, before contracting COVID-19 himself: “It’s good to see another defense carry Brady to a Super Bowl.’’
Never has Brady had more fun. While he rejects it as an aftereffect of divorcing the gruff, joyless Belichick, his teammates say Brady is the polar opposite of his uptight image in Foxboro. These days, he even sends direct messages to fans via a digital service. “It's nice that I've found my voice more," he said. “I really enjoy being around my teammates, my coaches — it's been a different environment. (I’m) just really enjoying the experience of playing football, playing with this group of guys."
Yet even when detailing his newfound bliss, Brady was hijacked by his competitive fury. “You guys are catching me on a bad day today. We had a really s---ty practice,’’ he said, out of nowhere. “I’m not feeling great about what we did today. It is what it is."
No target is beyond his wrath, including the NFL, which has amended a longstanding rule about jersey numbers — for instance, allowing defensive players to wear single-digit numbers. “Its stupid,’’ said Brady, saying the change provides an advantage to the defense. Not that anyone is feeling sorry for him, or expects it to result in a flurry of interceptions.
The projection in camp is that Brady, more comfortable and emboldened by championship momentum and reverential praise, will have an even better season. “I really think we’re gonna be better,’’ quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen said. “He looks like he’s about 25 years old out there bouncing around. He’s enjoying himself. You can tell he’s comfortable and feels good.”
Said star receiver Mike Evans: “We’re miles ahead of what we were last year. Not just me and his connection, but the whole offense. It’s really exciting and hopefully we can do something really special this year.”
Dallas coach Mike McCarthy, already entering make-or-break territory in Jerry Jones World, sounds overwhelmed when speaking of Brady’s legacy. “Longevity,’’ he said. “It’s so difficult to win a Super Bowl, and the fact that he’s won seven is just unbelievable. But to have success to play at that level for such a long period of time, to me, that’s a tremendous quality. And he’s living it and he eats it every day.’’
Actually, he’s eating a diet comprised of 80 percent fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes, mixed with 20 percent chicken, red meat and seafood while laying off dairy — and strawberries, somehow — and shutting down meals when he’s 75 percent full. Which is why he truly looks about 35 and has made time stop, while forcing all of us to contemplate the value of a beet smoothie. In an interview with veteran NFL reporter Peter King, Brady did outline a possible retirement plan. “I’ll know when the time’s right. If I can’t … if I’m not a championship-level quarterback, then I’m not gonna play,” he said. “If I’m a liability to the team, I mean, no way. But if I think I can win a championship, then I’ll play.”
So we can presume the man who ages backwards, Benjamin Button in a flak jacket, will be playing until he’s 50. Rather than object and sneer, as we once did, the new approach is to nod in appreciation and wait for what’s next in the battle of Tom vs. Time, which has turned into a rout.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports columns for Substack and a Wednesday media column for Barrett Sports Media while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.