How Tom Brady Finally Won Me Over
Part I: January 2017
Pissing the right off is easy. Just say the word “gun” with any tiny hint of the germination of a loosely defined idea that maybe we might have a few too many of them in this country. You don’t even need to get within spitting distance of the “C” word… not that “C” word, dummy… “Control”… now that’s the blasphemous word we simply do not utter.
Pissing the left off is even easier. Just say the word “Trump” in any context whatsoever. It could even be, “Trump visited some sick kids.” A liberal reads that and thinks, “That smarmy bastard just tried to manipulate some kids. I bet he told them all kinds of lies about how fucking great he is.”
Ah, but how to piss everyone off? That’s a little harder in a country that always takes sides in some continuously exhausting competition. I thought and thought before it finally dawned on me… Tom Brady! Everybody hates Tommy! I need to write something about how awesome he is. So here it is. I hope every single one of you read it and spit all over your screens in disgust.
I rarely like a quarterback. I’d rather see them get drilled from their blind side and eat dirt. Even better if they cough up a little blood. On the rare occasion I decide I do like one, I haven’t even warmed up to him until his best years are gone.
Everybody likes unassuming Joe Montana. Not me, at least not until he was old and decrepit. He finally won me over, not with his surgeon-like passing skill that mostly just annoyed me, but with his unexpected guts and toughness displayed at the end of his career. I still remember watching him wearing the wrong team’s uniform in 1994 as the old lion in winter led one last game-winning march for the Kansas City Chiefs against the Denver Broncos, who were quarterbacked by none other than the heir apparent to his throne, John Elway.
It was about the same with Tom. He grew on me over time; an acquired taste that wasn’t an obvious hit at first. Like many fans, I just wasn’t that into him early in his career when he won three Super Bowls in four years from 2001 to 2004.
Success seemed to come too easily for the young buck, and I didn’t like him because of that. He was too pretty. He hadn’t faced any adversity, so I thought he was soft and privileged and lucky. Boy was I wrong.
I didn’t even really think he was all that great back then. I thought he was the product of a system and all the solid players around him — what we call a “game manager.” Lots of football analysts thought that as well.
But then, Lady Luck turned on the Patriots. The team that got all the breaks — who can forget Brady’s fumble in the snow against Oakland that somehow wasn’t a fumble — suddenly couldn’t buy one. Well, there was that one break, or rather tear, that Brady suffered to his ACL in week one of the 2008 season, causing him to miss the entire campaign.
He came back from that, though. You see, the man was on a mission. He was chasing history, though she proved quite elusive, and a shredded knee wasn’t going to stand in the way of destiny.
Sometime toward the tail end of that early success and in the trying years that followed, Brady matured from game manager to superstar. He became a quarterback capable of elevating the play of average receivers, and his gaudy statistics reflected his maturity as a passer. Where defensive stalwarts like Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest were the spokesmen for those early Patriots juggernauts, Brady now became the unquestioned leader of his team.
For ten long years after his early career success — an eternity in an athlete’s short window of opportunity — I watched him relentlessly pursue that fourth ring to tie Bradshaw and Montana. Where the first three had come with nary a hiccup, the fourth remained just out of reach.
The persistent idea the Patriots always win virtually guarantees they will be despised outside of New England, yet it is a huge fallacy. All you have to do is look up their record to see the long line of gut wrenching playoff defeats.
Because they’ve been good for a very long time — notice I wrote good and not great — they’ve been an incredibly consistent playoff team. In that sense, they do win a lot. When it comes to winning Super Bowls, however, they’ve endured just as much futility as other clubs — maybe even more because they always seem to be in a position to compete for a championship.
Every year between 2005 and 2013, with the exception of a narrow miss in 2008 when Brady suffered the aforementioned season-ending knee injury, the Patriots made the playoffs. That’s eight years if you’re counting.
And in all eight of those seasons, their bid for a fourth Super Bowl title ended in a loss. Two of those losses came as they stood inches from the summit of the mountaintop.
Like Captain Ahab pursuing Moby Dick, Brady always fell just a bit short. In 2007 and 2011, his heavily favored Patriots lost in shocking fashion to the New York Giants despite Brady handing his defense late fourth quarter leads in both games and asking them to close the deal.
Both defeats to the Giants featured miracle catches by unheralded receivers — David Tyree’s helmet catch and Mario Manningham’s sideline gem — that will be replayed forever in NFL lore. That’s right; the so-called “lucky” Patriots were victims of some of the unluckiest plays in league history. The once blessed franchise that could do no wrong in big games now seemed cursed.
I could feel Brady’s frustration as each season ended in a near miss, his prime athletic years slipping away. But each summer, he returned to training camp to face the grind of another long NFL season, as determined as ever to give his team a chance to play in meaningful December and January games.
It would have been so much easier for him to grow complacent. He was already a three-time champion. He had, from outward appearances, a near-perfect life filled with fame and fortune. Instead, he displayed plenty of grit in his grail quest, and my respect for him grew annually.
Finally, at the end of the 2014 season the Patriots stood at the pinnacle again. In the divisional round of the playoffs, Bill Belichick dug deep into his playbook and pulled out a double pass trick play to help them slip by a Baltimore Ravens team that had twice before knocked them from the playoffs by a slim 35–31 margin. Against the upstart Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship, they cruised to a 45–7 victory in a game that would come to be remembered not for anything that happened on the field but for allegations of tampering with inflation levels of footballs. Interestingly, these claims now seem overblown even to many who despise New England and suspect them of violating other, more serious, league rules.
Playing in the Super Bowl, Brady’s team clung to a 28–24 lead over the Seattle Seahawks that he had delivered in comeback fashion with four touchdown passes. Brady was asking his defense to hold yet again, where they had twice previously failed on this very stage, and his nervous energy as he watched from the sideline was palpable.
When Jermaine Kearse, lying flat on his back, victimized the Patriots with yet another miracle catch on the game’s biggest stage to set the Seahawks up near the goal line, it seemed karma had intervened again to steal Brady’s crowning victory. And then, the football Gods who smiled so favorably on Brady early in his career before turning their backs for a decade, decided to smile again.
Beast Mode would not run the dagger through Tom Terrific’s heart. The Seahawks would throw instead, into the waiting arms of unlikely hero, Malcolm Butler.
Brady jumped up and down on the sidelines in disbelief; a jubilant child in a grown man’s body. The fourth championship was his, his legacy with the greats secured.
Until just as suddenly it wasn’t. Until the murmurs of doubt surfaced yet again and he served the now infamous four game suspension for Deflategate.
The sixth round draft choice who always felt passed over for lesser-talented players and who used any perceived slight to fuel an angry fifteen-year career of proving doubters wrong now had a new motivation. He would come back from serving his suspension and quietly say it was all behind him and that he was playing for his team and for his city.
And he was. That was all true. But he was also playing to stick it to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and all the bogus accusers. Even when he wouldn’t say it, you knew it was there in the background stoking his fire.
This is why I like Tom Brady. First he wasn’t good enough. Then he clearly was. Then he was injured. Then he relentlessly pursued a goal that tormented him. Then he was a cheater who became a villain with a Supermodel wife, a boatload of money, and a perfect life. He was the easiest guy in pro sports to hate, and it made me embrace him all the more.
I didn’t just see the success. I saw all the disappointment and adversity, too — all those seasons that ended a step short. I saw a guy who might look pretty and polished on the outside, but who is a tough, fiery competitor on the inside. I saw a guy who always says the right thing in interviews, putting team above self even when frequently goaded by a relentless press in search of a controversial sound byte, but who seethes with defiance beneath the surface.
In my mind, his four Super Bowl victories in six previous appearances are plenty. He’s already the greatest. He didn’t need this season to prove anything.
But in his mind, he did. This last one is about shoving their noses in shit and making them choke on it. I hope he does just that in two weeks. Hell, he already has.
Part II: October 2019
I’m chronicling this story not just for those reading but also for me, so that I remember it when I’m old. Love them or hate them, theirs is the best sports saga of our lifetime and is more compelling than fiction.
When I wrote Part I in the days leading up to Super Bowl LI, I, and everyone else, knew the game was potentially significant from a historical standpoint. Little did anyone know, the Patriots were about to play in what is now widely regarded as the greatest Super Bowl in league history.
In a game in which they trailed 28–3 in the third quarter, they came back to defeat the Atlanta Falcons by a score of 34–28 in overtime. Aided by a host of plays that all had to go their way, including Dont’a Hightower’s fourth quarter strip sack of Matt Ryan and Julian Edelman’s already legendary circus catch that trumped all those bizarre and incredible catches that went against them in earlier Super Bowls, and even one more that could have sealed this game if not for a Trey Flowers sack moments later to push Atlanta out of field goal range, they rallied to secure a victory for the ages.
That win certainly could have been the crowning jewel in Brady’s football legacy. It may still be when his career is finally viewed in retrospect, but he chose to keep playing and much has been added to the story since.
The following season, a strong Patriots squad with 13 regular season wins and only 3 losses reached the Super Bowl again, trading Brady’s heir apparent, Jimmy Garopolo, to the San Francisco 49ers along the way in deference to Brady’s desire to continue his career well into his forties. Nearly forgotten alongside other epic games, they overcame a 20–10 fourth quarter deficit in the AFC Championship to defeat the Jacksonville Jaguars 24–20.
With the ball in his hands in the Super Bowl’s final minutes and a chance to lead one of his patented game-winning drives, Brady didn’t sense pressure closing in and was strip sacked by the Philadelphia Eagles’ Brandon Graham. In a reminder of the fallibility of even great players and the razor thin margin for error in football at the highest level of competition, the Patriots fell a few plays short of victory. Brady’s Super Bowl record as a starting quarterback dropped to five wins and three losses with this defeat, though most commentators acknowledged his 505 yards passing that broke his own record of 466 set the previous year and conceded the loss would not diminish his legacy.
Now two seasons removed from their franchise-defining comeback over Atlanta, the Patriots stumbled some during the 2018 regular season and finished with a solid but unremarkable for them 11–5 record amidst whispers that the dynasty was finally fading. Edelman’s often-repeated “Bet Against Us” slogan foretold a playoff run that included arguably the greatest road win in team history — an AFC Championship game victory playing as rare three-point underdogs to the Kansas City Chiefs and young superstar quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, in a 37–31 overtime thriller.
With the Patriots down 28–24 late in the fourth quarter and driving to take the lead, Brady threw hard and slightly high to Rob Gronkowski, resulting in a tipped ball interception. Miraculously, Kansas City defensive end, Dee Ford, had lined up offsides, a pre-snap penalty negating the interception that would have effectively ended the game. Given new life, the Patriots drove for the go-ahead score.
Down three with a mere thirty-nine seconds on the clock, wonder boy Mahomes quickly drove the Chiefs forty-eight yards for a field goal to force overtime. But on a day in which the Patriots needed the Ford offsides call, they got another important one when they won the overtime coin toss.
The Chiefs never saw the ball again, as Brady drove his team down the field for a touchdown that meant sudden death. With ice in his veins, he threaded the needle on three impossibly tight third and long throws to extend the drive and keep the potent Chiefs offense sitting on the sidelines for the remainder of the game.
Anticlimax followed, with the Patriots dominating a defensive struggle against the Los Angeles Rams en route to a 13–3 victory in the lowest scoring Super Bowl ever. Notable was the performance of Brady’s longtime security blanket, diminutive Edelman, who finished with ten catches for 141 yards and earned MVP honors. Edelman’s consistency throughout, along with one fourth quarter drive highlighted by Rob Gronkowski’s diving catch of a beautiful lob throw down the seam, was enough to secure Brady’s staggering sixth Lombardi trophy.
With all on-field foes vanquished, he plays on at age 42 against the one opponent no man ever beats — Father Time — and we’re left with the strange word “pliability” to ponder. Aided by what has so far been a historically dominant defense, he’s managed to lead his team to a league best 8–0 start at the halfway point of the 2019 season that has them positioned for another deep postseason run. This, despite the giant void left by Gronkowski’s retirement and key injuries at center, left tackle, fullback, and wide receiver that have left his offense sputtering and vulnerable at times.
I thought I was writing the final episode back in 2017. Five was the number that really mattered. That was the one that would elevate him alone above all others. That was the one that would force the man who tried to taint his fourth to smile and hand him the trophy that was always his.
Perhaps five still is and always was the number, but with all that’s transpired since and may yet come to pass, five definitely wasn’t the end of the story.