So Who Was Tom Brady?

So Who Was Tom Brady?

After a quarter-century in the public eye, the future Hall of Famer is retiring, and we somehow know even less about him now than when he started.

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As Tom Brady says goodbye to the National Football League, it is worth reflecting on what we are losing. We are losing the greatest quarterback ever. His statistics are stratospheric. His unprecedented seven Super Bowl victories are legendary. His ceaseless “do your job” intensity is the stuff of tall tales.

We are losing someone who played at an all-pro or nearly all-pro level until the staggering age of 45. As ESPN’s Field Yates pointed out, if you divided Brady’s career into thirds, each roughly seven-year period would be enough on its own to get him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In other words, he had three Hall of Fame careers. Or perhaps it is simple enough to say that Tom Brady was named quarterback of the decade for two different decades. He accomplished this while competing against two generations of quarterbacks whom he regularly bested—players with names like Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees. And I, on a personal level, am losing someone who, for damn near a quarter-century, treated the team of my youth, the New York Jets, like Muhammad Ali treated Floyd Patterson (“picking the wings off a butterfly”), so please know that I am writing this appreciation and assessment through gritted teeth.

But understanding Brady demands more than devouring highlights and reading stat sheets. We are also losing the last superstar from the pre-social-media age. (When Brady was a rookie, Twitter was just a gleam in the devil’s eye.) This benefited Brady in the early years of his career when several of his personal and professional scandals skated beneath the brutal summary judgments of the masses. In addition, we are also losing the last Generation X football player, and I think that is important for understanding the slippery nature of the “political Brady.” When Tom Brady was drafted, Michael Jordan had yet to retire. It was a different era, when most athletes didn’t speak out in order to protect their paycheck. They took “shut up and play” not as an insult hurled by Fox News but as a guiding ethos. This was the sports world that Brady grew up with, and these are the athletes he modeled himself after. This partially explains why Brady already seemed old and uncomfortable a decade ago when Black athletes, including his own teammates, began to assert their rights to protest against police violence and racial inequity. It is true that over the last 10 years it’s been a form of white privilege that Black athletes have had to perform at a high level while also being peppered with political questions and had demands put on them to speak out in a way that white athletes have not had to endure. Brady never had the burden.

But not even Brady could escape the clutches of this political era and its demand for content, although he certainly tried. In 2015, Brady was casually keeping a bright red Make America Great Again baseball cap in his locker, and when some were alarmed, Brady laughed it off, explaining that Trump was basically a rich golf buddy. Many weren’t buying it, yet this MAGA man also skipped out on two visits to the Trump White House following Super Bowl victories. His old golfing pal had become too toxic. Yet it appears this was more about PR than politics, as Brady has been recently revealed to be texting chums with Ron DeSantis. Maybe they’re also just golfing buddies, although hanging with someone committed to eradicating Black history is certainly a choice. But as much as the right wing adores Brady, everyone seems to have forgotten that Brady was a consistent public supporter of Colin Kaepernick getting re-signed. He was outspoken about this in a hostile NFL climate in the years before 2020 and before branded anti-racist slogans appeared in the end zone.

On-the-field scandals also slid off of Teflon Tom. Both SpyGate and DeflateGate, which feel almost innocent now and are too tedious to recount here, stained his reputation in the moment and yet went largely unuttered amid the somber tributes when he finally announced that he was hanging up his cleats. These near-funereal reactions are understandable as an era ends. Something finally stuck to Teflon Tom: It wasn’t anything political or romantic. It was being 45. Even more than ferocious defense linemen like Aaron Donald or Nick Bosa, it was Father Time that put Brady down for the count.

It is possible—despite the highly curated tributes, documentaries, and podcasts and even despite the messy personal life—that we know even less about this man than we did a quarter of a century ago. Maybe Brady is the man who wasn’t there, a cipher who happened to be able to perform magic on a football field. Or maybe Brady has been able to keep himself to himself. Perhaps keeping the core of himself private stands as his final victory over an all-consuming media and public. If that was his intent, then in this day and age it’s a victory more impressive than any Super Bowl.

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