You shouldn’t miss Tom Brady’s smile, and before you make a joke, hear me out.
This is perhaps the most famous man in the world’s most powerful sports league. He has spent more time in front of cameras than you have in front of your bathroom mirror. This must feel like brushing his teeth, except with a wire grill brush instead of a vibrating Oral-B.
Brady has been doing this for 15 years now, since the team he is now playing against in his sixth Super Bowl was in the AFC West. In Brady’s rookie year, Marshall Faulk was the league MVP. Faulk is now in his fifth year doing TV.
Counting the playoffs, only five quarterbacks have started more NFL games than Brady. Next year, assuming he stays healthy, he’ll pass Fran Tarkenton. If the Patriots make another Super Bowl, he’ll pass John Elway.
In a 24-7 world, Brady has been a constant American star since before this year’s graduating high school seniors can remember.
Brady has every reason to be sick and exhausted of this. He has made more than $150 million, and his wife is even richer. He has thrown every touchdown, won every game, and answered every dumb question afterward.
All of that, and he is still here, still manic on the sidelines, obsessive in the film room, smiling in the media room.
“I never imagined this in my wildest dreams,” he says.
Brady is the biggest star in the corporate entertainment world of professional football. He is polished in both appearance and words, from his whitened teeth to his politician’s enthusiasm.
There is something in his delivery, though, something stubbornly earnest and unfailingly confident that makes you want to ignore the facade and just go ahead and believe one of the greatest, most unlikely sports stars the age of the Internet has seen.
“It’s really a privilege,” he says, and there’s that smile again.
We never know when we’re seeing the great ones be great for the last time.
Joe Montana had the best season of his life in 1989, won a Super Bowl, and two years later was hurt and replaced by Steve Young. Troy Aikman was effectively done as a good, healthy quarterback once he turned 30. Peyton Manning is the quarterback Brady is always judged against, and a year after his best season, there are real concerns that Manning might retire or that he should retire.
“I certainly hope he comes back,” Brady says. “The league will miss him if he doesn’t.”
There are some quarterbacks who have held off time, but those are rare exceptions and ultimately temporary. Brett Favre was spectacular at 40, awful at 41, and retired (again) at 42. John Elway won Super Bowls his last two years, and was still very effective. But he needed more help than ever, and retired at 38.
Brady will turn 38 before the start of next season, and remains one of the best two or three quarterbacks in football. He is playing in a different time, of course, with rules favoring offenses in general and quarterbacks in particular. He has been known, when there’s a flag for a hit, to get into the defensive player’s face and scream: “they put that rule in because of me!”
Brady is obsessive with his preparation — mental and especially physical. He does his own year-round, quarterback-specific stretching and exercises that go beyond the typical high standards of the position. His diet is such that his treat — his treat — is avocado ice cream.
Brady has only missed games for injury once in his career, for a hit to his knees against the Chiefs in the 2008 season opener. Brady’s ACL tore, and, well, he’s right. The NFL put in a rule to prevent similar hits in the future.
That puts Brady in the center of what’s been a decade-long trend, at least, of the NFL changing its product to promote offense in general, passing yards more specifically, and quarterbacks above all else.
This makes cross-generational comparisons incredibly difficult — Elway’s and Montana’s career-highs in yardage are less than seven of Brady’s seasons — and today’s juiced-ball numbers tempting to dismiss but what we’re seeing deserves to be appreciated.
This is the greatest quarterback of his time, a decade and a half into the grind of the NFL, still making every throw, every read, performing at or near optimum levels. He’s been around so long that he has become like background music to American mainstream sports.
He says his plyometric obsession and avocado ice cream treats are so that he can continue to play football until he’s 45 — which would make him perhaps the sport’s top challenge yet to Father Time’s undefeated record — but you’d be well-advised to take the under on that bet.
Great athletes always look like they’ll great for at least another year, right up to the point when they become like everyone else.
If this could be Brady’s last chance on his sport’s biggest stage, it’s at least worth a moment of recognition.
Any talk about an athlete’s legacy is usually a media-driven naval gaze, but it’s interesting that what figures to be the last or one of the last Super Bowls of Brady’s career is the one that’s been most surrounded by controversy.
The league has decided to wait until after Sunday to talk to Brady about the so-called Deflategate controversy, a study in both the scope of the NFL and the precious commodity of talking points leading up to the Super Bowl.
Spygate will always be part of the Patriots’ Wikipedia entry, but until now, the closest thing to a controversy that could be drawn directly to Brady was that he had a baby with a Hollywood actress and then married a Brazilian supermodel.
The part of this that’s been easy to miss, however, is that the reaction to it is mostly tied with preconceived thoughts about Brady and the Patriots.
If you don’t like the Patriots, they are now confirmed cheaters, no matter the outcome of the investigation. If you’re a Patriots fan, this is the product of jealousy. Around the league, many admit that every team claws for every advantage it can get, and recognize that this story would not get near the attention if it happened with any other team.
It’s sort of the perfect American sports controversy in that way. Roger Goodell’s track record almost guarantees a prolonged and bumbled investigation, giving everyone plenty of time for outrage or jokes. We’ve turned the air pressure of footballs into a trial case of a sports league and franchise.
Meanwhile, one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history is at the height of his powers and may be playing his last Super Bowl.