Last January, on the morning of the AFC Championship Game, I sat in a hotel lobby, sipping coffee and scratching down story ideas for Super Bowl week.
What would I produce if/when the Patriots advanced? The angle that appealed to me – that certainly would have occurred to everyone – was the arc of Brady’s career. Brady would be home again in his native Northern California, trying to outdo his boyhood hero Joe Montana and win a fifth Super Bowl even while his face remained on WANTED posters in the NFL’s Park Avenue offices.
I kept mentally pulling the thread. The seeming injustice that Brady – in coming from football nowhere to the precipice of something not achieved only to have the power of the league massed against him still – didn’t feel like a real-life scenario. But it felt familiar. It felt mythological. All of it.
Trace it back, from the backup quarterback on a winless freshman team in San Mateo to depths of the Michigan depth chart to overtaking the blue-chip recruit and beating a storied Alabama program in his final collegiate game. On to being overlooked in the NFL Draft and then stuck in an arranged marriage with the saddest of sad-sack franchises in a woebegone stadium behind an entrenched starter with a grumpy curmudgeon overseeing it all.
An apprenticeship. Mentors. A wholly unforeseen accident befalling the starter in order for Brady to rise. Then, in the snow a triumph laced with controversy followed by a cleansing, cathartic upset win in the Super Bowl in the wake of a national tragedy.
A honeymoon period in which Brady validated his greatness with two more Super Bowls and 21 consecutive wins and became iconic.
Then the weariness of the too-perfect, dimple-chinned hero setting in. And then the curmudgeon mentor’s visionary genius called into question by scandal. A run at perfection that would have shouted down critics undone at its climax with unforeseeable characters appearing to do superhuman things.
Then a wandering in 2008, an injury taking Brady out for a season, a period of introspection. A return to things changed in 2009, dysfunctional. Systematically broken, the whole place seeming defiled.
Then a cleanse and rebuild starting in 2010, so unlike the rapid ascent of 2001. So close so often in 2011, ’12 and ’13 and then an open discussion of whether Brady had the nerve, the poise, the ability anymore. And a single performance in front of the nation against Kansas City that led to the unanimous conclusion that the sand was almost out of the hourglass.
Followed by a transcendent run through the league to get back to where the Super Bowl only to have the league itself turn on him and bring him to trial, as it were, for basically having a hair out of place. The jealousy, intrigue and treachery. The improbably nature of the win to equal the greats and then this four-game banishment from which Brady returns Sunday.
Why does Brady’s once-in-forever story feel so familiar? Because we’ve heard forms of it thousands of times.
It follows almost perfectly something called, “The Hero’s Journey” a concept first introduced in 1949 by the author Joseph Campbell. But Campbell merely diagrammed the template. The “Hero’s Journey” had already been taken by Moses, Jesus, Achilles, Odysseus and other ancients. It’s been taken since by Disney character after Disney character (Simba being a prime example), the Karate Kid, Percy Jackson and Luke Skywalker.
The hero’s journey is found in most any story in which the protagonist develops positively. And that’s most stories. Not all will have every element of the hero’s journey. Hence, tragedies. But some of the best-known, best-loved stories follow the motif.
In reality, all our lives do. A hero doesn’t have to necessarily save civilization or a cat from a tree. We’ve all done heroic things in spite of obstacles we encountered and we’ve all had our crises of faith.
But Brady’s has been so played out on so great a canvas and involved so many twists with the backdrop of great fame and fortune that he sometimes seems more myth than man.
I did a handy-dandy slide show with some of the 17 stages of Campbell’s template right here. But the basic outline of it is consistent.
1. The Ordinary World
2. The Call to Adventure
3. Refusal of the Call
4. Meeting with the Mentor
5. Crossing the First Threshold
6. Tests, Allies and Enemies
7. Approach to the Innermost Cave
8. The Ordeal
10. The Road Back
11. The Resurrection
12. Return with the Elixir
This isn’t a niche thing, either.
It’s prevalent. College courses are taught. It’s used as a mentoring tool. It’s a touchstone for screenwriters. There are experts.
One of the experts is Matthew Winkler, who did an amazing YouTube production centered on the concept of the Hero’s Journey. A Writer in Residence at The Rectory School in Connecticut, he an inspirational and talented teacher who not only teaches the form but encourages students to apply it in their lives.
I asked Winkler if Brady’s story held true to the Hero’s Journey. He wrote back:
“The hero's journey is a cycle. It begins in a state of equilibrium, which is disrupted, and the hero passes through difficult trials in unfamiliar territory before finally confronting his or her worst fear. At that moment, the hero dies, so to speak, and emerges from that moment as a new person, forever altered. The hero then establishes a new state of equilibrium, better than before. Of course, this sets the stage for the cycle to repeat. Ancient myths, modern stories, and our own lives all follow this pattern to some degree. Stability, disruption, stability.
“Tom Brady's journey began with a dubiously inflated football and escalated through a series of conflicts with the NFL leadership. What was the darkest hour of that journey? When did Tom Brady face his worst fear? Imagine being the best quarterback to ever throw a football being forbidden to play the game. That's what Brady was afraid of and what he fought so hard against. Ultimately, he was unable to escape that fate. He had to stand by and watch his team play without him, knowing that they needed him, and knowing that he could do nothing to help them. That was his darkest hour, and I'm sure it killed him. On Sunday, Tom Brady will rise from that doom and return to the field to battle toward redemption and complete his hero's journey.”
So Brady is still very much in his Journey, according to Winkler.
Another expert on the topic is Don Wettrick, a high school teacher and author in Noblesville, Indiana. I spoke to him on Quick Slants the Podcast and he had this to say.
“This is the last realm of the hero’s journey. Brady he was cast aside, he left his ordinary world, left Boston, went to see some Michigan games, he is reunited with past mentors and he’s ready now for his homecoming. He’s ready now to conquer the beast, come back triumphant and hopefully bring a better reality back to his original setting.”
“He’s gotten his crisis. A lot think that the ‘win’ is it. That’s the end. It’s not,” continued Wettrick. “The end is the return to the ordinary world. His crisis is now over and now he’s seeking the treasure. In some ways, he’s already won, but he is still seeking the treasure. And the treasure is No. 5. The fifth Super Bowl. After that treasure is gained, he’ll go back to the ordinary world.”
It’s been an extraordinary journey. A truth not quite stranger than fiction but almost perfectly matched to it.