ATLANTA – What does Tom Brady mean to America? To our culture? To who we are and have been for the nearly 20 years he’s played for the Patriots?
How is he woven into the tapestry of the American experience in the early 21st century? What does he represent?
Is he an icon that transcends sports to become emblematic of this period like Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan were for their eras?
How could he not be?
For the past 50 years, no sport has dominated the American consciousness like NFL football. No team has dominated NFL football like the Patriots.
Not only has Brady been there for all of it, he’s amassed a statistical record of success that dwarfs his quarterbacking peers by distances that can only be described as Ruthian. His record of competing in nine Super Bowls will never be matched. If the Patriots win Sunday, he’ll have a sixth championship.
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But this isn’t a thought-piece on football. It’s taking the measure of how America regards Brady. Because, after 20 years, Tom Brady people can affix whatever label they want to him and there is available evidence to back up that case.
He’s an underdog, the ultimate Horatio Alger Story. And he’s a child of “privilege” born into an affluent, loving home in Northern California.
He’s the ultimate winner. He’s a whiner.
He’s the consummate teammate. He took the job from his predecessor and never looked back.
He’s the perfect employee. He stayed away from the team last offseason and lobbed passive-aggressive harpoons whenever he could.
He’s humble. He has a TB12 corporation, a production company and put out a Facebook documentary during last year’s postseason.
He’s a singularly brilliant player. He’s a product of a system.
He’s the epitome of a competitor. He’s a shady edge-grabber.
He’s gentle, accessible, introspective and interested in loving relationships and self-improvement. He’s friends with Donald Trump, who embodies none of those things.
He’s private. He’s married to the most famous supermodel on the planet.
Maybe what we believe Tom Brady represents says more about us and this period in history than anything else.
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There is so much “out there” in this information age and we all have a voice we can broadcast, so whatever narrative an individual affixes to Brady is easily underpinned with evidence.
The maxim “Perception is reality” may have been true for decades, but now, perception isn’t what you’re fed in newspapers or on television, it’s what you choose to ingest on your phone or laptop.
We believe what we want to believe. We perceive what we want to perceive. At least that’s how it feels right now.
Maybe over time, Brady’s legacy and place in this period becomes easier to define than it probably feels right now. We are too close, the way we were with Ali who was vilified in the sixties and seventies, deified as time went on and the appreciation for what he stood for grew. (Certainly, Ali was far more outspoken with his politics and religious beliefs than Brady is or has been).
Currently, Brady is not universally beloved. It took five Super Bowl wins, the last of which came under Shakespearean circumstances (suspension, seriously ill mother, impossible deficit to overcome) for the GOAT tag to be grudgingly handed over.
Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk and NBC has a theory on that.
“We’ve never seen anything like this before and typically, as sports fans, we root for a Tom Brady in a situation like this,” said Florio. “But I think what separates him from (being celebrated like) a Michael Jordan, a Tiger Woods, a Muhammad Ali, a LeBron James is the passion that is inherent to being a football fan.
“Unless you are a Patriots fan, you don’t want to witness this kind of history,” Florio continued. “Every championship he wins is one less championship for the rest of the league and you are sick and tired of the New England Patriots if you are a Steelers fan or a Jets fan or a Dolphins fan. You don’t want to witness history. You want your team to make history.”
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Kevin Clark, who writes for The Ringer and previously the Wall Street Journal, said Brady is, “THE winner of this era.”
“There’s only a handful of athletes that have won this much and we’re going to figure out that this is a sport where you’re not supposed to win this much,” said Clark. “After Tom Brady retires, no one is going to win anywhere near as much as Tom Brady has won. He’s the only person who’s doing it in an era where the sport is literally passing rules so that this doesn’t happen. The salary cap is designed so that something like Tom Brady doesn’t happen.”
As decades pass, Clark says, the accomplishments of Brady and the Patriots will be the fixation rather than petty irritations.
“Jared Goff and Sean McVay look like they’re set up to have the capability to be Belichick and Brady,” said Clark. “I guarantee you they won’t just because that won’t happen ever again. Once we see Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson, once we see Sean McVay and Jared Goff, once we see all these cycles of coaches and quarterbacks who look like they’re set up for 10 years, two decades of success and they don’t have that, we will look back and say ‘Wow, Brady and Belichick were an absolute unicorn.’ ”
Longtime national radio host Jim Rome believes that the legacy of Brady will be that he’s the most single-minded competitor of all-time.
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“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen as committed or dedicated an athlete,” said Rome. “I’ve done this a long time and I ask players, ‘What goes first, your actual physical ability or your will to prepare and work? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a guy work that hard, that diligently, that long, and at age 41 I’ve seen almost no slippage physically to the guy.
“I’ve never seen a guy so singularly focused. Any number of the things he does – diet, exercise – I would abhor. But he loves that process. It’s not drudgery, it’s not work, he really loves the process. Babe Ruth does not strike me as an avocado ice cream guy. In the sporting landscape, to see his longevity, to see his dedication and to see almost no slippage, I don’t know who you can compare him to at this point.
“The number is absurd,” Rome continued. “Nine Super Bowls? I’m walking around, interviewing guys who are in the Hall of Fame, who came into the league after him. Guys that played against Brady and Brady is still playing as well as he is. He’s like the only guy in America who can look in the mirror without regrets. Has he not turned over every stone ever?”
Brady has become, said Florio, if not a national treasure, then certainly a national attraction.
“Tom Brady is now at the Michael Jordan level where, if you have an opportunity to see him play, you’ve got to go see him play,” Florio assessed. “You need to be able to tell your kids and your grandkids that you saw this guy play.”
When those grandfathers are telling the next generations about seeing Brady play, the angst and irritation of the rivalries will fade. Hopefully.
Because, with the way he’s carried himself, Brady truly doesn’t deserve to have a legacy muddled with qualifiers.
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“I think about my kids,” said ESPN’s Tedy Bruschi. “I have an 18-year-old son, a 16-year-old and a 14-year-old, all they know is this Brady Era. It’s their athlete, their generation over a long period of time.
“What’s important is not only the success but the way he conducts himself, the way a champion should conduct himself even when there are outside forces trying to bring you down, When the league office is trying to bring him down with DeflateGate, with the Ted Wells Report and him always maintaining his integrity.
“Always maintaining that attitude he has that he expressed on media night, ‘What do we tell the haters?’
“ ‘We don’t tell ‘em anything, we love ‘em.’
“To me, that’s Tom Brady,” said Bruschi. “I know the fierce competitor. But we need to know the other side. What elements to his story aren’t there? There’s winning. There’s losing. He’s won ‘em all, but he’s lost the biggest. 18-0, you lose. That’s the biggest.
“He’s had success, he’s had failure. Just find a role and I think anyone in American society can relate to it. I think we’re all a part of Tom Brady.”
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