>Not so long ago, Tom Brady was on top of everything. He was the best quarterback in the league, the leader of an undefeated New England Patriots team that had just steam-rolled over the league on its way to Super Bowl XLII. He was setting records with an unstoppable offense, throwing more touchdown passes in a season than anyone ever had. He was posing for cologne ads and dating a Brazilian model super enough to be known by just one name. This was a Tom Brady, however, different than the one everyone already knew. Long gone was the kid so thrilled to be playing in the Super Bowl that he smashed his helmeted head repeatedly against Drew Bledsoe’s like a madman in the players tunnel, for no reason other than to release his pent-up excitement. This Tom Brady was older and cooler and couldn’t be bothered to shave; he had played in the Super Bowl before, and he had won it all three times. This man wasn’t just quietly confident anymore; he was arrogant, scoffing at New York Giant receiver Plaxico Burress’ 23-17 prediction. “We’re only going to score 17 points?” he laughed in a press conference before the game. Just two seasons ago, Tom Brady was on the brink of perfection, the brink of football immortality as the greatest quarterback ever playing for the greatest team ever, and he damn well knew it.
It was disgusting to everyone outside of New England. The younger Tom Brady was easy to root for, while this unknowable golden god was not. The human Tom Brady was the University of Michigan backup, the 199th pick in the draft, and only became the Patriot’s starter when a Mo Lewis shot sent Drew Bledsoe to the hospital. This quarterback was easily identified with, the NFL equivalent of the last kid picked in dodgeball, the guy standing on the sidelines who could do it better than anyone else, waiting only for his shot to prove it. He was throughly likable right down to his last name: Brady, the non-threatening kind of name TV writers pick for a sitcom family, like Tanner or Simpson. Tom Brady could have easily been the name of the boy always tossing around a football who lived just two houses over. This boy grabbed his moment, and the unassuming kid with the cleft chin became the league’s star player, leading the Patriots to Super Bowl victories three times in four years. Somewhere along the way in the 2007 season though, Brady became the villain.
Maybe it was playing for head coach Bill Belichick, a divisive figure who takes pride in his Nixonian levels of secrecy and his barely concealed disdain for NFL customs like injury reports and post-game handshakes. Maybe it was fathering a child with one model while dating another one. Maybe it was just that the unshakable calmness with which he picked apart defenses had become a detached inhuman cool. Whatever the reason, Tom Brady was no longer relatable. Children still wanted to be like him, but it was becoming impossible for anyone over the age of 12 to imagine being Brady. Everyone knows what it’s like to be the underdog, but the playboy superstar wasn’t an underdog anymore. He became the establishment, the thing the hero tries to takes down in a movie. He was now the bully, Mr. Potter, the Monstars, Biff Tannen. Tom Brady, his team, and especially his coach mercilessly picked apart and ran up the score on anything in their way. Luke Skywalker had become part of the Evil Empire, and outside of New England, people rooted for the Empire to be destroyed.
Everyone knows what happened next. Being in the tabloids doesn’t stop ferocious defensive linemen from tearing through your offensive line and ripping your limbs off, and no amount of stylish scruff can give you time to find open receivers. The Empire was defeated when a gawky boy from Louisiana made a couple of miracle plays and finally emerged from the shadows of his father and brother. A new underdog was crowned king as Brady walked off the field. The Patriots, the greatest offense ever, were unable to even match Burress’ prediction of 17 points, scoring only 14. Immortality had been lost, and Tom Brady wasn’t laughing anymore.
Less than eight minutes into his 2008 season, Brady was screaming in pain. He was on the ground, his left knee having just been bent sideways by Kansas City safety Bernard Pollard, causing the ligaments to tear. The already humbled god had to be helped off the field by two trainers and watch his season end after less than a quarter of football. The Patriots were supposed to have been the beast again, able to take another shot at perfection after just falling short, but that dream snapped with Brady’s knee. First his unshakable confidence had failed him, and now his body did as well. The mighty Patriots, the team that always waited until you blinked first, the team that had the diabolical genius of a head coach, missed the playoffs without their star quarterback.
That brings us to today’s Tom Brady. His Patriots are again in first place, but they are not the same machine. They are led by a Brady that has been defeated, embarrassed, and made painfully aware that our human bodies are frail and can be broken. Videos of him laughing at Plaxico’s prediction have been watched hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube. He has been exposed as anything but perfect, knocked back down into the realm of mortals, but in the process he regained his humanity. Tom Brady, still the millionaire MVP with a supermodel wife, still the three time world champion, maybe the greatest quarterback ever, has somehow managed to become relatable again. He’s certainly not the smiling kid anymore, but he not the arrogant deity either. He’s become something else. We’ve all said things we shouldn’t have said, we’ve all gotten cocky with our abilities, and we’ve all been hurt. Tom Brady did all those things on a national stage, but his fallibility exposed him as a human being again. We don’t want our heroes to be superhuman anymore. We like Batman better than Superman, and we like this Tom Brady better because it’s comforting to imagine that like him, we have the ability to overcome our failings, to take our pain and our mistakes and somehow transform them into successes.
So who is the real Tom Brady? Is he the smiling kid with the backwards hat that can’t believe he just won the Super Bowl? Is he the overconfident jerk who lost the biggest game of his life? Or is he the humbled man trying to find his former stroke? Maybe he’s all of these things, and maybe he’s none of them. Most likely, he’s always just been some guy who can throw a football better than all of us, and our perceptions of him are the only thing that ever changed. Whoever he really is, I again proudly embrace the idea of Tom Brady. I like Batman and Marty McFly and Homer Simpson, I like the underdog looking for his first shot and the broken hero looking for just one more, and I like Tom Brady.