CLEVELAND -- Even if he did not have a supermodel spouse, Tom Brady would be living a life to die for. Fame, fortune, championships, leading-man looks and a job that makes him one of the most recognizable American men on the planet. Who wouldn't want all of that?
But upon further review, this is one glamour boy who has never been about the glamour. For however many commercial endorsements Brady has, he could have dozens more. He surrendered that marketing battle to his retired rival, Peyton Manning, a long time ago.
In other words, Brady is the ultimate grinder, a full-scholarship player who built his legend around a walk-on's approach to success. This was back on display about an hour before his return to the NFL, when Brady, 39, was already breathing hard and working himself into a lather Sunday in the bowels of FirstEnergy Stadium. Outside the New England Patriots' locker room, he was pumping his arms and knees while running pregame wind sprints. Pregame wind sprints with a resistance band strapped around his waist and tethered to a trailing team staffer who was providing the resistance.
This is the Brady you never see but sometimes read about, the guy who tortures his body and strains his brain to prepare himself for every given Sunday. It's hard work being a franchise player for a four-time Super Bowl winner, even harder when your boss -- in this case NFL commissioner Roger Goodell -- forces you to take an unpaid four-week vacation from a position that requires constant reps in order to survive, never mind thrive.
Brady doesn't make it look as easy as it looked Sunday by accident. Of course, the winless Cleveland Browns contributed to the cause, providing less resistance to Brady than that staffer holding the band. But the home team's considerable flaws didn't define Brady's performance any more than the Deflategate suspension will define his career. Brady's 406-yard, three-touchdown debut in the Patriots' 33-13 victory was just another reminder that the quarterback's insatiable desire to be great has always been his most lethal weapon.
"I want to do the best job I can for the city, for all of New England, and for my teammates, and for my family," Brady said. "With all of these players, you put a lot into it and ... you have to make certain choices in your life in order to play this game. You need a lot of support from your family and friends to do that, certainly from our fans.
"I love running out in front of 70,000 people that are cheering for us. I love running out when we've got 20,000 fans cheering us, and we've got 50,000 against us. It's just fun to run out and play."
Brady had a blast at the Browns' expense, throwing himself a comeback party that began in pregame warm-ups, when he pumped his fist at the overflow number of Patriots fans who had poured into town. On his first series, Brady completed his first three passes, hit Rob Gronkowski for 34 yards to the Cleveland 2, and celebrated LeGarrette Blount's 1-yard touchdown run around left end by turning toward his bench and pumping his fist even before Blount crossed the goal line to finish the 80-yard drive.
Brady threw a 7-yard scoring pass to Martellus Bennett to punctuate his next series and then found Chris Hogan for 43 yards on the following possession to set up his second of three touchdown throws to Bennett. Brady later stepped into a perfect 63-yard heave to a streaking Hogan down the right sideline, defying his age and any notion that his right arm should be rusty, and closed out the first half with these staggering numbers: 18 completions in 25 attempts, 271 yards, two touchdowns.
"They have a big-time quarterback," said the losing coach, Hue Jackson.
A big-time quarterback with a big-time source of extra motivation. Over the years, superstar athletes the likes of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods have publicly admitted that real and imagined slights have driven them to a higher level of achievement. Asked if the same applied to him Sunday, Brady responded with an artful deflection.
"This isn't a time for me to reflect," he said. "I'm just happy we won today. We're not going to win every time we play. I've got a job to do, and there's no point in looking back at anything, whether we won Super Bowls or lost championship games or the last four weeks. None of that matters."
But Aaron Shea, a former Michigan and Browns tight end who is Brady's close friend, said last week that the Deflategate case "hurt Tommy a lot more than he'll let anyone know" and that he feels certain Brady wants to "stick it" to Goodell by playing 2016 at the highest possible level. If so, Brady has his reasons. Outside the stadium before the game, a group of Browns fans approached a group of Patriots fans on West 6th Street and shouted, "Cheaters." A moment passed before a woman in a Brady jersey fired back. "Losers," she barked.
Asked in his postgame news conference what he'd say to those who feel Deflategate would be a stain on his career, Brady said, "I've just moved on, man. I'm just trying to play a good game today."
He played a hell of a game, too, completing multiple passes to seven receivers. Hogan, the kid from Monmouth, had 114 receiving yards. Gronk checked in with 109 receiving yards and wasn't even the best Patriots tight end on the field. In this rehab start of sorts, Brady looked like he was throwing BP fastballs, nice and easy and right in the heart of the strike zone.
The visiting fans chanted his name, and perhaps Brady wanted to reward them for their loyalty and affection. So while holding a 30-7 lead in the third quarter, Brady did something that was downright mad -- he took off and ran with much bigger defenders on his heels.
Understand that Tom Brady is in his 16th year as a starter, and though he's thrown for more than 58,000 yards in the regular season, he still hasn't rushed for even 900 (he has 999 if you include the postseason). In fact, when he tried and failed to escape an earlier sack, he moved as if Gronk and Bennett were strapped to his back. But something inspired Brady to take off out of the shotgun on third down at the New England 31, and take off (well, sort of) the old quarterback did. Brady gained 4 yards and a first down the hard way before getting blasted near the sideline, undoubtedly sending a shiver or three down coach Bill Belichick's spine. On cue, a defiant Brady hopped to his feet, planted his left hand on his right shoulder, and dramatically extended his right arm toward the sky to signal a first down.
"I don't run much," Brady said, "so I was a little excited. I was just glad we got the first down."
He spent most of his session with the press downplaying any Deflategate-related emotion and channeling questions about him into answers about the team. Belichick? He addressed Brady's effort like he'd addressed Jimmy Garoppolo's and Jacoby Brissett's in his absence -- as just another day to move on from. Just another day in the grind.
If Belichick was moved by his own personal stake in this trip, a return to the city where he'd worked five years as a first-time head coach, he wasn't asked about it. Brady was the one and only topic of discussion, and the most interesting thing Belichick had to say of his quarterback was this: "I think there's a lot of things he needs to work on."
Brady would have it no other way. He left the game with 6:02 to play, shook Belichick's hand, removed his helmet, and hugged defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. Soon enough Brady would be on a bus, and on a plane back home to his near-perfect life, and to a diet, workout regimen, and film study schedule that would leave most men on their knees crying uncle in five days.
This is a blue-collar quarterback with a white-collar profile. You saw that first-down run from a lead-footed, 39-year-old man so desperate to win a record fifth Super Bowl ring that he'd put himself in harm's way with a 30-7 lead over the winless Cleveland Browns?
You really should've seen him running with that resistance band in the hallway about an hour before kickoff. The scene was a reminder that Tom Brady's career has always been about his heart, not his arm or his brain.