HOUSTON -- Tom Brady had just proven himself to be the greatest football player of all time, never mind the greatest quarterback, and yet he was angry. Red hot. He was wearing a sweat-soaked Super Bowl-champion T-shirt at his locker, and he was acting as if someone had just swiped his New England Patriots jersey.
In fact, someone had just swiped his iconic No. 12, or so it appeared.
"Did anyone see it?" he asked teammates, equipment guys, staffers, even reporters.
Brady's head was on a swivel, and his eyes were turning more urgent by the second. He looked downfield, upfield, into the flat, but the jersey was nowhere to be found.
"I absolutely, 100 percent put it in my bag," Brady said. He bent over and searched through the open bag at his feet, rummaging through his gear like you wouldn't believe.
"Did someone take my jersey?" he asked again, growing more alarmed and impatient.
"Someone took it, E," he said to a locker room guy who looked liked someone you would call "E."
People all over the room were trying to persuade Brady to forget the damn jersey and remember that he'd just delivered the most remarkable comeback victory in Super Bowl history. The Atlanta Falcons were up 25 points late in the third quarter, and all Brady did was send the game into overtime by leading his team on two eight-point drives (including one that covered 91 yards) in the fourth quarter.
All Brady did was throw a pass to Julian Edelman, who made a catch that reduced David Tyree's immaculate reception from nine years ago to a 4-yard out pattern. All Brady did was lord over the winning 75-yard drive in overtime, set all kinds of records and become the first quarterback to earn a fifth Super Bowl ring. All Brady did was claim his fourth Super Bowl MVP award in a forever 34-28 victory.
But the man is a hopeless perfectionist, and someone had violated his perfect scene in the perfect locker room by making off with that jersey.
"If anyone sees it on eBay ..." Brady said after finally cracking a thin smile. He pointed again to his bag on the floor. "It was right in here."
He unwrapped the tape from around his legs, and he pulled off his big red Under Armour shoes before heading to the showers. But before he made his getaway, Brady had lost himself in a hug with Willie McGinest, the star linebacker and defensive end from the early dynasty years. The quarterback called McGinest "big brother," and as Brady made his way to his locker he said, "What a day."
A voice shouted, "Make room for the GOAT," and Brady said, "No, no, no." He hates being called that, even if he knows it's true. Brian Flores, the Patriots' linebackers coach, pushed through a circle of reporters and wrapped his arms around Brady. "Never a doubt," the quarterback said. Flores said he'd told people when the Falcons were winning big, "We've got Tom Brady. We're going to be all right."
Patriots owner Robert Kraft told a similar tale. After he hugged Brady and planted a kiss on his cheek, Kraft relayed a conversation he had with his son Jonathan, the team president.
"I looked over at Jonathan, and it was the middle of the third quarter," Kraft said. "I said, 'Do you think Tommy has given up?' No effin' way, we both said."
Kraft then spoke to his quarterback's source of motivation. In the lead-up to Super Bowl LI, Brady had finally opened up his heart and soul to America and became more relatable, more touchable, more like one of us.
He cried when he called his dad his hero. He posted an Instagram photo of the Brady men kissing Tom's ill mother, Galynn. The quarterback said he wanted to beat the Falcons for her, too. No longer was Brady the superstar quarterback with the supermodel wife who kept all of his inner thoughts locked behind the gated walls he erected around his news conference podiums. He was just another good son who desperately wanted his parents to be happy, healthy and very much a part of his life.
But suddenly the Falcons were running the Patriots out of the building, and Brady could be seen doubled over on the bench, locked in a state of disbelief. "I knew how emotional he was when he was down the way it was," Kraft said, "and we had talked at his locker before that.
"This was the first game his mother had been at, and she's been going through a lot. He said, 'Let's win one for her,' and I was thinking when we were down, when it was 28-3, how he must have felt."
Brady had tried to find Galynn in the stands before the game, but couldn't spot her in the sea of Patriots fans waving at him. His father, Tom Sr., was attending only his second game of the season, a personal-low for him. Brady's dad was too busy tending to Galynn's health issues to worry too much about football. "It's been a challenging year for my family," their son had said. In the end, those challenges fueled him far more than Deflategate ever could.
Tom Brady reminded everyone Sunday night, and all season, that love is a much better source of inspiration than hate. When the franchise player returned from his four-game suspension to start the season, everyone assumed he'd be motivated by rage. One of his best friends, a former Michigan teammate and NFL tight end, Aaron Shea, told ESPN.com that the league's sanction "hurt Tommy a lot more than he'll let anyone know. We barely talked about the details other than a lot of F-bombs going back and forth. ... I want him to stick it to Roger Goodell so bad."
Shea described Brady "as angry" and said the commissioner had "pissed off the GOAT." The quarterback then went out and picked apart the Cleveland Browns on his way to a 28-touchdown, two-interception season that had witnesses leaguewide shaking their heads. He was 39 years old, and playing the best football of his life. The storyline was simple: Goodell had lit his fire just like Lloyd Carr had lit his at Michigan, and just like NFL personnel guys had lit his by allowing him to last until the 199th pick of the 2000 draft.
No, this season wasn't about revenge after all. It was about giving his mother the gift of watching her boy play a game like no man had ever played it. Even Brady's childhood idol, Joe Montana, couldn't build a credible case that Tom Terrific isn't the best quarterback of all. That conversation is dead and buried. The only argument worth having is the one involving the NFL's greatest player, and Brady beats Jim Brown, Lawrence Taylor and Jerry Rice on that front, too.
At 39, Brown was already 10 years and 18 movies into his Hollywood career; he was filming "Take a Hard Ride" in the Canary Islands. LT was already five years into his retirement. Rice was still playing at a high level at 39, but his standing as a dynasty-maker in San Francisco was slightly diminished by the fact Montana's 49ers had won two Super Bowls before Rice was drafted.
The quarterback is everything in the NFL, and Brady has more seasons to play and more titles to win. If you know Brady, you know he doesn't want to end up in a five-rings tie with the likes of Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Derek Jeter. He wants to match Michael Jordan with No. 6, and then some.
Brady put himself in position Sunday night with the performance of his life. He overcame the brutal pick-six in the second quarter that gave Atlanta a 21-0 lead, and he overcame the five sacks and the consistent pounding he took from the Falcons' front line. New England fans chanted Brady's name, and he finished a season he started on the suspended list -- and playing catch with his wife Gisele -- by taking his partnership with Bill Belichick to a place no quarterback-coach partnership has been in the Super Bowl era.
Brady completed 43 of 62 passes for two touchdowns and a record 466 yards and knelt on the field in prayer after James White ended it in overtime. Belichick and LeGarrette Blount were among the Patriots who embraced him as the confetti fell.
"It was a hell of a football game," Brady said.
Before he went on a mad search for his lost jersey (which is still missing) in the locker room, Brady said he didn't get to spend much quality postgame time with his mom, who was wearing a bandanna around her head after undergoing radiation treatments and chemotherapy. That was OK. Galynn Brady had just watched her own flesh and blood, the best NFL player ever, pull off the ultimate miracle in his miraculous career.
Mother's Day had arrived three months early at the Super Bowl, and for a Brady bunch that had endured a long and cruel year, that was plenty good enough.