HOUSTON -- His hands gave it away. Tom Brady was standing at the podium after Roger Goodell presented him the silver football trophy awarded to the Super Bowl's most valuable player. It was the moment Patriots fans have fantasized about all year: The ultimate villain handing the ultimate victim a bulletproof honor, impervious to scandal, the final word after two years of war.
But when the moment finally occurred, it wasn't as contentious or awkward as everyone envisioned. Both men knew the stakes. Brady has taken the high road throughout the past two weird years, and in winning the Super Bowl for the fifth time and the MVP for the fourth, he might have earned the right to lash out, but he seemed content to take the high road once again.
And so he did. He talked about his teammates, about himself and his famous "outside the box" methodology of body care. He was cruising through his usual lines ... until he was asked about his mother, Galynn, and her 18-month ongoing fight with cancer. And then Brady started to nervously tap his fingers on the podium, as if he were typing, almost trembling, as he tried to stuff down raw feelings that had surfaced during the week, for one final time.
Football stories always seem to be about fathers and sons. That's usually the story when it comes to Brady, and it's usually the story when it comes to Goodell. As a young man, Goodell wrote a letter to his father, Charles, a former United States senator, pledging to make him proud. But the fact is, Goodell has said that his late mother, Jean, was the most "influential figure" in his life. He rarely speaks about her, but he did a few years ago at a Mother's Day event.
He told the story of how Jean was diagnosed with cancer around the time he graduated from college and began what would be a lifelong career with the NFL. He helped her a lot during that time, combining caretaker hours with entry-level job hours, until she died in 1984 at the age of 53. Goodell is famously stiff and programmed in public, but on this day as he discussed his mom, his lip quivered, and his eyes reddened and dampened, and his face turned flush. "She taught me how to live," Goodell said, through tears. "And she taught me how to die."
"She taught me how to live. And she taught me how to die." NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, recalling his late mother a few years ago
Loss hovered over this Super Bowl. It began almost by accident, when a child at media night asked Brady a question that cut to his core: Who is your hero? "My dad," Brady replied, tearing up. He referred to a "challenging" family situation a few times, and that night Tom E. Curran of Comcast SportsNet New England wrote that Galynn was suffering from an illness, later reported to be cancer.
What happened next was surreal. Brady is famously private, especially when it comes to his family; he is, in fact, more private than his family. But during a week when most expected Brady to put his guard up in response to Deflategate, he allowed himself to be vulnerable, processing a private pain on the game's most public stage.
Both of Brady's parents are wonderful people, and they have a half-century of marriage that most people can only hope to emulate -- not only committed, not only happy, but still in love. I went to dinner with them a few years ago in San Mateo, California, and when Galynn arrived, Tom Sr. greeted her by standing up and kissing her. They left that night holding hands.
The elder Brady is so proud of his son that he can barely contain it, and so he often brags about him in a way that Tommy is too humble to do himself -- mixing in a few laughs along the way. "I'm not Tom Brady Sr.," he once told me, mocking how he's always referred to in print. "He's Junior! I'm Tom Brady!"
Galynn is quieter than her husband, but when you're around her, the genetic lines to her son are as unmistakable as lights along a dark road. She is shy, like her son. She is unfailingly polite, like her son. She seems content residing in the background, like her son. She greets people with a hug, like her son. And she is a stone-cold killer, like her son. At that dinner, I asked her what she thought of her son's on-field bloodthirstiness. "I love it," she said.
"He got it from his mother, obviously," Tom Sr. added. "She and I will compete driving home. We competed last night playing cards. She wins for the first time in seven or eight years and she's taunting me. Can you believe that, after 43 years? She's taunting me."
"My mom spoiled all of us," Brady once told me. "To her I was the baby and to my dad I was the boy. So, I had the best. I wasn't a troublemaker growing up. I was a peacemaker, with my mom."
During Deflategate and the #FreeBrady movement, Brady played the role of peacemaker once again. Yes, Brady has had some strange moments, most notably at his news conference before the Super Bowl two years ago. Yes, he was furious in private. In May 2015, when Patriots owner Robert Kraft accepted the NFL's record penalty for Deflategate, it did more than anger many Patriots fans: It caused a lot of tension in the building, with factions developing and people in Brady's camp wondering why Kraft didn't seem to have the back of the player who transformed the fortunes and reputation of the entire franchise. As one team insider said a few months ago, "There's a lot of repair to be done."
"My mom spoiled all of us. To her I was the baby and to my dad I was the boy. So, I had the best. I wasn't a troublemaker growing up. I was a peacemaker, with my mom." Tom Brady
People will argue forever whether Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time, but one thing is certain: He's the least-entitled superstar quarterback of all time. Beyond playing below market value, his behavior during his suspension this past September drove the point home. He worked hard, throwing on most days. Friends knew Sundays would be the hardest for him, watching the game move on without him, and so they sent him funny videos late on Sunday nights, not only so he'd go to bed laughing but also so he'd wake up Monday not feeling worse.
Most around the team knew that Galynn was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments at that time. She didn't attend a regular-season home game for the first time in her son's career; Tom Sr. attended only one. For a few days, her attendance at the Super Bowl was in question.
Brady always controls what he can control. He has become an expert at controlling how he reacts, whether it's about an attack on his reputation or being down 28-3 in the Super Bowl. While not exactly masking his anger, he knows that unfailing class always beats raw vengeance, at least off the field. And so in a weird way, he ended up giving back to his family like they always gave -- and give -- to him.
Everyone expected a massive counterattack from the Brady family this year. It never came. Tom Sr. has blasted Goodell a few times, but after the Super Bowl, when most expected him to really pop, he didn't. He told Albert Breer of The MMQB that the Super Bowl win meant "redemption," and let everyone fill in the blanks. Brady himself never went there. He shook Goodell's hand at the MVP ceremony. He shook the hands of reporters who had labeled him a cheater. He has long ceased ever allowing himself to be the victim, seeking mostly to put the controversy behind him, a strategy his family has mostly followed.
No wonder Bill Belichick, on the morning after the game, dismissed the insinuation that Brady worked harder this year because of his suspension. Brady, a consummate professional, worked his ass off, as always. But it turned out that he did have a deeper motivation, a starker one, which he hid until he couldn't, making Deflategate seem smaller than he ever could by ripping the commissioner.
The game was amazing, of course. But what made it different from other Patriots Super Bowls was its subtext: family. The Patriots weren't just mercilessly doing their jobs; they were doing their jobs for each other. They spoke all year of how this particular team jelled differently than others, and insisted that it wasn't a cliché.
The morning after the Super Bowl, Belichick, unprompted, spoke about how much it meant that his three kids were with him for the win, how much it mattered that his mother watched it, and how much he missed his late father. And then there was Brady. He always says that he doesn't want to be a distraction for the team, but in choosing to speak about his mother, to alert the world to an internal worry, he risked distracting himself. He has always excelled under pressure by ignoring it; now he was raising the stakes.
Brady began the game by running onto the field and pointing to the stands where he believed his family was seated. He ended it by bringing his kids onto the stage to receive his fifth Lombardi Trophy, just as Peyton Manning did last year. But moments before that, Brady kneeled behind the stage, as if in prayer. He was tearing up. Goodell approached him. Both men knew something bigger than psi levels or a destroyed cellphone was at play.
Brady reached out and shook Goodell's hand. They exchanged a few words, and then the man who knows what it's like to lose a mother let go and turned away. Brady was free at last. He found his kids. He found his wife. And when he found his mom, wearing a blue wrap around her head and a white T-shirt with her son's number and "Brady's Ladies" on the back, she leaned into his arms.