This story on No. 20 athlete Tom Brady appears in the 20th anniversary issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!
My favorite Tom Brady pass didn't result in a touchdown. It wasn't even a completion. And yet, the throw became an exemplar of not only his entire career but his claim for immortality. It occurred with 19 seconds left in Super Bowl XLII against the Giants. The Patriots were technically still perfect, still 18-0, but now they trailed 17-14 and faced a third-and-20 from their own 16-yard line. Brady took the shotgun snap and rolled right.
The sight of Brady on the move with so much at stake showed how far he had come. Brady has always been a paradoxical athlete, at once stellar enough out of California's Junipero Serra High to be both drafted by the Montreal Expos and awarded a football scholarship at Michigan, yet awkward when doing anything other than throwing a football. But Brady's genius has always been his unwavering refusal to concede: to genetics, to reason and, mostly, to the popular notion that he collects scars. His motivation has always been internal. And to transcend his limitations, he first had to accept them -- to understand, for instance, why he'd been a sixth-round pick rather than complain about it.
He knew this from a young age. In a high school interview, Brady admitted that he needed to get faster, so he adapted a drill and created something called the Five Dots -- a hopscotch, of sorts -- that Serra High still uses. That interview clip could easily have been in Tom vs. Time, the recent web-based reality show that testifies to his unending grind at age 40.
That grind wasn't enough to pull off a miracle in Super Bowl XLII. Brady stopped his rollout and threw long to Randy Moss. It was an Elway throw, deep and diagonal, a throw nobody but Brady knew he had in him. And of course, the throw was no accident. There's a YouTube video from years ago of Brady perfecting the art of turning over his deep throws, the ball's nose rising before it drops into the receiver's hands as though dropped down a flue instead of descending like an airplane. The throw to Moss traveled some 70 yards, and it seemed to stun him as much as it did the rest of us, sailing past his hands after cornerback Corey Webster got a finger on it. It was the greatest incomplete pass in NFL history. Even at 18-1, Brady was perfect until the end.
Years after that throw, I sat in Brady's living room and asked whether he ever considered the randomness of his career -- how, if he'd been drafted by another team or if the ball had bounced the other way, his life might be very different from the one in his beautiful Boston home, lined with beach pictures of his wife. His face tightened, and I realized I'd committed a cardinal sin: crediting luck to a man who built himself by refusing to allow for it.
"Did I insult you?" I asked.
Brady's face unwound. "No," he said, then looked me in the eye with that famously steely earnestness. "I'm never insulted by anything."
Senior writer Seth Wickersham has written about Tom Brady many, many times in his 18 years at ESPN The Magazine.