The sports world has seen so much change in the past week, as the coronavirus flips human existence on its head. Still, when Tom Brady announced he would not be returning to the New England Patriots, he sent shockwaves through Boston. For the first time in 20 years, Brady will not be the Pats' quarterback, marking the end of an era in a city whose primary cultural claim to fame the past two decades has been the success of its sports teams.
The departure of Brady, who owns six Super Bowl rings, comes less than two months after Mookie Betts, the second-most popular athlete in town, was traded away by the Red Sox. Many fans in Boston were still getting over the emotional void left by the 2018 AL MVP when they learned Brady would be gone, too.
"Both guys brought championships to the city in very key points of Boston's history," said Chris Suazo, 24, a project safety manager at a contracting firm in Hudson, Massachusetts. "On top of that, with everything going on with the coronavirus, and then to have these two athletes all of a sudden gone from Boston, it's definitely left a hole."
When the news broke Tuesday morning, "Mookie" began trending on Twitter along with "Brady" -- a linking of two athletes that marks a major transition in Boston sports.
First we lose Mookie, now Brady.... pic.twitter.com/9y0HAeHtLU— Sam I Am (@_sv0_) March 17, 2020
Mookie Betts & Tom Brady both gone within 2 months pic.twitter.com/OfxjPMwrUU— Raf Porter (@Raf_Porter) March 17, 2020
The trade of Betts and the departure of Brady represents a rare but not unprecedented parting of a city with two of its icons in such a brief period. Among the multiple MVPs who have played their final games for a team in the same city within the span of a year, according to the Elias Sport Bureau, are Hall of Famers Ryne Sandberg and Michael Jordan in Chicago, and Wayne Gretzky and Magic Johnson in Los Angeles.
For Boston sports fans, Brady was a symbol of a seismic shift, dating to his first Super Bowl title in 2002. That was the first of 12 championships by the city's four major pro teams since, including the 2004 World Series title won by the Red Sox to break an 86-year drought -- and another won by Betts' Red Sox in 2018.
Despite much speculation during the 2019 NFL season, many fans still did not expect Brady to go, even when the quarterback listed his Brookline home for sale in January. The same could be said for Betts, whose trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers elicited considerable backlash, with many fans blaming owner John Henry's desire to get the Red Sox under the luxury tax threshold.
In some ways, the emotional volatility of the Betts trade, which included a false start as a three-team deal before becoming a straight-up swap between the Red Sox and L.A., prepared many fans for the emotions that would come when Brady posted his goodbye to Instagram.
"I didn't expect Brady to leave, but I'm not entirely surprised. The Brady thing doesn't hit me as hard because of Mookie leaving," said Bryan Joiner, 41, a finance editor at MSN who has blogged for Baseball Prospectus and SB Nation about the Red Sox during their championship runs. "At least with Brady, there were reasons to expect it and it had built up for 20 years. With Mookie, as much as it was mused about, it felt like trading Mike Trout in a fantasy league. If the world is going to change so fundamentally, this is fitting."
Said Suazo: "Mookie braced Boston a bit for something like this. At the time, we thought that was the worst that could happen, but now it's actually Brady. I couldn't even have imagined that happening even just a week ago, but here we are."
How we lose Brady & Mookie in one year, let alone one month?!— Only In Boston (@OnlyInBOS) March 17, 2020
Maybe it really is all ending...
2020??— Brenndan Rogers (@Brogers2111) March 17, 2020
Kobe Bryant dies
Mookie Betts/ DP get traded
Coronavirus pandemic/ all sports are suspended
Tom Brady leaves Patriots
It's only March... pic.twitter.com/ikQDG2giZD
Before Brady, Boston sports fans hadn't celebrated a championship among their four local teams since the Celtics in 1986. That team struggled to rebuild following Larry Bird's retirement and the death of rising star Reggie Lewis. Meanwhile, chatter about the Curse of the Bambino dogged the Red Sox daily on sports talk radio. With the title-less Pats an afterthought and the Bruins in a dry spell since 1972, there was little to be optimistic about.
For comedian Josh Gondelman, co-executive producer of the Showtime late-night talk show "Desus & Mero" and a former writer for "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver," the success of Brady and the Pats in the early 2000s changed what it meant to be a Boston sports fan.
"To grow up a New England sports fan in the time I grew up was to not know that things could be good, and I think Tom Brady's ascent was like, 'Oh, you can win.' It's so stupid because somebody was winning the World Series and Super Bowl and the Stanley Cup all of those years, but it was like a weird thing, not in a self-pitying way, but it didn't occur to me that you could be on the side that wins," Gondelman said. "That felt like something that someone else did, and that was the experience of things. The first 15 years of my sports life were characterized by, 'You think you're better than me?' It pivoted right to, 'We think we're better than you.'"
Gondelman, who now lives in New York, grew up in Stoneham, Massachusetts, and attended Brandeis University in Waltham, said that comedians knew to expect a smaller crowd at Boston shows when the sports teams were in the middle of a playoff run, something that became a year-round experience.
"If the Red Sox are in the World Series and you have a headline weekend at a local club, it's like you have to prepare for 50% attendance," Gondelman said. "It's really wild. It's a real hit and you'll notice it. It permeates everything."
Boston fans developed close relationships with both Brady and Betts. A city that still takes pride in its underdog mentality identified with Brady, the 199th overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft, and Betts, a 5-foot-9 slugger who rose to win an MVP award and carried his team to a title.
Unlike prior generations, millennial and Generation Z sports fans have grown up watching stars like LeBron James play for multiple teams with success. The turnover rate of players under coach Bill Belichick long prepared Patriots fans for the reality that every player could one day be replaced -- even Tom Brady.
"I do appreciate everything that Mookie and Brady have done. Nobody will ever have the same run that Brady had," Suazo said. "But at the same time, what makes Boston Boston is the fact that we're so 'who's up next,' the next man. Although I'm very sad to see them both go, I'm excited to see what's next. Like Belichick says, it's the next man up mentality."
Still, Brady was part of the daily life of New Englanders, from chatter at water coolers on Monday mornings to annual prayers at Christmas church services. When football was out of season, the latest exploits of "Tommy Boy" -- as many fans referred to him -- continued to be fodder for local gossip, from his diet to his family with supermodel Gisele Bundchen and beyond.
"It's going to change how people relate to the team but also to each other a little bit," Gondelman said. "People are going to have to learn the new thing and the next thing. Tom Brady was a 20-year standing cultural reference and point of fascination in a way that it just won't be for the next quarterback of the Patriots.
"Not in a fair-weather fan way, but so much of my connection to the team since I was a teenager was watching Brady play. I can't imagine it ever feeling the same without him."
So who will be the next face of Boston sports? Many saw Betts as the torchbearer after Brady, but without him the spotlight could turn to Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown, rising young stars on the Celtics.
with Brady and Mookie gone, Jayson Tatum takes the Crown of Beantown pic.twitter.com/Shp5Cj8TMZ— shan hollywood🧨 (@shanhollywood) March 17, 2020
For the first time in 20 years, though, the most famous athlete in Boston will not be Tom Brady, and how that alters the city's relationship with its teams remains to be seen.
"On one level, I understand that these are adult humans making choices for their own lives and they are entitled to that, but when you become engaged and accustomed to someone being the face of the franchise, when that human face goes away, it's harder to engage with the franchise when they have meant so much to their cities and their teams," Gondelman said. "That's not to take anything away from the other hard-working Red Sox and Patriots players, but it's like the 'Fast and Furious' movies when Vin Diesel was gone for a little while. They can still be good, but it's different."