CHANDLER, Ariz. -- It was 1:38 in the morning, and Tom Brady had been on his feet for hours. A private party inside the Buzzard room of the Patriots' team hotel was starting to wind down. For most of the night during the Patriots' team bash after winning Super Bowl XLIX, this gathering -- behind closed doors that opened only for a few dozen on the guest list, mostly current and former players -- had drawn crowds of people clamoring to get in. It was, as it was known on the outside, "Brady's party." You see, a few years ago Brady decided that, win or lose, the best way to spend the night after the Super Bowl was away from the crowds and noise and in a small, quiet room with those he cares about most.
But as the night went on, people began to slip out. Most of Brady's family had left. His personal trainer, Alex Guerrero, had left. Now only a dozen or so people remained.
Brady, wearing a gray sweater and a white Super Bowl champions hat, stood next to Patriots owner Robert Kraft. On a small table in front of them was the Lombardi trophy, a reunion 10 years in the making. Brady's voice was scratchy, and he moved slowly around the room, the only one without a drink in his hand, posing for pictures with whomever asked, almost always opening his mouth wide and holding four fingers high, one for each championship, as the shutters snapped. He held his pose, even for many second pictures when the flash didn't go off. There was something oddly fitting about the celebration, as understated as it was exclusive. Nobody was whooping or dancing or downing shots. Nobody was even raising a toast. It was a party of jubilant relief for Brady. It was a party for a grown man who fully appreciated the elusiveness of the trophy sitting on the table. It was a party, to be blunt, for someone who had some scars.
A few hours earlier, in a packed ballroom down the hall from Brady's party, a different party kicked off. Many younger Patriots players -- most of whom had never won a Super Bowl and thus never experienced the agony of having one robbed from them -- and their friends and family stood in front of a stage and danced and hollered and partied hard. Back in the day, when Brady was 24 or 25, he would have been here, cheering with a drink in his hand. Singer Darius Rucker strapped a guitar around his neck and yelled, "SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONSHIP NUMBER FOUR!"
Rucker continued, "The first time you guys won the Super Bowl, this song was made." He then dove into the opening riff of "Time," a hit that actually predated the Brady-Belichick era, and sang lyrics that few of the younger Patriots in the audience could truly appreciate:
Time, why you punish me?
Like a wave bashing into the shore, you wash away my dreams Time, why you walk away? ... Can you teach me about tomorrow, and all the pain and sorrow running free?
Cause tomorrow's just another day, and I don't believe in time.
Of course, Brady doesn't really believe in time, either. He talks about playing into his 40s. He always tells friends, "Our best is yet to come." He has said these things even as he has soared in regular seasons that have ended with playoff losses and left fans wondering whether he was capable of recapturing the magic of his youth. His optimism never died, but his cockiness -- that fierce bloodthirstiness that lurked underneath the most decent and sincere superstar athlete of his generation -- seemed diminished. No doubt, part of that was due to age. He was no longer the single guy in the commercials eating dinner out with his offensive linemen; he was a husband and father who, as he told me two years ago, has become "more coach than player." Instead, he was a quarterback whose increased efficiency and ruthlessness had not produced the miracles of his first few years. Instead, those miracles were coming by way of Eli Manning, Joe Flacco and, most recently, Russell Wilson.
Brady didn't believe in time? Time sure didn't seem to care. He was asked recently about his memories from his first Super Bowl game-winning drive against the Rams in February 2002, back when his talent and his penchant for ending the season with confetti in his hair seemed infinite. He said that it was "hard to remember that far back."
"The experiences are different now," he once told me. "It's hard to go back."
The two weeks leading up to Super Bowl XLIX were probably the strangest of Brady's career. They were certainly the most emotional. He was deeply offended at the notion that he intentionally and illegally deflated footballs, and unlike Spygate -- which was really more of an indictment of Belichick than the players -- Deflategate was the first time Brady's personal integrity was up for debate. He was angry and hurt, and his answers -- he privately told friends that he had nothing to hide, and more or less echoed it in public -- seemed to produce only more questions.
For the first time anyone can remember, Brady seemed rattled, angry, hurt. But he never played the slighted card, the maxim of his youth. As he's aged, he's learned that it's not healthy to live in a state of constantly having to prove yourself. He hasn't mellowed. Rather, he's improved on his Hall of Fame career not by reminding himself that he was once a sixth-round pick but by accepting the fact that he was a sixth-round pick and obsessively working on his weaknesses. He told friends he wanted to play free, unburdened, fiercely motivated but not angry.
By the time Super Bowl week had rolled around, Brady had processed his hurt and refocused on the joy of having a sixth chance to win a world championship. He didn't even seem bothered by questions about the NFL investigation anymore. He was happy to be standing at a podium at the Super Bowl, one of two remaining teams. "All week long, Tommy said, 'Take the high road,'" said his father, Tom Brady Sr.
Still, moments after the Patriots' 28-24 win over the Seahawks, in which Brady erased the largest fourth-quarter deficit in Super Bowl history, his father leaned against his son's new red MVP truck and, liberated by a win, released more anger than he wanted to but not nearly as much as he was feeling.
"He is all class," Brady Sr. said of his son. "For people to question his integrity ... "
He shook his head.
"The drip, drip, drip way that things have come out," he said, referring to leaks during the investigation. "It's a conniving way to do business. ... There was no sting? B.S. They've never gauged footballs at halftime. He got screwed the past two weeks."
The tension in Brady Sr.'s eyes, coming from under the bill of a navy TB12 hat, was palpable. But after he walked away to join the rest of the family, you could see on the back of his hat a subtle but clear resurrection of his son's cockiness of a decade ago. It said TEAM BRADY and listed all of the Super Bowls that the Patriots had won. XXXVI ... XXXVIII ... XXXIX ...
Now, whenever Brady is doubted -- out of high school, at Michigan, after the 2000 draft, even as the greatest quarterback of his generation -- he always seems to raise the stakes. And it continued to the hat, of all things. After all, the hats were embroidered before the game. And the last four Roman numerals of the Super Bowl on the back of it were a straight shot across the bow:
The private party was clearing out, but Brady was still walking around the room slowly, chatting with friends, posing for pictures, savoring a moment that he has thought about every day of his life since he decided as a preteen that he wanted to be a quarterback. It was surreal to consider that if Patriots rookie safety Malcolm Butler hadn't jumped a route and intercepted Wilson's pass at the goal line with 20 seconds left, Brady would have been in bed, sleepless and staring at another offseason of replaying missed opportunities and wondering why the two luckiest catches in NFL history came at the expense of him in the fourth quarter of Super Bowls. He walked by former Bears kicker Jay Feely, one of Brady's best friends from their days at Michigan. Feely seemed to sense something different in Brady, something that many had noticed but struggled to articulate.
After they hugged, Feely raised his hand above his head and said, "Your ego is going to be back up here now."
"Awesome," Brady said, smiling. "It's awesome."
Fifteen minutes later, as 2 a.m. approached and most had called it a night, Brady strolled outside, through a courtyard, checked his phone, then walked back inside, not to the quiet private room but instead to the bumping, raucous ballroom. By now, Rick Ross was on stage. The night was still young. And Brady wanted to be with his teammates.