EVEN WHEN HE is dressed in a lumpy Patriots sweatshirt and stocking cap, standing before a wall of cameras, Tom Brady manages to look regal. He is so guarded, so calm and Kennedy-esque as he listens, nods and then gracefully says nothing. It's almost easy to forget what a competitive lunatic he becomes on the field.
Put Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. in front of a referee who he believes has missed a holding call, put him in front of a wide receiver who ran the wrong route, watch him stand face mask to face mask with a linebacker who he openly loathes, and he is anything but Clooney cool. His voice, measured and steady in casual conversation, climbs three octaves when it's warmed by the fires of football, becoming as shrill and intense as the squeal of an owl. He is an F-bomb-dropping, spittle-spraying, mini-tornado of fury. He is in those moments -- and this is said with genuine admiration -- a ferocious ass who wants to win so badly that on the field, he cares not one bit about his brand or the image he's supposed to project and protect. It has always been the most revealing and raw aspect of Brady's personality.
Consider, for example, his most recent bout of competitive mania: In the Patriots' 27-20 AFC divisional playoff win over the Chiefs, Brady made a surprising second-quarter dash for the end zone, only to be drilled hard in the back at the goal line by Kansas City safety Tyvon Branch. It was like watching your uncle drive the lane while wearing snow boots in a YMCA basketball game -- horrifying and mesmerizing. As the referees huddled and eventually declared that Brady had not scored a touchdown, the quarterback jogged to the sideline, his temper close to a boil. The crowd, energized by what had just transpired, began chanting his name. Brady put his arm around New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and began roaring and shaking McDaniels' neck like an agitated lion. He wanted New England to challenge the call. McDaniels informed him the team had already thrown a challenge flag. But Brady was so charged with adrenaline, he was barely listening.
Wide receiver Julian Edelman, one of Brady's closest friends, could not suppress his laughter from a few feet away. "Any time the big Clydesdale gets going down the field," Edelman said, "it gets everybody all fired up."
This season, Brady seemed determined to narrow his focus, to tighten his inner circle and block out distractions in pursuit of a fifth Super Bowl ring. No football player in the history of the game has ever been so good for so long while artfully finding ways to keep the public at arm's length. With the criticism of Deflategate still hanging in the air, it seemed likely Brady would make his case for football immortality with the polite aloofness and cold-blooded calm of a Derek Jeter. Instead, he ended up revealing more of himself in one year than he had in the previous 15 seasons.
Love him, hate him, respect him or resent him, Tom Brady finally gave us a window into his life. He is as human to us, now, as he has ever been.
WE ARE, AS of this week, one year removed from the strange Kabuki theater that started Deflategate. That the case is still pending seems somewhat improbable, but it's true. (The NFL's appeal of Brady's four-game suspension getting overturned in federal court is scheduled for March 3.) What is clear, looking back, is not so much Brady's definitive guilt or innocence, but rather how much smaller this controversy likely would have been if it hadn't involved Brady. (The Vikings and Panthers, for instance, were both issued warnings for using sideline heaters to warm footballs on a cold day just a month and a half before the AFC Championship Game.) The error-filled media leaks; the pearl-clutching concern about the integrity of the game; an investigation that seemed determined to find guilt as much as facts; a comedy of circumstance interwoven with league politics; all of it is surreal, in retrospect.
If you believe that the NFL and the media tried to break him -- and you can bet plenty of people believe these things, and not just those who reside in New England and practice their shirtless Rob Gronkowski spikes in front of the mirror -- you can't help but feel a sense of satisfaction that he is still standing, determined as ever.
"Tom Brady is one of the most misunderstood athletes or celebrities that we have in this country," said one of Brady's former teammates, who won a Super Bowl with him early in his career. "If you can't look at what Brady's done and appreciate and embrace who he is, then you're missing what's great about America."
If Deflategate offered a hidden blessing (if not for him, then for us), it was the reveal of little windows into Brady, buried in snippets of depositions and emails turned over as evidence. At some point during his career, likely around the time he married a woman whose fame and income dwarfed even his own, he ascended to a level of celebrity that is almost impossible for mortals to comprehend. You might trash your cell phone too if you feared its contents would leak along with whatever is left of your privacy. Every Instagram post, every scarf choice, every scooter ride in the park with his kids sparks minor hysteria. His admission, just recently, that he has never so much as tried a cup of coffee was reported with the kind of breathless fervor that rivals an Edward Snowden disclosure. Even the smallest things in Brady's daily life ("OMG, check out this Vine of Brady doing an awkward dad dance!") set off a frenzy of gawking, sharing and arguing.
"I don't think a lot of people know personally who I am," Brady said in early September during a radio interview. "They may know what they think I may be, or what they see on the TV screen when I'm exposed publicly to them. For people who may think they know, or have snippets of who I am, you can attack that person. That's part of being a public figure."
The mundanities of his life, though, were oddly compelling. Like so many of us, he has stepped on his phone, dropped it out of his bag and watched the screen shatter against the floor. He can't remember if he has read every boring memo sent around by his bosses. He texts more often than he calls (approximately 9,000 during one four-month period, or close to 75 per day). He refers to people as "babe" and "bud" when he wants them to feel comfortable. He remembers faces around the office, but not every name. He sometimes can't figure out how to print stuff off his home computer. He swells with pride when his son gets an award at school for reading. He gets a little fired up when he's compared to Peyton Manning, and believes he has "seven or eight more seasons left," while Manning has but two.
The Manning email caused quite the kerfuffle when it was disclosed -- Brady apologized to Manning by text, of course -- but it's eerily prophetic now. Although they meet this week for the fourth time in an AFC Championship Game, their current campaigns could scarcely have been more different. Brady threw for 4,770 yards and 36 touchdowns, and he completed more passes (402) than he had during any previous season of his career. Manning started just nine games and threw fluttering ducks in most of them, surviving more on guile and intelligence than ability or arm strength. Manning threw 17 interceptions during the regular season (second-most in the NFL, behind Blake Bortles, who threw 35 touchdowns to Manning's nine), and he posted the lowest quarterback rating (67.9) in the league among quarterbacks with 200 attempts. Although Manning returned to help Denver win its regular-season finale against San Diego, and while he played serviceably in the Broncos' victory over Pittsburgh in the AFC divisional playoff, he is limping into the sunset, while Brady has barely glanced in the direction of the horizon.
What was more interesting about the texts, though, was the private acknowledgement from Brady that he, too, looks at Manning the way most of us do: as the comparative measuring stick of his career. As different as they are -- one is football royalty and was the No. 1 pick in the draft; the other lost his starting job in college and was selected with the 199th pick -- they cannot shake one another. They are the two most important figures of this pass-happy era by almost any objective and statistical measure. And for the first half of their careers, we viewed them not unlike we once viewed Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. One guy had great statistics, but how many championships did the other guy win? One man came to be viewed as the epitome of clutch, while the other couldn't seem to shake the reputation that he was often mediocre in his team's biggest games. In the second half of their careers, Brady's reputation as a cerebral quarterback grew in stature (along with his passing stats), but it never entirely caught up to Manning's. Rex Ryan -- the NFL's most entertaining troll, if not quite its most successful head coach -- seemed to delight in needling Brady about this, often pointing to the fact that Manning has always called his own plays, unlike Brady.
"There's nobody like this guy in the league," Ryan once said of Manning. "Nobody studies like him. I know Brady thinks he does. I think there's probably a little more help with [Bill] Belichick with Brady than there is with Peyton Manning."
Told another time by reporters that Brady attended a Broadway show instead of watching the Jets-Colts playoff game that would determine New England's next opponent, Ryan quipped, "Peyton Manning would have been watching our game."
What Ryan and others have never seemed to grasp, one of Brady's former teammates explains, is that Brady has always been smart enough to accept that it's impossible to know everything. That's why he's the best postseason quarterback of all time. (Brady holds the record for most playoff wins, yards and touchdowns.) That's why he obsesses over the simple fundamentals of playing catch, drilling for hours and hours in the offseason with guys like Edelman and former teammate Wes Welker on stuff as basic as ball position and splits. A player can study film and look at 10,000 formations on an iPad for as many hours as the eyes and the brain will allow. But ultimately, the human mind is not a computer. Overthinking in tense moments, trying to decode a defense like it's a sudoku puzzle, is the perfect recipe for hesitation and panic.
"You know, Brady probably doesn't watch as much film as Manning, and that's OK," said Brady's former teammate. "You know why? Because he's got coaches that are watching just as much film as [Manning] is. What Brady gets is that he's the only guy who understands exactly what's going on down on the field. So when Josh McDaniels calls a certain play, Brady is thinking: 'I know exactly why he called that play. I know exactly what my read is on this.' Brady's genius is that he understands delegation. He trusts the people around him."
Brady and McDaniels work so well together, Edelman says, in part because they're similar in age. At 39, McDaniels is just one year older than Brady. They're like twin brothers.
"Josh is such a smart, innovative offensive coordinator, and Tom is a smart guy, and he's been in this system for a while," Edelman said. "They can bounce off one another, and they have a great working relationship. It's just funny to see sometimes."
FOR MUCH OF the 2015 season, Brady looked tired.
The year, according to someone who knows him well, took a mental toll. He is happy in his personal life, they say. He adores his kids and his marriage, despite tabloid rumors to the contrary, and is in a good place. Football has always been his sanctuary, and while the game remains as much, this season has been an emotional grind in every sense.
"It's a frustrating game, because the situations so drastically change at different times over the course of the week, the game, the season," Brady said after the Patriots lost to the Jets late in the year. "It feels like brain surgery at times."
He has played some of the best football of his career, particularly before Edelman went down with a foot injury, but in Edelman's absence, Brady has had to scramble to plug every leak in the Patriots' hull. With injuries to Edelman, Gronkowski, Nate Solder, Danny Amendola and Dion Lewis, it has been taxing. The playoffs re-energized Brady, but the journey nearly drained him. If he wins a fifth Super Bowl this season, it should probably go down as the greatest magic act of his career.
There is a story Patriots wide receiver Matthew Slater likes to tell about the end of the Patriots' Super Bowl victory last year over the Seahawks that perhaps best explains Brady's essence. When Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson's pass in the end zone, most of the Patriots players were in a state of bliss and delirium, and Brady was, at first, among them. He let loose a high-pitched scream and began jumping in circles like a kid until he found someone -- McDaniels, it turned out -- to hug. But there were still 20 seconds left on the clock. The Patriots had to take the field and kneel down to make it official. After the first kneel, the Seahawks called a timeout. The Patriots would need to execute things one more time to officially put a bow on the victory. Several players began to hug, soaking up the enormity of the moment. When Brady saw this, he went bonkers, yanking his teammates back into the huddle, demanding they maintain their focus for one last play. He was taking nothing for granted. He didn't care what anyone thought. He was going to be a maniacal competitor right to the very end.
"Here is what you need to understand: There is not a guy in the National Football League who loves football more than Tom Brady," Slater says. "And it's not just that he loves going out on Sundays; he loves preparation, he loves taking care of his body, he loves meetings, he loves film, coaching other guys. He loves every bit of it. And that's what drives him to be great."
TOM BRADY, BY design, does not give particularly riveting interviews. He has always prided himself on his ability to achieve some version of Zen before he walks into news conferences, armor against any annoying question that might otherwise get under his skin. He has told friends, privately, that nothing offends him, that one of his favorite books is "The Four Agreements" by Don Miguel Ruiz, and it has taught him not to take anything personally. He is more spiritual than religious, but he keeps a poster taped to the inside of his locker with a Bible passage, Proverbs 17:17. "A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity."
His belief system, however strong, has been put to the test this season.
It was most noticeable during an interview with GQ, for its December Men of the Year issue, when writer Chuck Klosterman attempted to press Brady on how he felt about the NFL's claim that he was "generally aware" that the Patriots were tweaking the air pressure of game balls, and Brady seemed to become generally annoyed at Klosterman's insistence that he offer up some kind of answer beyond pointing out that he already had said plenty and litigation is still ongoing. "If that's what you want to talk about, then it's going to be a very short interview," Brady said, before he and Klosterman seemed to mutually agree it was time to end what was scheduled to be an hourlong interview after roughly 10 minutes.
When reporters noticed a hat with Donald Trump's campaign slogan in September -- Make America Great Again -- in Brady's locker, it ignited a series of awkward interviews over the course of several weeks during which Brady first said it would be "great" if Trump was elected president and that he looked forward to Trump adding a putting green to the White House lawn. Then he backed away from those comments, saying: "I don't even know what the issues are. I haven't paid attention to politics in a long time. It's actually not something that I really even enjoy. It's way off my radar." When a reporter kicked off Brady's weekly news conference with two consecutive questions about Trump, wanting to know how Brady felt about the criticism of their relationship, the news conference ended abruptly with Brady laughing and walking away from the podium.
It speaks both to the bubble that Brady lives in and the sense of loyalty he feels toward his friends that he seemed genuinely surprised by the backlash. But it wasn't out of character. In 2012, when JPMorgan Chase lost $6.2 billion through a series of bad investments, Vanity Fair reported that the bank's CEO, Jamie Dimon, received a surprise phone call from Brady, with the quarterback telling him to "hang in there" and that even Super Bowl champs have bad days. The two had never met.
Patience and kindness, though, do not always come easily. When the Patriots pulled off an unlikely comeback victory against the Giants on the road this season, thanks in no small part to Brady throwing for 193 yards in the fourth quarter, Brady entered the news conference seething over the way he and the offense had played for much of the game. When a reporter asked if his mind had flashed back to either Super Bowl against the Giants -- a softball question, but a non sequitur considering Brady was holding the Patriots together with smoke and mirrors -- Brady was pissed off. He looked away, his jaw tense, until he found his composure and answered tersely, "Nope." The entire exchange took less than 10 seconds. But to people who know him well, he appeared livid.
There is one place, though, where Brady doesn't seem to mind revealing parts of his private life: his weekly appearances on WEEI, the Boston sports talk radio station that has a partnership with the Patriots. Every Monday, Brady calls into "The Dennis and Callahan Show," and while football is always the primary topic of discussion, the quarterback's personal life regularly comes up -- his kids, his parents, his wife, his sisters. Often, his answers are as bland and boring as you might expect. But in recent years, the show has morphed into the one place he will speak openly. In September, when the tabloid media was speculating daily about the state of his marriage to model Gisele Bundchen -- and a few publications were openly predicting that a divorce was imminent -- the hosts asked Brady if he wanted to address those rumors. He took it.
"We're in a great place. I'll just say that," Brady said. "I've been very blessed to have an incredible relationship with my life partner. I don't think anything would ever get in the way of that."
What unfolded on Oct. 12, however -- when Brady was grilled by the hosts about a story published in Boston Magazine regarding his friend, trainer and business partner Alex Guerrero -- was one of the most fascinating interviews of Brady's career.
The magazine piece, written by Chris Sweeney, is titled "Tom Brady's Personal Guru Is A Glorified Snake Oil Salesman," and it details how in 2005, Guerrero was fined by the Federal Trade Commission for pretending to be a doctor (he has no medical degree) and for marketing a product in an infomercial -- Supreme Greens -- that he claimed was curing and preventing cancer, heart disease, AIDS and Parkinson's disease.
In truth, the FTC determined that Supreme Greens was a sham, and the study Guerrero presented during the commercial -- that 192 terminally ill patients out of 200 were still alive eight years after taking Supreme Greens -- never existed. Guerrero fabricated the entire thing. As part of a settlement, the magazine detailed, Guerrero was hit with a large fine and given strict limitations about what he could and could not say about food and dietary supplements. Several years later, the FTC ordered Guerrero's company, 6 Degree Nutrition, to stop selling a drink called NeuroSafe that he claimed helps athletes recover from concussions quicker. Brady was one of several athletes who endorsed it, despite a lack of science supporting its claims.
No one has received more credit in recent years for Brady's physical well-being than Guerrero, who is not only one of Brady's best friends, but also the godfather to Brady's son Benjamin. When Kirk Minihane -- the third host of the talk show and a man with a reputation for bluntness -- repeatedly pressed Brady on why he would align himself with someone with a shady past, Brady seemed determined to explain his nontraditional belief system. "I don't know the details of each of those incidents, but as a person or a friend, there is no one I enjoy more than Alex," Brady said. "He's been an incredible influence on my life, and I think we're doing something really special with our business. So much of what we talk about, Alex and I, is prevention. It's probably a lot different than most of the Western medicine that is in professional sports."
A segment that typically lasts 25 minutes ballooned into close to 40. Even near the end, when the hosts gently tried to steer the conversation to another topic, Brady couldn't resist returning to Guerrero's philosophies. We've been lied to by food and beverage companies, and misled by the government and doctors, Brady believes. Essentially, he said, he doesn't believe in Western medicine.
"That's kind of our [society's] approach to medicine: Wait 'til you get sick or wait 'til you get hurt, and then we'll treat you," Brady said. "Well, how about trying to find ways to prevent yourself from that even happening? I think that's a much better approach to medicine. When you say, well this sounds like quackery, there's a lot of things I see on a daily basis that I see in Western medicine that I think: 'Wow, why would they ever do that? That is crazy. That doesn't work.'"
Brady even went so far as to state that if he had listened to medical doctors instead of Guerrero after he injured his knee in 2008 and developed a staph infection, he's not sure he would still be playing.
"In the 10 or 11 years we've been working together, he has never been wrong," Brady said. "I had doctors with the highest and best education in our country tell us, tell me, that I wouldn't be able to play football again. That I would need multiple surgeries on my knee from my staph infection. That I would need a new ACL, a new MCL, that I wouldn't be able to play with my kids when I'm older. Of course, I go back the next year and we win comeback player of the year. I follow the next season, and we win the MVP of the year. I've chosen a different approach, and that approach works for me. ... I wouldn't be playing today if it wasn't for what he's been able to accomplish with me."
Brady has already determined that spreading this gospel will be his calling after football. He doesn't want to coach or go into broadcasting. He believes his company, TB12, is going to change the way we think about sports and nutrition. His website, TB12Sports.com, went live this week, declaring in its mission statement that the company offers a "comprehensive and customized method that fosters accelerated injury recovery and performance longevity in a holistic and prevention-oriented way."
Boston.com recently interviewed Brady's personal chef, who revealed that Brady and his wife eat a diet so strict that it consists of 80 percent vegetables. It doesn't include dairy, coffee, mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, white sugar, white flour or iodized salt. It's designed to limit inflammation, and Brady is convinced it's the reason he has started 125 consecutive games. As an experiment, an editor and blogger for Women's Health wrote about how she and her husband tried to eat like Brady and Bundchen for a week. They gave up after two days.
"You guys may think I'm full of crap," Brady said during the radio interview, "but the proof is what I see on the field."
SEVERAL YEARS AGO, long before the Deflategate investigation and his fourth Super Bowl victory, Brady made it part of his pregame ritual to run onto the field for warm-ups while Jay Z's "Public Service Announcement" blares from the speakers inside Gillette Stadium. You can tell it's one of his favorite parts of game day by the way he pumps his fist, bounces on the balls of his feet and acknowledges the rabid Patriots fans already in the stands. Against the Chiefs, he trotted the length of the field slowly, knowing it might be his last chance to soak in the atmosphere of Gillette Stadium this season. When he reached the end zone, he roared, slashing the air with a vigorous punch. Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce, looking on from a few yards away, mocked Brady with a celebration of his own, punching the air and bobbing his head. Brady glanced at Kelce, acknowledging he had seen the gesture, but jogged away in a manner suggesting that lions do not concern themselves with the opinions of sheep.
Brady insists "Public Service Announcement" has no grander meaning. Jay Z is just an artist he enjoys. But it's natural to listen to the lyrics and wonder if the song's interlude doesn't resonate, now, on a deeper level.
Before I finish, let me just say
I did not come here to show out
Did not come here to impress you
Because to tell you the truth, when I leave here, I'm gone
And I do not care what you think about me
The end is coming. It's not coming as fast for Brady as it is for Manning, but it always comes faster than everyone believes it will. That's the story of sports. Still, it's not yet time for reflection. A career eulogy would enrage him. But the best vegetables and the smartest body guru and a genius head coach cannot hold back the tide forever. Brady even said as much this year after being called robotic. "I'm a human," he said. "There's no doubt. I'm definitely human."
Still, Brady might be right. He might play deep into his 40s. His magic as a player has always been more about his ruthless efficiency than his jaw-dropping, field-stretching throws. He can't uncork 50-yard lasers like Aaron Rodgers, but he also doesn't have to. He is better at taking a scalpel to a defense than anyone who has ever lived. You delude yourself into believing he is aging backward, that he can play forever, but the final chapter of his football life has, at the very least, begun. A sense of melancholy accompanies that realization, the understanding that while his best moments might be happening now, they are slipping through our fingers.
Some moments, though, he cannot help but pause to savor. After the Patriots knocked off the Chiefs, Brady sat on a stool in front of his locker and peeled off his pads, pausing several times to ruffle the hair of his two sons, Jack, 8, and Benjamin, 6, who were making a rare appearance at the stadium. The two boys peppered him with questions about the contents of his locker. Why did he need hand warmers? Why were his pads so sweaty and smelly? Who was he signing that poster for? He laughed and whispered his answers, playfully rubbing a thigh pad on Jack's forehead, laughing as Jack wrinkled his nose. It was the happiest he had looked all season. When he stood up with a towel, preparing to head to the showers, Jack shot his father a look of concern.
"Dad, how did you get that blood on there?" he asked.
Above Brady's heavily taped right ankle was a small, red scrape.
"Just from playing football, bud," Brady said, grinning as he walked away.