The last time the NFL played a game, Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes were on opposite sidelines in Super Bowl LV. Now, before the 2021 season kicks off, those quarterbacks will be together again -- on the latest Madden cover.
Mahomes and Brady are sharing the cover of Madden 22, the EA Sports video game that has become part of the NFL culture. It's the first time two players are on the game's front in more than a decade.
"Whenever you first get on the cover, that's a special moment," Mahomes told ESPN. "So to be on it again, twice, with an all-time great like Tom Brady, it's a special moment that I'm glad that I'm able to do so soon after I had done it the first time.
"I'll be able to have it for the rest of my life and be able to show my kids and my kids' kids that I was on it two times."
Mahomes was first on the cover of Madden 20. Brady's first cover -- despite all his years in the NFL as one of the greatest quarterbacks to play the game -- came in Madden 18. Now, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs quarterbacks are the first players on the same cover since Larry Fitzgerald and Troy Polamalu in Madden 10.
Mahomes was a kid growing up playing Madden when Fitzgerald and Polamalu were on the cover. Brady was in the league, almost a decade into his certain Hall of Fame career. Still, being on the cover is "surreal" for Brady, who grew up in San Mateo, California, near where the Electronic Arts studios used to be located.
One of Brady's neighbors as a kid worked at EA, and he used to play basketball near their offices. Just being in the vicinity of the game he grew up playing -- never thinking he would be on the cover -- was a thrill.
"To think that now, almost 30 years later, 25 years later, since the mid-'90s, here I am representing EA on the cover of Madden with one of the other great players in the NFL right now," Brady told ESPN. "And just thinking how fortunate I've become over the years to put myself in this position to have these experiences in my life that I'm very grateful for.
"So it's a really cool thing. It's definitely a huge honor, and getting to do it with Patrick and the career he's had has been exceptional."
Brady and Mahomes met in Tampa, Florida, one day to get the cover shoot done. Both were recovering from injuries -- Brady had knee surgery, Mahomes foot surgery -- so Brady said, "It wasn't like it was a skills competition out there," but it was enjoyable for the two to spend time together.
Mahomes said he asked Brady various questions, and Brady, entering his 22nd season, offered a couple of tips about how he worked and has continued to play as long as he has. They talked about how to build winning teams consistently and the preparation it takes to be able to perform at the levels they have.
It was football talk between two of the best to ever do it, with Brady seeing it as a way to pay it forward.
"For me at my age, I've seen a lot of great players kind of come and go, and he's definitely not one that is the type to come and go," Brady said. "I think he's going to be around for a while, and I think it's about how can people maximize their opportunity for what they want in their life and any way that I can give them some tips that they might be able to use."
It's been a long way for Brady -- both in the real NFL and in Madden. When he first came into the league as Pick No. 199 in 2000, he had ratings of 57 and 51 in his first two appearances in the game. His name wasn't even in Madden 01 -- instead going by QB No. 12 as the New England Patriots' fourth-string quarterback.
After wondering "what's up with that," more than two decades later, Brady said the progression to cover athlete is "unbelievable."
"We all started somewhere. At least I was on the game, that's how I thought about it," Brady said. "But you're right, I came into the league with very little fanfare, so it's not a big surprise that I was, a lot of the rankings even then I was still pretty low, but I've creeped my way up over the years."
Brady's days as a low-ranked player were short-lived. Since Madden NFL 2004, he has been at least a 90 overall every year, including four editions of the game where he was a 99 overall.
Mahomes, meanwhile, has been the highest-rated quarterback the past two years, with a 97 rating for his cover appearance in Madden 20 and a 99 last year. Opening ratings for this year's Madden are expected later this summer before the game's launch on Aug. 20.
When Mahomes was on the cover for the first time, he put some copies of the game in storage and has an enlarged version of it framed in his basement -- "something I can always talk about."
"Luckily enough, after having a few good years and being on some good football teams, I was able to be on the cover for a second time now," Mahomes said. "It's really an honor and something I'll be able to have forever."