TAMPA, Fla. -- A misty rain began to coat the field at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, on a Sunday night in October. A chill set in -- a reminder that, just like the fall months in New England, life's seasons are ephemeral and time stops for no one.
There were signs everywhere.
"Welcome to Goat's Borough"
"Thomas Edward Patrick Brady: The Ultimate Patriot"
"God, Family, Brady"
"We will always love you, Tom and Gronk"
One sign even had Brady's face superimposed on the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Yet figuratively speaking, the one that everyone seemed to miss, or simply didn't want to believe, was this: When Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady ran out of the visiting tunnel for the first and only time at the place he called home for 20 years, it was the beginning of the end.
We just didn't know it at the time, and he might not have either, but this was the start of Brady's farewell -- the one that he said he didn't want to spend a whole year doing after being knocked out of the divisional round of the playoffs by the Los Angeles Rams last weekend.
The pull of fatherhood and fulfilling his duties as a loving husband became too much and outweighed the lure of a game that once defined him and made him one of the greatest American Cinderella stories we'll ever know.
Brady is calling it a career at age 44, after 22 seasons, sources told ESPN. He is retiring from the NFL.
Brady leaves as the NFL's all-time winningest quarterback, with seven Super Bowl rings -- the most won by a single player in NFL history -- along with all-time records in touchdown passes (624) and passing yards (84,250), which he clinched in his Week 4 return to the New England Patriots.
A return to the Super Bowl wasn't in the cards for the Buccaneers in his final season, as they were decimated by injuries at the receiver position and struggled to find answers defensively against the Rams. But Brady still managed to put together one of the most masterful seasons of his career, leading the NFL in passing yards, attempts, completions and touchdowns.
In Tampa, he helped overhaul the culture of a team that perpetually couldn't get out of its own way, that somehow was always finding ways to lose games despite having a roster laden with Pro Bowl-caliber talent. He turned them all into believers and winners.
When the Bucs were down 24-7 in the third quarter against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 15 last year, Brady led five straight scoring drives, including a 46-yard touchdown throw to wide receiver Antonio Brown in the fourth quarter to win 31-27.
"We never think we're out it," tight end Cameron Brate said of playing with Brady. "The belief that he inspires in all of us -- he's done it on the biggest stage. We've seen him do it. We have a ton of confidence in him, and he puts that confidence in us."
When the Bucs were tied at 20 with the New Orleans Saints in the divisional playoffs last season, there was no panic on the sideline despite losing to the Saints twice in the regular season. They turned three of four Saints' turnovers into touchdowns, with Brady crossing the goal line with 4:57 to go in regulation.
Then there was the buzzer-beating deep heave to receiver Scotty Miller just before halftime of the NFC Championship Game at the Green Bay Packers -- the difference-maker that ultimately propelled the Bucs to their second Super Bowl -- where they defeated the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs 31-9.
Brady had another throw like it -- a 33-yard touchdown pass to Miller with 30 seconds left in the half of Week 7 last year against the Las Vegas Raiders, which might have been Brady's best as a Buccaneer.
"I'm super appreciative that he came to Tampa Bay," Bucs receiver Mike Evans said. "I mean, nobody had no clue he was even leaving New England. ... Very privileged to play with him.
"The best player ever. One of the best teammates and one of the best leaders I've ever seen."
Brady's retirement leaves the Bucs with many questions and a salary-cap hit of close to $20.3 million. Who will replace him? How many players will defect? Does this mean the end for future Hall of Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski? What about running back Leonard Fournette? And how will they manage to re-sign 23 free agents -- including a quarterback -- with $13 million in salary-cap space? Can the Bucs keep that same culture they worked toward without him?
Those questions won't be answered overnight, but one would imagine that the feeling within the Bucs' organization is that it would rather know now and have as much time as possible to rework its roster.
But in the grand scheme of things, Brady showed what was possible at 40-plus years of age.
Who could forget the infamous fourth-down gaffe at the Chicago Bears last season? Brady lived to see another game and managed to joke about it -- all the way to the White House lawn standing beside President Joe Biden. And in the process, he galvanized a city and a team that was merely an afterthought prior to his arrival.
It was in this second act we came to know Brady so much more than the fiery competitor with ice water in his veins who always seemed to come up with an absurdly clutch play in the most desperate of moments. We came to know him for this voice he seemed to find in his final chapter that was filled with dad jokes and tales of runaway jet skis and (gasp) even poking fun at election conspiracy theories.
We also got to see a doting father play catch with his teenage son Jack, 14, who served as a ball boy for the Buccaneers last summer in training camp. It was a realization that the next chapter was looming as he took a step closer to full-time husband and father and looked to shed the title of "NFL quarterback."
While there might not be any more boat-to-boat Lombardi trophy tosses or "just litTle avoCado tequila" moments, it sure was fun while it lasted.