Love, hate and Brady: How Tom became the improbable lightning rod

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's February 6 Super Bowl Preview Issue. Subscribe today!

Tom Brady is addicted to playing catch. Ask any of his friends or teammates and they will testify to this. He loves playing catch the way some people love fly-fishing. It's a physical act that feels, at times, almost spiritual. He's not a snob about it. He'll happily play catch with his wife, his kids, his friends, with Hall of Fame receivers or with journeyman dreamers who barely sniffed the NFL.

At the start of the 2016 NFL season, when Brady began serving his four-game Deflategate suspension, he wasn't allowed to have contact with anyone on the Patriots, or anyone in the NFL. So he and his trainer, Alex Guerrero, came up with an idea. They reached out to Ryan McManus, a 5-foot-11 receiver who had played at Dartmouth. The Patriots had invited McManus to rookie camp in 2016 but ultimately cut him. Now he was working in marketing for a company selling robotic tackling dummies. McManus ran great routes and had great hands. He didn't have the prototypical NFL body, but he had the talent to keep Brady sharp. The chance to work out with Brady was the chance to keep his NFL dream, however improbable, alive. McManus couldn't say yes fast enough.

Brady shields his privacy, the byproduct of living most of his adult life in the fishbowl of modern fame, but it's hard to hide when you need a giant football field to really stretch out and launch rainbows. They picked a high school field in Brookline, Massachusetts, hoping to go mostly unnoticed. Someone captured one of their workouts on video, then slipped it to TMZ, offering us a glimpse into Brady's short stint in NFL exile. Guerrero watched as two men, at opposite ends of football's food chain, played catch in the September sun.

It is not luck, or accident, that Brady is the best 39-year-old quarterback of all time. What often feels mundane is actually the result of this kind of incalculable repetition. Even when forced to be away from the professional game for a month, Brady couldn't resist the comfort of the routine. Whether you view the man on that field in September as a cheat serving a long-deserved suspension, or a role model unfairly maligned in a league power struggle, the road to his record seventh Super Bowl began right there.

Brady has been called many things in his 17 seasons in the NFL: the Greatest Quarterback of All Time; the biggest celebrity in our most popular sport; a Cinderella story whose eventual departure will represent the end of an era. But perhaps the most interesting way to view him, in the late autumn of his career, is by acknowledging how improbable it is that he became the most reliable lightning rod in football, if not all of sports. He's a Rorschach test in shoulder pads, and we'll likely keep arguing about what he means long after he's gone. This is a hard concept for many New Englanders to accept, but you can, in just about any bar, office or classroom in America, start an argument over some aspect of his life: his legacy, his marriage, his ethics, his political views, his diet, his critics or even the behavior of his fanatical defenders.

As quarterback of the most successful NFL franchise of the modern era, Brady has crushed millions of hopes, one precisely thrown curl route at a time. It's only natural that Jets fans, Ravens fans and Dolphins fans (to name just a few) would harbor a normal, healthy enmity for the biggest lion in the Serengeti.

That isn't to say he hasn't brought some of it on himself. He is a magnet for schadenfreude. He has become, especially in recent years, one of the game's most ardent whiners when it comes to lobbying for flags. There is scarcely a back judge in the NFL who hasn't felt his verbal wrath after what he perceived to be a missed call. And while Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers have certainly unleashed their share of blistering screeds at Ed Hochuli and friends, when Brady does it, it seems to bug his peers more. "I've never seen any quarterback look to the referee right after he gets sacked more than Brady," Broncos defensive end Antonio Smith told reporters last year. "Every time he gets sacked, he looks at the ref like, 'You see him sack me? Was that supposed to happen? He did it a little hard. Please throw a 15-yard penalty on him. Get him fined.'"

"Every time he gets sacked, he looks at the ref like, 'You see him sack me?'" Antonio Smith

Brady also isn't immune to getting caught up in the occasional dirty play. The Ravens were privately pissed in 2010 when Brady dove at Terrell Suggs' right knee while the linebacker was jogging well behind the play on a reverse. (The two have a history of mutual loathing.) They weren't thrilled again when, in the heat of the 2012 AFC Championship, Brady slid spikes-high into safety Ed Reed's thigh. Brady was fined $10,000 and later called Reed to apologize.

The animus goes deeper than that, though. What made some people so eager to pounce on Brady during Deflategate wasn't their desire to see the NFL strictly enforce a minor rule like the air pressure in every football. It was the desire to see Brady's carefully cultivated persona revealed as fraudulent. People delight in unearthing hypocrisy.

There is one important but mostly forgotten scene in the Deflategate mess. It came after the Patriots outfoxed the Ravens in the 2014 AFC divisional round, using only four offensive linemen and declaring one receiver ineligible to create confusion for the Ravens' defense. Brady threw for 367 yards and three touchdowns. Baltimore coach John Harbaugh was annoyed, feeling the Patriots had exploited a loophole in the rules. He predicted the league would make such tactics illegal in the offseason, and he was ultimately correct.

When informed of Harbaugh's comments, Brady couldn't resist offering a cheeky dismissal and twisting the knife. A smile spread across his face as he spoke. "Maybe those guys gotta study the rulebook and figure it out," Brady said. Within a week, someone -- the Ravens deny it was them -- turned that statement around on Brady. The Colts insisted the league check the PSI level in Brady's footballs during the AFC championship game, and leaks, allegations, depositions, lawsuits and mayhem followed. It was a kangaroo court, in a way, with the outcome barely taking into account the evidence. If there's one statement Brady would take back, it might be that dig about the rulebook.

Like so many Greek tragedies, it's the hero who sets his misfortune in motion with a glint of his own hubris.

Of course, there is also plenty of love for Tom Brady.

Brady symbolizes the dream, however far-fetched, that anyone can achieve greatness just by grinding in the face of doubt until you get your shot. It's such a compelling narrative that his backstory often feels less like biography than hagiography.

Talk to any of his friends or teammates who know him well and they'll offer numerous testaments to his kindness, loyalty and insatiable work ethic. He has privately supported friends through substance abuse, through cancer treatments. He flew his childhood priest to the Super Bowl two years ago as a thank you for years of guidance. He has remained the same polite but driven guy who used to fold his college roommates' laundry whenever they'd leave it in the dryer. He is said to have refused an academic tutor at Michigan because he felt it would be too easy.

Because of how his career unfolded, he's always had a soft spot for underdogs. An example, once again involving a game of catch: When Julian Edelman finished his rookie year with the Patriots, he got word that Brady and Wes Welker liked to play catch in the offseason. He told his agent, Don Yee (also Brady's agent), that he'd love to be included. Edelman moved back to California and spent much of the summer sitting by the phone. Finally, the calls started coming. "I'd be like at a barbeque and Tom would call and I'd drop everything. I'd catch 100 balls," Edelman said. "I'd run until I'd puke. That first year, he ran me to death."

Every session, Brady obsessed over little details such as Edelman's head position when he turned for the ball or his hand position were when he came out of his break. It was like studying painting with an eccentric artist, except the canvas was a dig route. The two began to understand one another through a series of unspoken nods at the line of scrimmage. Over time, Edelman says, Brady started inviting him back to his house, and they'd sit in the quarterback's kitchen and eat lunch. Edelman recalls thinking about when he was a kid growing up in the Bay Area, pretending to be Brady while he played football in the street with his father. "I was like 'Wow, I'm really hanging out with Tom. He's really calling me, teaching me,'" he says.

That story is relevant if you think of it in context of whether or not Brady should be considered the greatest quarterback of all time. For years, that was my position, formed in part out of frustration with people who seem to believe statistics are somehow transferable or who tap dance over an infinite number of variables that no equation could ever take into account. The idea that Peyton Manning might have won just as many Super Bowls as Brady if he had Bill Belichick's defenses behind him, or Adam Vinatieri beside him, is a cute one, but at some point, shouldn't we adhere to what actually happened as opposed to what theoretically could have happened? We might overrate leadership, like spending hours playing catch with an underdog receiver, because it's a nebulous quality we cannot define, but doesn't it matter?

Brady doesn't have John Elway's arm or Joe Montana's accuracy, and he's never tried to be his own offensive coordinator like Manning. But his genius has always been his ability to make difficult throws seem routine, through tireless repetition and reinvention.

Study his current throwing motion and compare it with the early part of his career. Watch how his right arm crosses his body on his follow through, his left shoulder closed and tight, whether he's trying to hit Julian Edelman on a third-down crossing route or playing a casual game of catch with Jim Harbaugh in the Big House. It's deliberate, and it's radically different from how he used to finish throws.

Several years ago, Brady wanted to guard against the diminishing arm strength that dooms most quarterbacks as they age, so he devised a plan with Guerrero to rebuild his motion and emphasize using more of his torso to drive the ball down the field. It revitalized his ability to throw deep. In 2016, he posted the highest quarterback rating of his career (121.5) on throws traveling 20-plus yards in the air. Manning had to make similar compensations to his motion after four neck surgeries, but in his final two seasons, his body betrayed him. Brady's body, as of yet, has not. It's fun to make jokes about how he'd rather eat tree bark than strawberries, but how do you argue with the results?

It's been hard to watch Aaron Rodgers the past five seasons and not be drawn by the argument that he is going to be better one day, if he isn't already. Yes, Brady has four Super Bowl rings and has appeared in 11 AFC championship games, including this year's dominant win over the Steelers. And yes, he holds the record for career wins with 207. But Rodgers is statistically better than Brady through age 33 in essentially every meaningful category.

Through his first 5,252 passes, Rodgers has thrown for 41,285 yards, 333 TDs, 82 INTs with a 103.6 passer rating. At the same point, Brady had 38,074 yards, 281 TDs and 119 INTs with a 93.6 passer rating.

It might be useful to think of them as counterparts like Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. Brady, like Nicklaus, will likely go down as the GOAT in most eyes because his stunning consistency helped put him in position to win the most championships. Rodgers, like Woods, is such a physical marvel that even Brady seems awed. "He does things that no one in the league has ever done, or can do, just because of his physical ability," Brady has said.

Yet when the question of who's greater is put to one of Brady's former teammates, he offers why it's almost impossible to definitively anoint Rodgers. Bill Belichick's ruthless adherence to the Patriot Way, in which aging veterans are cut or traded before they start to noticeably slip, works only because Brady can cover up holes better than any one quarterback who has ever lived.

"In that debate, I will always default to Brady for one reason: the lack of Pro Bowl-caliber skill players he's played with." Former teammate of Tom Brady

"In that debate, I will always default to Brady for one reason: the lack of Pro Bowl-caliber skill players he's played with," says the former teammate, who asked to remain anonymous. "You cannot overstate what it meant to Joe Montana to have an entire offense that was full of Pro Bowlers. Peyton Manning in Indianapolis was the same. I can even make that case with Rodgers, who's had a lot of consistency at the receiver position. Tom Brady has done what he's done with a bunch of guys you can't even name. Sure, he had [Wes] Welker and [Randy] Moss for a brief period. But other than that, it was David Patten, Troy Brown, David Givens, Reche Caldwell, Deion Branch. Brady's ability to play at the level he plays at regardless of who is around him, that's what makes him the best at what he does. Gronk goes down and they don't miss a beat. Sure, Rodgers can make better throws. He's a monster. That throw against the Cowboys to [Jared] Cook? Brady can't make that throw. But most of the time, he doesn't need to make that throw because he's made 100 others and the game is already in hand."

Brady leaves it to others to calibrate his legacy and in fact has little to say about anything outside of required postgame comments. But in recent years he has casually begun offering up snippets of his private life, always on his terms. When he went back to the University of Michigan in September, he posted a Facebook video of himself and his son, Jack, playing catch in the Big House, a moment of genuine bonding that ended with a bear hug into the end zone.

He joined Instagram and posted a picture of his daughter, Vivian, giving him a good-luck kiss in their kitchen, her tiny arms wrapped around his neck. He placed a small statue of the Hindu god Ganesha, "remover of obstacles," in his locker. He spoke openly about his favorite book, The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, and how its four tenets provided him a road map for much of his 30s:

Be impeccable with your word

Don't take anything personally

Don't make assumptions

Always do your best.

"It's kind of a mantra for my life," Brady says. "A lot of times, it's not about you. It's about how others may feel about themselves and not necessarily about me personally."

"A lot of times, it's not about you. It's about how others may feel about themselves and not necessarily about me personally." Tom Brady

As Brady was battered and slammed to the turf repeatedly by the Texans' defensive line in the Patriots' 34-16 AFC divisional playoff win, there were reminders of why he's still so polarizing. Several times, the Texans dragged him to the turf after the ball was out of his hands, and he responded with a snarling, fist-shaking fury in the direction of the referee.

Other times, the Texans trampled him with what must have felt like the speed of a charging buffalo, his head ricocheting viciously off the ground, his shoulder pinned awkwardly beneath him. But each time, Brady seemed to hurry to his feet, a glare of cold defiance in his eyes. On the next play, he'd make a difficult throw look easy, crossing his arms on the follow-through, hitting a receiver in rhythm, getting him the ball just where he didn't have to break stride. Sometimes he'd come to the sidelines and scream into the night air, the muscles in his neck pulsing with competitive mania.

You can interpret it, or label him, any way you like. He no longer gives a damn. He's too busy fighting and clawing for whatever moments he has left.