Tom Brady ignores brickbats and glimpses Super Bowl glory once again | Paolo Bandini

As usual Tom Brady had the final word. More than 35,000 fans had turned up to the pep rally hosted by the New England Patriots before they departed for Atlanta. Team captains spoke one at a time and last up was the quarterback. He hailed his colleagues for staying grounded through a rollercoaster season. And then he led everyone in a chant of “We’re still here”.

Yes, still. Seventeen years have passed since Brady led New England to an upset victory over the St Louis Rams at Super Bowl XXXVI. On Sunday, he will compete in the NFL’s championship game for the ninth time. No team outside of New England can match that number, let alone any individual player.

The opponents are once again the Rams, though it speaks to how the sporting landscape has shifted around Brady that they are now based in Los Angeles. Where he has spent his professional career in the same place, working under the same head coach – Bill Belichick – the Rams have churned through eight different coaches and two cities in that time.

If Brady’s story were being scripted in Hollywood, then this game might have made for a fitting final act. He was the underdog in the 2001 season: a backup quarterback and anonymous sixth-round draft pick thrust into the limelight early in the campaign when New England’s starter, Drew Bledsoe, went down hurt. Today, he has nothing left to prove.

Brady surpassed his childhood idol, Joe Montana, two years ago as the quarterback with the most Super Bowl rings. Combining regular season and play-off games he has thrown for the most yards and the most touchdowns than any other player and won more games as well. Why not ride off into the sunset now, widely acknowledged as the greatest of all time, with one last reprise of the game where it all began?

Brady has delivered his answer through various interviews in recent days. He told ESPN there was zero chance he would retire after the game, repeating his insistence that he would like to play on until the age of 45, a further four years from now. “I feel like I’m asked that a lot and I feel like I repeat the same answer,” he said. “No one believes me.”

Perhaps they simply do not want to. Such unending domination has not exactly made him popular among fans of the NFL’s other 31 teams. A TV news producer at a CBS affiliate in Pittsburgh was fired last week after running a graphic over footage of Brady describing him as a “known cheater”.

The reference was to the Deflategate saga of 2015, when the quarterback was accused of instructing members of the Patriots staff to underinflate footballs to be used in their play-off win over Indianapolis. He was suspended for four games, after an appeal process that escalated to the federal courts.

Even as that case was being litigated Brady stumbled into another controversy when he placed a “Make America Great Again” cap on display in his locker in 2015, during the early stages of Donald Trump’s presidential run. He insisted this was simply a gift from a long-time golf buddy and did his best to sidestep any questions about his political beliefs.

Trump, however, would assert during a pre-election rally that Brady had voted for him. The player’s wife, Gisele Bündchen, contradicted that claim in a reply to a follower on Instagram. Brady subsequently declined an invitation to the White House after the Patriots’ 2017 Super Bowl win – citing a family emergency – and rejected Trump’s criticism of NFL players who had protested against police brutality by kneeling during the pre?game national anthem.

If national politics became an unwelcome sideshow, it was a power struggle within the Patriots’ own organisation that posed a greater threat to Brady’s career. He has credited his longevity in part to the work of a man he has described as his body engineer, Alex Guerrero, but the latter figure’s growing influence and belief in alternative approaches to medicine and nutrition became a source of contention with New England’s own training staff.

By 2017, there were reports of a rift between Brady and Belichick, said to have grown also from the coach’s insistence on developing a successor at quarterback. The Patriots had drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round of the 2014 draft. Belichick said: “I think you’re better being early rather than late [in finding a replacement] at that position.”

Brady’s response, however, was simply to raise his performance bar even higher at an age when one would expect some physical decline. This is the fourth time in five seasons he has taken the Patriots to the Super Bowl, after making two in the previous nine-year stretch. Garoppolo was traded to San Francisco in 2017.

“Some people are born with great height,” said Brady last week when asked about what keeps him going. “Some people are born with great size, great speed. Some people are born with other things I would say are more intangible.

“It started when I was young and it’s really a part of my whole family. It’s definitely in my family’s DNA to compete and to win. People think: ‘You’re 41. What are you doing?’ And I’ll still be shooting for the stars. I’m doing something I love to do.”

He has not always been able to channel such competitiveness in healthy ways. Brady has recalled breaking TV remotes and punching a hole in a wall when things did not go his way as a kid. Ask those at New England who have played with him and they will tell more recent tales of board games being flipped and table tennis paddles shattered in fits of frustration.

Little wonder Brady is so reluctant to give up the gridiron: a space where a furious desire to win and a willingness to get physical are tremendous assets. He is still here and intends to be for a little while longer yet.

Leave a reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.