It’s a trick to put yourself back there, at the first Super Bowl after 9/11, in a football world where Tom Brady was just another guy — over 20 years and a lifetime ago.
The game was in New Orleans, its natural home, America’s perpetual party town, and while Bourbon Street was the usual bacchanal, there was a feeling that week of sports during wartime. The aesthetic was full-on stars and stripes, patriotic and militaristic and defiant, but for U2’s mournful halftime show, where on giant screens they scrolled through the names of the dead.
But the metal detectors, the armed soldiers on street corners, gave away the fact that the leader of the free world was also pretty darned scared.
The “Greatest Show on Turf,” the St. Louis Rams and their quick-strike offence led by quarterback Kurt Warner (he of the new biopic) were considered the game’s cutting edge. The Rams finished 14-2 in the regular season and seemed unstoppable.
Five members of that team are in the Hall of Fame.
The AFC-champion New England Patriots, by contrast, should have been just happy to be there (only one member of that roster – Ty Law – has so far made it to Canton). Their season started out 0-2, and then their star quarterback Drew Bledsoe was hurt, forcing his unheralded back-up into the starting job.
Brady hadn’t wowed much of anyone while he was at the University of Michigan or at the NFL combine. He fell to the sixth round in the draft, and at one point was fourth on the Patriots’ quarterback depth chart, behind not just Bledsoe and his back-up, but also a guy CFL fans might remember named Michael Bishop. The previous season, he had thrown precisely two passes.
He was slow. He wasn’t elusive. His arm was OK but no cannon.
So no one saw it coming.
Brady led the Pats to the playoffs where they squeaked by the Raiders in the infamous “tuck rule” game, and then upset the heavily favoured Steelers at Heinz Field. They arrived in New Orleans as two-touchdown underdogs.
The New England defence was the story for most of the game, until Warner and the Rams roared back with consecutive touchdowns to tie it at 17-17 late in the fourth quarter.
With no timeouts and 90 seconds on the clock, Brady marched the Pats down the field, setting up Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning field goal as time expired.
It remains the biggest Super Bowl upset since the AFL-NFL merger. Brady was named MVP on a day when he threw for only 145 yards and a single touchdown.
And there the myth-making began.
Ever since, it has been a struggle trying to define exactly what makes him great, even as it became more and more apparent that he might be the greatest quarterback of all time. All of the arguments about why he wasn’t really the equal of Montana or Elway or Unitas fell by the wayside. He lifted subpar supporting casts to championships. He came within a crazy catch of completing a perfect season. He engineered a ridiculous Super Bowl comeback against the Atlanta Falcons when all seemed lost. He was the constant as the Pats ruthlessly recast rosters without a trace of sentimentality.
By the end of Brady’s tenure with the Patriots, there was only one qualifier remaining — maybe it was all Bill Belichick. That final asterisk fell aside when Brady led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to what would be his final championship in 2021.
Through it all, Brady became one of the most recognizable athletes in the world, while still being somehow unknowable, still being difficult to fit into a familiar box.
He doesn’t have Peyton Manning’s easy charm, or Patrick Mahomes’ out-front swagger and flamboyant, improvisational athleticism. His embrace of Trumpism and quack medicine and Anthony Robbins made you wonder what was going on behind the pearly white smile. It was far easier to agree on just how good he was than to agree on what kind of guy he was.
What did seem clear was that a man who apparently had everything, once married to a supermodel and succeeding magnificently in the only game, the only life pursuit that mattered to him, still carried a chip on his shoulder, still noted the name of every critic, still felt like he had something to prove until the very end.
What Brady wasn’t willing to do was play on at less than his best or indulge in any kind of farewell tour. He was very good this season. He probably would have been very good next season. But by exiting when he did, albeit at a remarkable age, we’ll never have memories of seeing him diminished, the way we did with Montana and Manning and so many others.
Whether a player who never seemed satisfied is fully at peace in retirement is impossible to answer, because Tom Brady has always kept his distance. But when a new season kicks off next fall, you know he’ll believe he could still be out there, winning, proving the doubters wrong one more time.