While Tom Brady ponders whether to call it a career or not, it’s important to remember where Brady started and how he became the best quarterback to ever play in this position. It’s not just the seven Super Bowls he’s won, six for New England, one for Tampa. It’s not just that he threw more yards (84,520) and more touchdowns (624) than anyone else, or that he was 35-12 in the playoffs. It’s where he came from.
It goes from the 199th pick in the 2000 draft, buried on the Patriots depth map, to his status as the GOAT. In its way, it’s a story akin to that of another elite American sportsman, Michael Jordan, who, according to legend, was cut from the varsity at Laney High School in Wilmington, NC and used that as fuel all the way to immortality.
Both stories should come with context: Jordan was placed on the JV team as a sophomore. He had time to pick up and become a High School All-American, starting in North Carolina as a freshman at a time when that was as rare as an Honus Wagner baseball card. Brady’s draft stock may not have been impressive, but he was a starter for the University of Michigan; he didn’t sneak into the league from Sheboygan State.
“I don’t feel like I’ve ever gotten anything on a football field,” Brady said at media day a few years ago at his last Super Bowl as a patriot. “I know I had to work for everything good that ever happened to me. And I know I have to keep working if I want it to stay that way as long as I play.”
At the time, Brady had hinted at playing until he was 50, and he was then fully involved in a training regiment where he looked much stronger and fitter at age 40 than he was at 25. By that time, we no longer believed in that was all he couldn’t do as a quarterback. Yes, he was forever surrounded by great players and he was coached for most of his career by the best coach, Bill Belichick.
But those players and that coach also grew because of their proximity to Brady.
And Brady’s greatness didn’t take years to seep through. We saw it as soon as possible. We saw it as soon as Mo Lewis of the Jets beat Drew Bledsoe out of the second game of the 2001 season. Brady didn’t beat the Jets that day. But by the end of the season, he was in the Super Bowl.
And at the end of that game against the Rams, Belichick — whose gut probably yelled at him to play it safe — instead entrusted Brady to take the Patriots on the field and win their first title together. Brady did.
And for the next 20 years that was who Brady was. He didn’t have to win all of his games in the last minute — the Patriots were the better team on the field, almost every game he ever played for them, and the Buccaneers were pretty damn good for the past two years too — but you always knew al: if you had a head start, you couldn’t rest. You couldn’t breathe easily.
Just in case anyone with the Jets—who tortured Brady more than anyone else—had forgotten, there was the quintessential Brady comeback of two touchdowns in Week 17 of this year, the straw that was the last straw: a 33-meter score with 15 seconds left in the game.
And then of course there was last week, at the Raymond James Stadium. Brady had already won a Super Bowl once when he trailed 28-3; now, trailing 27-3, the Bucs were left behind and presumed dead. Except that anyone watching the game, in Tampa and everywhere else, knew: as long as No. 12 is on the field…
And damn if he hadn’t brought them back all the way.
They didn’t win the game because sometimes even the biggest ones can’t write their own script. Jordan did not retire after stepping back that won the 1998 NBA Finals. Ali did not retire after the Thrilla in Manila. Brady walked off the wrong side of the field’s scoreboard for the last time. It happens to the best of them.
And for the biggest of them.