We saw so many memorable moments and iterations of the legendary quarterback in his 23 NFL seasons. But which stands out as the most exceptional, following Brady’s announcement Wednesday that he is retiring “for good”?
Cinderella Tom, who as an unheralded second-year pro upset a Rams squad loaded with Hall of Famers?
Back-to-back Brady, who hoisted his second and third Lombardi Trophies well before the age of 30?
Villain Brady, who, after a four-game Deflategate suspension, led the Patriots on a revenge tour to Super Bowl win No. 5?
Comeback Brady — but which one? The one who went from ACL surgery to All-Pro honors two years later? The one who helped the Patriots recover from that 24-point deficit against Peyton Manning in 2013? Or the one who overcame a 28-3 deficit against Atlanta to win Super Bowl LI?
What about Tampa Tom, who orchestrated his exit from New England and, in storybook fashion, led the Buccaneers to the Promised Land?
Maybe none of the above.
For all of his iconic moments, it was Brady’s ability to rebound from his lowest points that always drove home just how special an athlete he was, and what a remarkable career he had for more than two decades.
Most of us will never know what it’s like to cradle a Lombardi Trophy that we ourselves won. Few can fathom the highs that have marked Brady’s career. But the low points?
Boy, can we ever relate to having a less-than-desirable body, as did Brady at the 2000 NFL combine. Or to the physical and emotional pain of an injury. To heartbreak and failure (Brady did indeed fail — in 16 of his 23 quests for a Super Bowl). To workplace dysfunction and frictions, professional and personal embarrassments, and family drama — many of which stemmed from Brady’s own doing.
We can look down our noses and wag our fingers at Brady’s attempt to skirt the rules with Deflategate. But let’s keep it real. We’re all disingenuous in some shape or form. We are no better.
But the thing that made Brady special during his career and led to him becoming the most decorated player in NFL history was his ability to rebound from those low points again and again. Unwavering determination produced one mind-blowing milestone after another.
Wouldn’t it have been so easy to become complacent after one Super Bowl, let alone three? Would anyone have blamed 39-year-old Brady for retiring in 2016 after flexing on Roger Goodell and the league by winning his fifth Super Bowl, and surpassing the win total of his idol Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw? Who would have faulted Brady for hanging ’em up at 40 after falling short in his second quest for back-to-back Super Bowl victories?
But Brady kept coming back for more, kept using disappointment to fuel his drive for more growth and more excellence, and eventually reaped the reward with ring No. 7 in Tampa.
Some would argue that Brady never knew when to say when. That he should have retired following that 2020 championship season. His now-ex-wife, Gisele Bündchen, asked him immediately after the trophy presentation, “What more do you have to prove?” Plenty, the voice in Brady’s head told him. So he came back for one and then two more seasons.
But at what price?
Could he have saved himself frustrations? Could staying retired in 2022 have preserved his marriage? We’ll never know. But Brady needed that 2022 campaign so he could learn more about himself and answer the lingering questions in his mind that drove him to end his initial retirement after just 40 days.
As Brady returned to the Bucs for what would be his 23rd season in the NFL and 45th year of life, we all watched closely, wondering how this would possibly play out. Would he achieve that last moment of glory? Or would he endure a year that caused him to regret his decision?
Forty-five year-old Brady may go down as my favorite Brady. Because for all of the highs, lows and heroics we witnessed for all those years, this Brady was the most relatable, yet still most unbelievable. Stretched too thin, irritable, grasping to maintain some semblance of control on multiple life fronts.
Never had we better identified with Brady than when he confessed, “I’m 45 years old, man. There’s a lot of s— going on.”
But despite all of the frustrations, the betrayals of the Buccaneers’ offensive line, defense and wide receivers at various points, and despite being at an age when most humans hurt just getting out of bed, Brady found a way to maintain a standard of excellence.
It may not have been pretty at times, but he still managed to rank first in the NFL in pass completions (an NFL-record 490) and third in the league in passing yards (4,694). He still made it back to the postseason to add to his records in games played and started, passes thrown, passes completed, passing yards and passing touchdowns. All of that, even in his most human form.
Brady looked bad in his final playoff game. Skittish, even, as he bounced the ball at the feet of receivers rather than hanging tough in the pocket and absorbing the blow of defenders to give the offense a better chance at much-needed chain-moving plays.
Even so, he still could have played at least one more season. Armed with a better offensive line, a stingier defense and more consistent wide receivers, Brady could have made it back to the playoffs. Plug him in on the 49ers and he’s looking at another realistic shot at a Super Bowl. Insert him on the Raiders or Jets rosters and he elevates those squads to wild-card bids.
So why not come back for one more go-round?
Because Brady finally seems to have all of the answers that he sought. He apparently has reached his limit of the mental and physical punishment to which he’s willing to subject his body.
As Brady announced his retirement “for good” this time, his tone differed from that of last year, when you could sense he made that initial call out of obligation rather than desire. There’s a ring of finality to his words and expressions now — even though as the tears he choked back suggested, it still wasn’t an easy call.
So, even though he could have squeezed out one more season of greatness, Brady is leaving (this really better be it, Tom) at the right time, and in the right way: on his terms. He’s doing so just as he has for the last 23 years: as a flawed human, but exceptionally gifted with an ability to persevere and excel while doing hard things.
(Top photo: Lachlan Cunningham / Getty Images)
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