Throughout his Hall of Fame career, Tom Brady has been driven by perceived slights. A fourth ring might have placated the 37-year-old quarterback, but Deflategate sanctions will add new fuel to his competitive fire
Editor’s note: This is part of our summer series, The MMQB 100, counting down the most influential people for the 2015 season.
The question lurks in the background for every iconic athlete, growing louder with each passing year. How will it end?
For Tom Brady, the past six months have made that question far more complicated.
Since the NFL publicly deemed the four-time Super Bowl champion as having been “at least generally aware” of deliberate efforts by team employees to illegally deflate footballs used in the AFC Championship Game, a benchmark was driven into the ground of Brady’s career: Before Deflategate, and After Deflategate. Whether you belong in the camp that believes Brady has been egregiously wronged by Roger Goodell (a population that roughly matches up with residents of the six New England states), or the one that thinks the leader of the cheating Patriots got caught red-handed (most of the other 31 NFL cities), you know that this dividing line now exists.
Which is why we’ve ranked Tom Brady No. 1 in The MMQB 100, our countdown of the most influential people for the 2015 season. There isn’t yet a final answer on whether or not Brady will serve the length of the original four-game suspension issued by the NFL (or if he will serve any suspension at all), but we know Brady will be back on the field by mid-October, for the ever-so-conveniently scheduled game against the Colts, the opponents in last year’s AFC title game. History tells us Brady will play the A.D. years of his career with a vengeance. So does his longtime teammate, Rodney Harrison:
“You’ve got way over $100 million in the bank. You’ve got a beautiful wife. You’ve got a beautiful family. The natural tendency would be to say, ‘I can lie in my silk sheets and just enjoy life now. I don't need football.’ But I'm telling you: This is the best thing that could have happened to Tom Brady. This will rejuvenate him. The rest of the league better look out. This year, he's going to make everybody pay for what's happened.”
Ever since he has been playing in the spotlight, from battling for the starter's job at Michigan in the late ’90s, to being passed over 198 times in the 2000 NFL draft, to the quarterback controversy going into his first postseason, to the post-Spygate, near-perfect 2007 season, Brady has been fueled by the perception that he is being doubted. Now that he is 37 and possesses four championship rings, that fire has been re-lit under the most extreme circumstances. And perhaps not since 1969, when Super Bowl III MVP Joe Namath went toe to toe with commissioner Pete Rozelle and temporarily retired from the NFL over his stake in Manhattan saloon Bachelors III, have we seen a showdown of this magnitude between the league and one of its icons.
It’s not enough for Brady to stand on his B.D. accolades. The reigning Super Bowl MVP, the leader of the closest thing to a modern NFL dynasty, has been challenged. He has so far responded mostly with silence, waiting to make his loudest rebuttal on a field.
“Believe me, he's not saying anything right now, but this is pissing him off, big-time,” says Harrison, who won two Super Bowls with Brady. “He will be supremely motivated this year. I know him. I know how he thinks. And this is going to be very bad for the rest of the league when they play Brady this year.”
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[infobox id="46934-1" float="right"]The seeds of that I’ll show you mindset were sown before Brady got to the NFL, back at Michigan. After Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr chose Brian Griese as the starter for the 1997 season, Brady considered transferring. When he met with his coach, Brady told Carr, “I’m gonna prove to you that I’m a great quarterback.” Brady spent his last two seasons in Ann Arbor staving off Drew Henson, a top quarterback recruit as well as a highly regarded New York Yankees farmhand. Henson was considered the once-in-a-generation athlete of the group. At the start of Brady’s senior season, he and Henson each would play one quarter in the first half, and at halftime the coaches would choose one QB to finish out the game. By midseason Brady had won the job outright, but that platoon arrangement was a big reason why he fell to the sixth round of the draft.
When Brady got to New England in the spring of 2000, the 22-year-old told owner Robert Kraft a version of his message to Carr: “I’m the best decision this organization has ever made.” Brady’s proving grounds were behind the scenes, as in the offseason program, where he gunned for the prime parking spots Bill Belichick awarded to top performers.
“My most vivid memory from when he first got there is this fourth-string quarterback who just kept climbing up the ladder,” says Damien Woody, the former Patriots center who snapped to Brady in his first Super Bowl. “One minute he was fourth string, then he was second string, then all of a sudden… we know how the whole thing goes down with [Drew] Bledsoe. Even though he’s, in my opinion, the best quarterback in the history of the game, he still views himself as that same underdog. That’s why this whole situation is just going to feed into his DNA.”
As much as there has been that common thread through all stages of his professional NFL career, another reason Brady’s career arc is so fascinating is that it contains a jarring heel turn. He was a sixth-round pick and fourth-string quarterback who became the unlikely hero for an unlikely champion. That he was humble, handsome and showed a flair for the dramatic to lead a team called the Patriots to their first Super Bowl title months after the 9/11 attacks made him one of the greatest underdog stories ever, in football or otherwise.
Over the next few years he revealed himself to be relentless, competitive and fiery, the type of player who would bark at opponents, officials and teammates. Brady was increasingly seen as an extension of Bill Belichick, whose wildly successful run in New England has been offset by a gruff demeanor and a reputation for a win-at-all-costs approach to the game. By 2007, with the Spygate investigation serving as a backdrop, Brady was Goliath. Randy Moss, the supremely talented but sometimes troubled wide receiver who didn’t fit the “Patriot Way” mythos, was his weapon of choice. Motivated by perfection and fueled by frustration over Spygate accusations, the Patriots didn’t just beat opponents, they embarrassed them. Brady was often throwing downfield in the fourth quarter of games that were already well out of reach, compiling record statistics along the way.
Of course, nobody roots for Goliath. At Super Bowl 42, most of the nation celebrated when the underdog Giants—the ones representing the world’s biggest city, piloted by a No. 1 overall draft pick, competing for their third Super Bowl title in a little more than two decades—beat up Brady and upended the previously undefeated Patriots.
Brady’s next six seasons included a torn ACL in the subsequent opener, another Super Bowl loss to the Giants and playoff losses to a rival team (Rex Ryan’s Jets) and a rival quarterback (Peyton Manning’s Broncos). The fact that his decade-long wait to reclaim the Lombardi Trophy ended under the specter of Deflategate had all of Boston whipped up into a frenzy, fueled by local sports talk radio and heavy-handed whiskey pours. Underlying the glee that sent Patriots fans charging down Boylston Street the night of Feb. 1 was indignation.
“Know what the problem is? We’ve been winning so much, the country is sick of it,” one Patriots fan, 28-year-old Joe DeSantis of Revere, Mass., said a few hours before Super Bowl XLIX kickoff, in one of the bars across from North Station and the Celtics’ home arena. “Remember in 2001, when Tom Brady was an underdog? Everyone wanted to see him win. Now the crazy thing is, everyone is so sick of feeling that way, they want to build more up out of Deflategate when really nothing happened.”
DeSantis’s buddy at the bar that afternoon, Bob Williams, also a Massachusetts native, chimed in with an analogy: “Like Hulk Hogan. He was one of the most-loved wrestlers, then he joined NWO and became hated.”
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[infobox id="46934-2" float="right"]That Brady is on the cover of the 2015 official NFL Record & Fact Book, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, while at loggerheads with the league reinforces how surreal this conflict has been.
There is no exact comparison in NFL history to the storm encircling him this offseason. There were the suspensions of Paul Hornung and Alex Karras in 1963 for betting on NFL games; both returned to the field in 1964 with their reputations largely intact. Then there was Namath’s skirmish, which brought out banners akin to those that have dotted New England over the past few months. Inside the June 16, 1969, issue of Sports Illustrated, the one with the iconic cover, “Namath Weeps,” is a picture of a fan demonstrating with a sign outside Bachelors III after Namath tearfully declared at a press conference, “I quit.”
The sign read: “God is not dead. He’s just Mister Peter Roselle [sic] in disguise. Bring back Joe.”
The circumstances were different, certainly—the issue was that Namath owned a stake in a bar that was reportedly a hangout for gamblers and so-called notorious persons. But the larger point is that you have to dive back more than four decades to find another time when the NFL took aim at its reigning Super Bowl MVP over an issue deemed to compromise the integrity of the game.
Namath, of course, relented a few weeks after his retirement announcement, relinquishing his stake in Bachelors III and returning to the New York Jets. Brady’s conflict cannot be remedied so easily; ABC News reported this week that if any of Brady’s four-game suspension remains upon appeal, the NFL Players Association will challenge the decision in federal court. While Kraft capitulated to the league, accepting the sanctions of two lost draft picks and a $1 million fine levied against the franchise, Brady will fight his own fight.
The reality is that the outcome of Brady’s challenge will have as little bearing on public perception as the countless applications of the Ideal Gas Law have. In the court of public opinion, there is little middle ground between the NFL-commissioned Wells Report, laying out a premeditated plan by the Patriots to deflate footballs outside of the legal range so they were easier to throw, and the Patriots-backed wellsreportcontext.com, which pokes holes in the NFL’s logic. Even Brady’s former teammates fall on both sides of the stark divide, as evidenced by Woody and Tedy Bruschi’s emotional debate on ESPN over whether Brady cheated (Woody said yes; Bruschi no).
The only thing truly in Brady’s control now is what happens when he returns to the field—whether that happens opening night against the Steelers, Oct. 18 in Indianapolis, or somewhere in between.
“You could say after this last Super Bowl, Tom could ride off into the sunset, but that’s not going to happen with all of this,” Woody says. “The Patriots do a very good job of building a certain mantra, ‘Us against the world,’ and you know Brady is going to feed into that. You better believe when he does return, there’s going to be hell to pay for the rest of the league.”
Those questions from last September, of how many more good years Brady has left, have now been given an entirely new context. After matching the high-water mark for quarterbacks, four Super Bowls won—same as Terry Bradshaw and boyhood idol Joe Montana—Brady should have left nothing left to prove. Instead, so begins the next phase of his career: Scorned Champion. Tom Brady will come out with a newfound defiance in 2015. He is on a mission unlike any other in his football life.
The MMQB’s Peter King contributed reporting for this story.