What Are You Thinking, Tom Brady? For Real?
BY RICH KING
To explain, I need to take you before Deflategate, before the Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl, and before most of the miles of my own personal pilgrimage to try to have a genuine conversation and a football catch with Brady. In early August 2013, I drove down to Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
I sat in the stands with Dumptruck, my oldest friend, to watch the first preseason game for the Patriots and the Eagles. From a friend at work, he’d bought some decent tickets in a lower corner. The Philly crowd was full of optimism, eager to see how the revolutionary offense installed by new coach Chip Kelly might revitalize quarterback Michael Vick. Fans from both teams wanted to see if New England third-string quarterback Tim Tebow’s Arm of God had anything left in it. (Kelly, of course, is now on the hot seat, Vick is on his ninth life with the Steelers, and Tebow was released, most recently, by the Eagles.)
Nearly all of us want to know where Brady derives all that confidence. What did it feel like to be certain of success, and chomping for the opportunity to challenge yourself?
Dumptruck and I don’t get to see each other much these days, but we grew up together in the western suburbs of Philadelphia. After college he stayed in the area and remained an Eagles fan. After I left, over 25 years ago, I found my way to New England and went local as a Pats fan.
As we watched the game, Dumptruck and I drank beer and ate hoagies and talked about our kids. I hadn’t been to a game at a stadium since I was a teenager. We griped about the amount of music played too loudly and too often and how the Jumbotron distracted us from watching the game on the field. We reminisced about how we as kids used to sleep over at our houses on weekends, wake up to watch NFL Films, and then tape our fingers and forearms like Mean Joe Greene and Wilbert Montgomery. Down at the park, we’d knock the snot out of each other in mud and rain and snow. If we didn’t have a group of friends that day, we played one-on-one through leaf piles until we collapsed. Later that day, while we watched a game on TV, we drew the helmets of every team by tracing quarters with our set of NFL colored pencils.
The Patriots looked sharp that preseason night in 2013. Bill Belichick took Brady out of the game after New England scored two touchdowns easily. The Patriots ran the ball in huge chunks while Brady surgically, methodically, carved up the Philadelphia secondary. He completed every pass except for one he threw away to avoid a sack.
I began to tell Dumptruck about my mission to try to have a real conversation with Brady. I imagined the quarterback and I chucking the pigskin back and forth, talking man to man.
“What would you ask him,” I said. “If you thought you could get a real, unguarded answer?”
“Prove to me you’re not a cyborg,” Dumptruck said.
Brady had just turned 36, several years younger than us, but still by far the oldest player on the Patriots team. He had only one teammate, Vince Wilfork (now with the Texans), who still played for New England since they’d won the Super Bowl a decade earlier. And only Big Vince and Logan Mankins (now with the Bucs) remained with Brady since the 2007 undefeated season.
That summer two years ago, analysts wrote of Brady’s decline. One Steelers defensive back puffed publicly about how he’d observed Brady afraid on the field, “seeing ghosts.” New England fans reeled from the departure of Wes Welker, agonized about Gronk never getting healthy again and shook their heads because their only wide receiver was the perennial backup Julian Edelman, who was spunky and all but often injured and had only caught 21 passes in the entire previous season. In 2013 some Patriots fans wished aloud that we had Andrew Luck for quarterback.
The Patriots are the tribe that I turn to on Sundays, however irrationally and foolishly, to help me feel better about myself and distract me from more important and worthwhile concerns.
At halftime, Dumptruck and I got another beer and watched a bunch of red-faced middle-aged guys wearing Patriots and Eagles jerseys jawing at each other over the merits of Drew Bledsoe vs. Randall Cunningham. We watched, on the Jumbotron, dogs catching Frisbees down on the field.
“How’s your midlife crisis going?” I said.
“All fine,” he said. “I think the wife has had a few for me. So I’m covered by now.”
Dumptruck’s one of those well-educated guys who prefers to work with his hands—he’s a landscaper and a mason—and he’s spent his life so far seemingly on an even keel, never angry or flustered, and never outwardly nagged by the ragged recognition of mediocrity that creeps into so many of our thoughts at this age. When everyone said Brady was in decline, I knew I was. Like so many fans in New England I saw, and still see, Tom Brady as the Patriots. If you put a cleft in the Flying Elvis logo, it is Tom Brady. He is the team with whom for so many years I’ve invested my time, emotions, and even a little money. The Patriots are the tribe that I turn to on Sundays, however irrationally and foolishly, to help me feel better about myself and distract me from more important and worthwhile concerns.
Dumptruck and I didn’t get too far that night into what I had planned for my continued adventures to try to meet the quarterback. I would go on to spend the entire 2013 season and up to the last Super Bowl on a mission to try to get a professional interview with Tom Brady. This was a tongue-in-cheek literary endeavor of participatory journalism (i.e. I wanted to rationalize my slide into football addiction and procrastinate from my real job as an English professor). I didn’t try to surprise Brady anywhere or contact his family or do anything smarmy. I just contacted his agent a few times and wrote regularly to the media gatekeeper for the Patriots. As I took notes and drew cartoons, I drove my ’88 VW camper van to Patriots training camp, went to games, traveled to Brady’s college in Ann Arbor, and to his high school in San Mateo. I got credentials to sit in on a Brady press conference and to go into the locker room. I interviewed past and former players, sportswriters, super fans and serial Brady-haters, while I was also regularly and thoroughly ignored by an embarrassing number of people. I watched games at sports bars in San Francisco and Boston and spent far too much time at my own local establishment in the name of anthropological research. I had a physical therapy session with Brady’s body coach and close friend Alex Guerrero (recently reproached). I set up a “What Would You Ask Tom Brady?” table at my local mall and at South Station in Boston. I wanted to know what other people would ask the quarterback, particularly other middle-aged guys.
I learned that nearly all of us want to know where Brady derives all that confidence. What did it feel like, if he could ever describe it, to hoist that first Super Bowl trophy at 24 years old? What is it like to stand in that tunnel before a game and seemingly not visualize or fear what could go wrong, but rather be certain of success and chomping for the opportunity to challenge yourself?
And now, what’s it like, after more than 15 years in New England of being the very image of the team player, the good guy, the winner, the compelling mixture of bootstraps underdog, ultra-competitive player-coach, and red carpet supermodel, to now take all the national abuse and deal with rumors about cheating, lying, divorce, and shady business endorsements? Whether you asked for those footballs to be softened or not, how do you stay mentally composed, with a smile, and still channel all your energy and emotion to reading the defense and adjusting and then snapping the ball and delivering a pass in less than three seconds? Again and again and again. Year after year after year. From offseason to preseason to regular season to inarguably one of the greatest Super Bowl fourth quarters in history at age 37, having now spent half your life under the public microscope? How do you still get up after hits like that from the Cowboys defensive end (now seemingly culturally deranged) Greg Hardy—and keep from shouting back? Or is that what you were doing after that quarterback sneak into the end zone in that game against Dallas?
What exactly are you thinking these days, Tom Brady? For real.
A couple weeks ago, after my book Meeting Tom Brady came out, Dumptruck sent me an old-school handwritten letter that I treasure far more than the note I got recently from Robert Kraft. Dumptruck drew his own cartoons: one of his truck and one of an Eagles helmet he made by tracing a quarter. At one point in the letter Dumptruck wrote: “I had a flashback when you were talking in the book about the playoff run and how you were a mess. I felt the same way when the Eagles were in the Super Bowl against the Pats, and I made a point of only watching Philly media coverage because it was a really positive time for ‘Negadelphians.’ But we all know how that ended. F’n cyborg.”
Rich King is a lecturer at Williams College and the author of Meeting Tom Brady: One Man’s Quest for Truth, Enlightenment, and a Simple Game of Catch with the Patriots Quarterback.