HOUSTON — It was early December 2015, and Rob Ninkovich happened to pass by Tom Brady’s stall in the Patriots’ locker room.
“Nice watch,” Ninkovich said, looking down.
“Oh, you like that?” Brady responded.
Three weeks later, a TAG Heuer watch—the same model Brady had been wearing—was sitting in Ninkovich’s locker as a gift.
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Super Bowl week is underway and, for the seventh time in 16 years, the spotlight is on Brady. The 51st edition of the big game isn’t exactly flush with storylines, but a very rich one possibly awaits after the final gun.
The Patriots won’t say it this week, because putting one player above the others runs counter to everything Bill Belichick has built over 17 years in New England, which is why the coach celebrated the return of Brady in Week 5 with all the fanfare of a practice-squad promotion.
But as the Patriots arrive in Houston, the thought is most certainly there: The players want to give No. 12 that incredible, irreplaceable moment—his fairy tale of redemption. Even if Brady himself has blocked out all that has happened to him over the past 24 months, his teammates know what winning a Super Bowl, his fifth, would mean in this particular year.
The last time the Patriots were on this stage, no one had any idea where Deflategate was going. We didn’t know Brady would be suspended for four games. We didn’t know the Patriots would be docked a first-round pick. We didn’t know Ted Wells and Jeffrey Kessler and Paul Clement and Richard Berman would get involved. Some of us thought of the Ideal Gas Law was something we’d be able to ignore after the seventh grade.
Back then, as Brady approached one of the greatest nights of his professional life—riddling a once-in-a-generation Seahawks defense for 124 yards and two touchdowns on 13-of-15 passing during a fourth quarter for the ages—no one knew what waited for the quarterback on the other side of his fourth ring.
We do now.
His teammates do now.
So if you ask them if it’d be extra special to help deliver Brady a championship to close out the season that began with his suspension, they’ll at least pause a moment as a way of paying proper homage to their quarterback. Then, in measured tones, they’ll adhere to what Belichick would want them to say.
“Yeah, of course,” said receiver Danny Amendola, now Brady’s teammate of four years. “But it’s because of the kind of person he is.”
After some prodding, Patrick Chung allowed, “Of course, I’d like to get it for him. But we gotta do it. We can’t just talk about it. We have to play the best game we can.”
LeGarrette Blount put it like this, “We wanna give him the fairy tale ending. But it’s not gonna be an easy task. We still gotta play 60 minutes of football. We know he’s gonna have our back and play the best game he can play. We gotta go out there and continue to fight and make sure he ends this season with a ring on his finger.”
Deep down, Brady’s teammates want to see him get his podium moment with Roger Goodell. But they all bend their quotes back to Belichick’s mantra: It’s never about any individual.
“We’re doing it for each other, so he would just fall into that category. Tom is like a big brother,” said running back Brandon Bolden, now in his fifth year alongside Brady. “When he was here [before the suspension], he didn’t talk about it. When he left, he didn’t talk about it. When he came back? He still hasn’t talked about it. Him not being around, it was like, Where did he go?
“When he came back, it was right back to work and like he never left... He’s the leader. Everybody’s gonna follow the leader.”
So how should you look at this?
Brady’s self-held image as Employee No. 12 in Foxborough, rather than the Greatest of All Time, is a big reason why other players revere him within those walls. And that status—Brady as a great co-worker—is why it’d be hard to go through that locker room, ask these questions of his teammates, and not come away with the conclusion that I did.
Brady embodies, in so many ways, what the Patriots strive to be. In a way, he is them.
“There are a lot of guys in this locker room that have a chip on their shoulder—nothing’s ever been handed to us, everything we’ve gotten we’ve had to work for,” Ninkovich says. “And so Tom has that, Tom has that hunger, and we can all respect a guy like that, the greatest quarterback of all time, every week, has that hunger to be the best. That makes everyone that much better.
“Being here for eight years, I truly believe he is the most competitive, determined, best quarterback I’ve ever seen.”
He’s also one of the guys. Ninkovich wears proof of that on his wrist.
“I mean, on Christmas, I had the watch,” Ninkovich says. “Who does that? It just goes to show how generous he is, how thoughtful he is. Someone gave you a compliment, and you go and get that watch for the guy? It’s pretty cool.”
On Sunday, Brady’s teammates know there’s something pretty cool they can do to return the favor.
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