Tom Brady is gone and it will be a long, long time before you see his like again

Tom Brady photo courtesy of New England Patriots.

Ron Borges

Tom Brady achieved many remarkable things during his 20 years in New England, but none struck home with me more on the day he announced he’s leaving town than what he once made my Boston Globe colleague Will McDonough and I do on Feb. 3, 2002.

That’s the night Brady’s remarkable run as the finest quarterback of his era began, the night he led the underdog New England Patriots to a last-second victory in Super Bowl XXXVI over the highly-favored St. Louis Rams. It was beyond unexpected. It was a football fantasy, which is what his career would go on to become.

To that point in their 42-year history, the Patriots had never won a Super Bowl or an AFL championship game. In fact, the two times they made it that far they not only lost but lost in spectacular fashion by a combined score of 97-20 (the 1963 AFL championship: Chargers 51 Patriots 10; Super Bowl XX: Bears 46, Patriots 10). So when the lowly Patriots, 14-point underdogs to the St. Louis Rams’ Greatest Show On Turf, somehow finally won the Lombardi Trophy it struck a chord even in the press box.

As Brady drove the Patriots downfield with time running out in what was then a 17-17 tie, McDonough and I leaned forward in the Superdome press box, waiting for the ax that always seemed to fall on the Patriots to drop. When it didn’t, and Adam Vinatieri drilled the winning field goal as the clock hit zero, Will and I stood up in a moment of blind joy, high fived each other and then sat down kind of sheepishly.

No cheering in the press box!

Certainly not, but one Brady-created high five by two guys who had watched and chronicled decades of Patriots’ ineptitude and failure seemed justified. After all, even the most objective sportswriter was a fan once. and that emotion, though suppressed by training, cannot be totally control at such a moment. That night Tom Brady made Will and me fans again, and that was great.

And then we sat down and typed furiously, loving every minute of it.

That is the kind of joy Brady brought to New England’s long-suffering football fans for the past two decades. He led the Patriots to 17 AFC East titles, nine Super Bowls and six Lombardi Trophies. He was named to the Pro Bowl 14 times, won four Super Bowl MVPs, led the greatest second-half comeback in Super Bowl history and won three league MVPs.

He leaves 219-64 as a starter and 30-11 in the playoffs. He is in any debate over who is the greatest quarterback of all-time, and, at a minimum, it seems ridiculous to argue he wasn’t the greatest of his time.

So when it all suddenly came to an end at around 8:30 a.m. Tuesday with a Brady-authored release on social media announcing “I don’t know what my football future holds, but it’s time for me to open a new stage for my life and career,’’ it was a shock even though you could see it coming for a year.

How did it come to this? How did a player who sits on the Mt. Rushmore of New England sports alongside Bill Russell, Bobby Orr and Ted Williams, end up unable to come to a contract agreement with the team he has served so well?

While much of that is complex, it is an easy question to answer. Bill Belichick remained true to who he is. It could end no other way.

For two decades Belichick has been lauded in New England for his willingness to turn his back on his best players and cast them aside, usually over disputes about money or at least a dispute over different views of their value.

Drew Bledsoe. Lawyer Milloy. Deion Branch. Richard Seymour. Ty Law. Adam Vinatieri. Mike Vrabel. Logan Mankins. Randy Moss. Malcolm Butler. The list went on and on and on. You played for what Belichick thought you were worth or you played elsewhere. Not personal. Just business.

He was as consistent as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. When the time came, and it usually came before the player thought it was time, he cut ties and moved on. He acted, he always insisted, “in the best interest of the team.’’

Not everyone agreed with that, either inside his locker room or outside, but Belichick couldn't care less about that noise. He did what he did, and so it should have come as no surprise that it would end the same way for Brady.

His own father had predicted several years ago that “it won’t end well.’’ He was right, of course, as father’s so often are.

Whether there is animus between Brady and Belichick now we’ll likely never know. Minions on both sides will carry some water over that, but the truth is this is almost always how it ends for quarterbacks no matter how great they were in their prime.

Johnny Unitas. Bobby Layne. Joe Namath. Terry Bradshaw. Joe Montana. Brett Favre. Peyton Manning. Eli, too, although we can debate his “greatness’’ in my opinion despite his superior ring collection. The list is long. Nearly all great players leave wearing the wrong color jersey.

It isn’t universal, of course. Roger Staubach, John Elway and Dan Marino avoided it, but not many do. It always ends sadly and often it ends badly. But for all those Brady fans thinking “How could they?’’ the right question is: “How could they not?’’

This is how Belichick has operated ever since his first year as a head coach in Cleveland. When he comes to believe you’ve outlived your usefulness, you’re shown the door. Why should it be different with Brady? How could it be?

Fans, including the two guys who high-fived each other in a press box in New Orleans 19 years ago, could give you a litany of reasons. Tom Brady has brought us all out of our seats so many times we think he deserves a seat on the Patriots’ bus until he’s ready to get off. But business doesn’t work that way. Not in the NFL or much of anywhere else. Gold watches are a thing of the past, and this morning so was Tom Brady, at least in New England.

Now we know what Red Sox fans felt like in 1920 when they heard the Sox had sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees after helping them win three World Series with his bat and his pitching arm.

For those too young to remember (sadly I am not among them), we know, too, what Bruins’ fans felt the day they learned Bobby Orr was gone, shuffled off to Chicago on a bad knee despite being the greatest hockey player to ever lace on skates.

Now it’s happened to a new generation of New England sports fans. Shock, grief, anger, disbelief. They all mixed together when they heard Tom Brady was gone.

If he continues to win elsewhere and the Patriots do not, Bill Belichick will be exposed as the latest in a long, long line of Super Bowl “geniuses’’ who ended up not looking so smart after his superstar quarterback left town. After all, players play and coaches watch.

If Belichick finds a new mixture of talent and strategy that produces another championship or two, however, he will have done what the Browns, Packers, Steelers, 49ers and Cowboys could not. None of them could keep their dynasty going once their Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks packed up and left.

In most cases, the championship drought was long and unpleasant.

So when Tom Brady wrote Tuesday morning that “I don’t know what my future holds’’ he was speaking for himself. But he could have been speaking for Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, too. Time will tell how that works out, but one thing is sure: It will be a long time before another Tom Brady shows up in the Patriots’ huddle. A long time indeed.

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