Tom Brady was drafted into the NFL in 2000, with Bill Clinton in the White House, winding down in his second term.
The Twin Towers were still standing.
The film “American Beauty” had just won five Academy Awards including the Oscar for Best Picture. Santana had the No. 1 song on the charts, “Maria, Maria”. The first version of the iPhone wouldn’t be released for another seven years.
Brady’s career spanned from the first season of the hit TV show “Survivor” through the second season of HBO’s wildly popular “White Lotus.”
Brady completed his first regular-season NFL pass on Thanksgiving Day, 2000. He completed his final NFL pass on Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 16, 2023.
He played quarterback in the NFL during five presidential administrations: Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
Brady won his first of six Super Bowls for the New England Patriots at age 24, broke up with his coach Bill Belichick and proved that he didn’t need Belichick by moving to Tampa Bay to hoist a seventh career Super Bowl trophy at 43. The Patriots are 25-25 with two losing records in three years since Belichick decided he didn’t need Brady anymore.
Brady defeated Kurt Warner for his first Super Bowl victory, and got the best of Patrick Mahomes for his seventh Super Bowl title. One already is in the Hall of Fame, and the other is a lock for it, and there is a 24-year difference between the ages of Warner and Mahomes. That gives you an idea of the remarkably wide span of Brady’s career.
Brady, who retired earlier this week, is the most enduring athlete of our lifetime. Others had careers that lasted as long, or longer. But none had the sustained excellence that never really faded, or piled up such a prolific amount of championships and individual honors.
In the greatest-ever discussions, Brady stands alone in the NFL.
That can’t be said of the other three major team sports.
In baseball we can debate Babe Ruth vs. Willie Mays and Hank Aaron and it’s a good discussion … with no clear winner. It’s the same with the NBA: Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, LeBron James, and several others. Take your pick, but there isn’t a 100 percent choice. This goes for the NHL, where greatest-ever arguments can be made for Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe. But in the NFL, it’s Brady – period. (I would have Jim Brown at No. 2.)
Tom Brady was a constant part of the Zeitgeist as a quarterback icon, sports star, celebrity, commercial pitch man, prominent social-media personality, health and fitness guru (TB12), motivator, and the dude who had it all … at least until his marriage to Gisele fell apart, plunging his life into the messiness of public turmoil.
(Plus, TB has interesting eating habits. Around 80% of the diet consists of plant foods. I shouldn’t laugh; he will outlive me and many of you and probably attempt an NFL comeback at age 85.)
Brady’s so-called “DeflateGate” scandal was really no scandal at all, but his critics foamed at the mouth for a chance to savage the antagonist who won too much, made them so furious on too many Sundays, and needed to go down. It was such a fascinating career.
Think of how it began. Outside of St. Louis Brady was the embraceable underdog who improbably led the New England Patriots on the game-winning drive to upset the mighty “Greatest Show” St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl 36. But Brady went on to win so much that our collective love turned into loathing.
America loves a winner — unless the winner wins too often, wins over too many years, breaks every notable passing record, develops an annoying smarminess, eats plants, triumphs in Super Bowls played in three different decades and becomes the most accomplished team-sport athlete in U.S. history. It’s hard to excel at the highest level of sports, but Brady made it look easy for 20-plus years. And that made him an easy target for disdain.
In his final season, at the vintage age of 45, Brady passed for 4,694 yards (No. 3 in the NFL) with 25 touchdown passes, and was the reason why a poorly–coached Tampa Bay team reached the playoffs with no rushing attack, a tin-can offensive line, and a receiver group weakened by injuries.
The hostiles watched this and somehow concluded that Brady had declined. It was just the final example of how Brady set standards that were so absurdly high and unrealistic, that nearly 4,700 passing yards for a mediocre team as the oldest regular starting quarterback in league history was dismissed as mediocrity. So funny.
Brady became so prominent in the culture, total strangers felt free to psychoanalyze him, grade his parenting skills and practice fake marriage counseling without a license to assess the reasons for the split with Gisele. But other marriages never fail, right? There were no divorces until Brady and Bundchen split up. This was a new thing in America.
My gosh, what will sports-fan America and gossip-hound America do with Brady retired? That’s easy: rip him to shreds when he settles into a Fox broadcast booth as an analyst to begin his 10-year, $375 million deal with the network. (Wait. $375 million! Yes.) This will extend Brady’s high-profile presence and trigger all of the hate-watching emotions. As we’ve learned it will be a challenge to make him go away.
In 2013, when chatting with a prominent NFL personnel man, the fellow told me (off the record) that Brady was slipping, and had entered the decline phase. He offered this opinion without malice – he was actually bummed out by thinking Brady would come to the end of his career in two or three years.
Um, not quite.
TB12 won four more Super Bowls after that.
And then there was hot-take exhaust pipe Max Kellerman, who said this in 2016: “Tom Brady’s just about done. It could be his next game he plays, it could be a year from now, but he is going to fall off a cliff. Tom Brady is going to be a bum in short order.”
Just a tad inaccurate. After Kellerman declared Brady’s imminent demise, the quarterback won three more Super Bowls, four conference championships, two more Super Bowl MVP awards, a league MVP award, and two No. 2 finishes in the league MVP voting.
Brady was blasted for ending last year’s retirement after 40 days — because, of course, no one has ever changed their mind after making a career-related decision. Nope. That’s a first since the Founding Fathers set the foundation of a nation. None of you have ever done something like that.
Brady took one more shot at a Super Bowl, came up empty, and now is ready to call it a career. His indefatigable work ethic, perfectionist attitude and maniacal competitiveness may not serve him well in private life. But he has nothing to prove on a football field.
Brady retires with the most regular-season wins (251) and postseason wins (35) than any quarterback in NFL history, and a preposterous overall career winning percentage of .749. Brady’s seven Super Bowl rings are more than 14 teams – Cardinals, Rams, Bengals, Bills, Falcons, Eagles, Bears, Chargers, Vikings, Seahawks, Saints, Jets, Titans and Panthers – have combined.
Brady not only won the seven Super Bowls, but added 10 conference championships, 20 trips to the postseason, and a record five Super Bowl MVP awards. His final ledger – regular-season and postseason combined – shows 102,614 yards passing and 737 touchdowns.
It will be strange to see Brady missing from his theater, slinging passes and directing the show. To summon a line from The Dark Knight film: “You Either Die A Hero, Or You Live Long Enough To See Yourself Become The Villain.” Brady was a hero and the villain. He played both roles brilliantly with a level of success – and a length of success – that will never be matched. And in his greatest victory, Tom Brady defeated time.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
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All stats used here were sourced from Football Reference.