Opinion | Tom Brady, the Quarterback Who Tried To Remove Himself From Time, Ages Out

Tom Brady's retirement means we discuss the legacy of the biggest figure in football history. That legacy has become immune to time, just like he tried to be.

Tom Brady’s retirement – last year colossal, this year expected – comes as a stark reminder that no one can escape time. The magic of Brady’s career has faded, and all that’s left is the mark he’s left on the league.

Tom Brady’s Career Had a Storybook Beginning

It’s impossible to think about the state of modern football without acknowledging the role that Brady, a seven-time Super Bowl winner, has had on the game – both in his on-field impact and in our perception of how the QB position is played.

Tom Brady is legacy, embodied. His career accomplishments consume the sidebar of his Wikipedia page – 15-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro, three-time Associated Press MVP, All-Decade Team of the 2000s, All-Decade Team of the 2010s, two-time Associated Press Offensive Player of the Year.

Seven-time Super Bowl champion.

Brady is inarguably the most accomplished quarterback of all time. Split in two, the front half of his career would rank 15th in total Pro Bowl nods, while the back half of his career would rank 12th. And, of course, combined, he ranks first.

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His games are literal teach tape for up-and-coming quarterbacks, with coaches using his throwing motion, pocket movement, footwork, progression dynamics, and so much more to teach the game to young passers.

These fundamentals have allowed Brady to succeed in a variety of offenses, from run-heavy attacks featuring jumbo sets to pass-happy spread offenses with four receivers on the field, his approach has been durable. And it has persisted in the minds of NFL fans, coaches, and players.

Behind the shimmering façade of Tom Brady, the mythic figure is Tom Brady the person, a quarterback who tried to hide from time and insulated himself from society. He succeeded.

His name is written in the NFL stars as the best to ever do it, and his permanent place in the NFL pantheon has allowed him, in his own way, to overcome the ravages of time. In a way, Brady’s legacy is immortality.

Brady started out his career very much a story of his era, leading the New England Patriots on an epic Super Bowl run following the September 11 attacks – those Patriots were the first two-digit underdog in NFL history to win the Super Bowl.

He did so after taking over for the Patriots franchise in the first week that NFL games resumed following the attacks. Brady led a game-winning drive against a dominant St. Louis Rams team to secure a 48-yard field goal attempt for Adam Vinatieri, who nailed it as the clock expired to put the Patriots ahead 20-17.

It is perhaps hokey and apropos that a team called the Patriots would win the first Super Bowl in the post-9/11 era, and Brady was the face of that story.

That might have been the last time Brady was cast as a plucky underdog, a sixth-round pick selected 199th overall who worked his way up from being the fourth quarterback on the roster to making the team as the primary backup before seizing the starting job and starting a new era of football.

Brady turned from a classic story of a disregarded and forgotten bit player who had a chance to prove he could succeed into the evil empire – the overdog. And after that, he moved beyond being a dominant player to being entrenched into the fabric of the league, an inevitability.

The Brady Empire would turn out to last longer than two decades and cast a titanic shadow over the rest of the league. In the years that Tom Brady was a starting quarterback, he made Conference Championship games at a higher rate than most quarterbacks complete passes, with 14 of his 21 starting seasons touching the AFC or NFC title game.

For that to happen, Brady had to escape time.

Much has been made of Brady’s obsession with longevity and his unfathomable competitiveness. So much so, that he’s profited off of it.

Brady’s Obsession With Endurance Led To Unprecedented Control Over Diet, Exercise, and Treatment

Brady’s diet is famously restrictive, and one that doesn’t seem to make much sense to health experts. He has a focus on the pH levels of his foods despite there being no science to back that up, but it’s resulted in a diet free of “acidic” foods, like meat, refined grains, and nightshades like tomatoes.

He makes claims about “anti-inflammatory” foods and their impact on recovery, and though there is some science about the impact diet has on inflammation, the foods isolated by Brady have little to do with any established research on the subject.

His approach to diet — which is healthy because he does meet his macronutrient requirements, avoids sugar, and ignores alcohol (until he doesn’t) —  has proliferated throughout the league. It’s become the standard for quarterbacks to follow the rigorousness, if not the contours, of the Brady diet.

On top of that, Brady has relied on “body coach” and health guru Alex Guerrero, who helped build the TB12 brand and helps Brady run his company. Guerrero has been investigated multiple times, including for selling products with dangerous and misleading claims and for falsely claiming that he’s a medical doctor.

All of this would mean less if Brady didn’t capitalize on his reputation for longevity and health to sell his products, which included more dangerous unsubstantiated claims for a product called NeuroSafe, a “seatbelt for your brain” that was meant to help prevent the consequences of sports-related traumatic brain injuries.

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Those products and his diet, sold to the general public with the understanding that Brady himself benefited from them and spurred on by his book “The TB12 Method,” are as much a part of his legacy as his rings. His desire to escape the ravages of time and the realities of the world around him doesn’t extend to a desire to remove himself from profiting from it.

That company, TB12, also allowed Brady to potentially separate himself from the NFL rules themselves. Though never investigated, the fact that the Patriots have a relationship with Tom Brady’s company raises clear questions about how much the Patriots have had to adhere to the salary cap when they can legally pay his company to treat players at what could be above-market rates.

The NFL has long been aware of the arrangement and doesn’t believe it violated the CBA despite the rarity of a relationship that a team has with a company one of its players owns. The Patriots-TB12 relationship exemplifies one of the few instances where a team will pay out to a treatment company instead of being paid money by the treatment facility through accepting sponsorship dollars and compensated treatment.

There are TB12 facilities in team-owned buildings, and the company does charge the team to treat players, often in contravention of the team’s athletic trainers and coaching staff’s desires. Sports economists and sports law experts have long raised questions about how this interacts with the spirit of the salary cap.

It’s well-known that Brady has agreed to contracts well below what his market would demand. Whether he was more willing to do that because of the net worth of his ex-wife, the possibility of circumventing the cap because of his team’s relationship to the company he owns, or simply a desire to win more games (a lower cap hit for him meant more space to sign other players) isn’t known, but the whole ordeal does reinforce the distinctiveness of Brady.

Insulated from the persistence of time, the spirit of the salary cap, and the demands of a nine-to-five job, Brady had secured himself a place away from society.

Tom Brady Tried To Be Separate From Society

Brady has tried, consciously, to separate himself from the messiness of the world. He did it in ways typical of the hermetically sealed professional athlete – sticking to a rigid and demanding schedule, shutting out distractions, managing public appearances – but he also did it in ways beyond that of a normal athlete.

For the first 20 years of his career, Brady had a remarkably milquetoast public persona. He rarely commented on social issues, chose to defer on greater public issues, and localized his community efforts to non-controversial causes. These include the Boys & Girls Club, Best Buddies International, Make-A-Wish, and his own TB12 Foundation, which is centered around athlete development.

The latter foundation, however, has also sealed itself off from society in the exact opposite way you would hope a charitable organization to do. The charity has provided little in the way of public welfare services, instead paying out its funds in salaries to directors or in contracting services with TB12, Brady’s company.

It gives out TB12 merchandise and is primarily focused on providing the “TB12 method to those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it.” Brady himself has donated very little to the foundation, while many of the donations he made actually were made by other organizations he’s worked with in the past. Best Buddies paid Brady’s charitable trust $2.75 million dollars between 2011 and 2016, $500,000 in 2017, and likely “$1 million more in the years to come.”

His own company, nominally in the red, has been under fire for taking PPP loans of nearly $1 million that were forgiven.

He was silent during Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality, and he remained silent as the issue grew in magnitude – only offering bland calls for unity and love when President Donald Trump criticized the NFL.

Brady’s closest confrontation into the realm of the controversial occurred in 2015 when he was spotted with a Make America Great Again hat in his locker. He remarked that Trump was a friend of his who had “done amazing things,” which allowed Brady to maintain his relationships without making an overtly – to him – political statement that could seem controversial.

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In light of that locker room discovery, Brady was asked to comment a year later on the revelation that Trump stated in 2005 that he enjoyed groping women without their consent. Instead of condemning the comments or defending Trump, Brady walked away from the podium.

He seemingly endorsed Trump when he said, “I hope so,” in response to a question of whether Trump “had what it takes” to become president. He later walked it back, arguing that it wasn’t an endorsement.

For Brady, a Trump presidency meant a potential putting green on the lawn of the White House. It was fun to have a friend in the spotlight – separated from the political implications Trump’s supporters or defenders imagined the fallout of a Trump presidency would be. For Brady, the question was not “should this person have power,” it was “do you want your friend to succeed.”

In Brady’s hope to be removed from society and the political implications of seemingly meaningless actions, he discovered that there is no football without politics and no politics without social implications.

Those first two decades of political and social silence were followed with some more overt statements, relatively bland and successively less controversial than they would have been five years earlier. He signed on to a letter calling for an investigation into the death of Ahmaud Arbery – notably one of the only public instances of outcry about a Black person’s death that did not involve the police – and he mentioned that this was an “offseason of learning” to Buccaneers team media when asked about social justice.

These minor statements get closer than he’s ever been to recognizing the reality of the society that football emerges from.

As time has marched on and the football world has grown to accommodate the world around it, Brady had been slow to be part of the process.

Brady’s retirement comes at precisely the time all of his seclusion became impossible – he lost major money in a cryptocurrency investment, his ex-wife divorced him, and his body failed him. But his quest succeeded. His name is written in permanent marker in the history books, and his impact is indelible. Tom Brady is the quarterback who escaped time.

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