I was hoping to have a few more weeks before getting to TB12. I was hoping this last Patriots team with him at the helm would be able to find a little more smoke and a few more mirrors to hide their deep flaws and make one last run at the mountaintop. I was hoping Tom Brady would end his career like Bill Russell did, bullying his aging body and mediocre team to one last improbable title. I was hoping the balloons would stay in the rafters at the Forum. I was hoping for a fairy tale.
The thing about sports is that they rarely follow the script. Footballs bounce funny, guys make circus catches and drop easy passes, officials make bad calls, coaches make mistakes. Over the last twenty years, this Patriots team has won more games they had no business winning than they have lost games they should have won. We’ve been spoiled by the sorcerer’s ways of our mythic quarterback and his penchant for making the impossible possible. That’s what makes this ending tough to swallow, even though these Patriots lost to a better team last night. We expected one last glimpse of the fairy dust, one last miracle. But sports rarely follow the script. 18-1 should have taught us that.
And yet sometimes the reality is more rewarding than the script. We’ve been treated these last two decades to the greatest football player of all time in our team’s uniform, rising from the end of the sixth round of the draft to captain the most dominant dynasty sports has ever seen. Tom Brady has played twenty professional seasons. Not including 2000 when he was a rookie backup and 2008 when he missed the entire year with injury, he has been the starter for 18 seasons. Nine of those culminated in a trip to the Super Bowl. In fully 50% of his seasons, Tom Brady has made the finals. In fully one-third of his seasons, he has won it all. In 13 of those 18 seasons, the Patriots made the NFL’s final four. That’s absurd.
Tom Brady was Terry Bradshaw with stats, Dan Marino with rings, Johnny Unitas plus Roger Staubach with some Bart Starr thrown in. Joe Montana is the closest comparison, but Brady has thrown about twice as many touchdowns and has a far gaudier playoff resume than Montana. He’s won as a game manager of defense-first teams and won as a mad bomber. His career began in the Clinton administration, spanned two more presidencies and may yet outlast another. His first professional snaps came before 9/11. His first trip to the Super Bowl came when I was 27 and hadn’t yet started dating my wife. His last trip came when I was 43 and had sons old enough to watch it with me.
Tom Brady has been such a constant these last two decades, through the near-perfect seasons and empty controversies and long hair and supermodel wife and mostly through the confetti. That’s how I’ll remember him. When my grandchildren sit on my knee and ask about my memories of the greatest football player of all time, I’ll tell them about the confetti. The young kid, hands on his head, in disbelief at what his team just did against St. Louis. The brazen, confident young leader of a dynasty against Carolina and Philadelphia. The recipient of a miracle against Seattle, the maker of his own miracle against Atlanta. And the grand old man, who made just enough plays against his old friends the Rams, his children in his arms, fully aware of what his team just did. It would have been magical and perfect for one last trip to the podium. One last dance with the trophy he knows so well. One last shower in the confetti.
But sports doesn’t follow the script. And if we’re being honest, it was all pretty damn perfect anyway.