It was fitting that the first word in New England about the retirement of Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. from the National Football League came Saturday during a blizzard.
I remember the first Patriots game I ever watched was the 2001 AFC Championship Game against the Oakland Raiders, where Patriots kicker Adam Vinateri, following the controversial “tuck rule” play, made a field goal kick in heavy snow—the final act of the soon to be demolished Foxboro Stadium—which sent the Patriots on their way to their first Super Bowl title in franchise history, and launched the greatest dynasty and career in the history of professional sports.
Adam Schefter of ESPN posted on Twitter last week that the seven time Super Bowl champion, at 44 years old, was going to walk away from the game, which was soon met with doubt, as it appeared Brady’s camp attempted to throw cold water on the report, before Brady himself ultimately confirmed the announcement on Tuesday.
My Instagram feed filled with friends from Boston posting tributes, sharing childhood anecdotes, and admiring the career of #12.
For me, a Massachusetts native and a Patriots fan as much as anything else, the news was not in any way devastating. The “break up” had already happened two years ago, on the eve of the pandemic in March 2020 when Brady announced that after 20 years as a Patriot, he was headed elsewhere.
But it’s strange to now have Brady gone from the league. It’s made me take inventory of something I had never fully appreciated.
When I think about it, for my entire conscious life to this point (certainly for every NFL Sunday of it), Tom Brady played football. From the time I was just a first grader at Jackson elementary school in Newton, nearly two decades ago, through high school, college, and all the way to law school, Tom Brady was playing football every Sunday.
I remember countless school nights staying up to watch the man play. I can’t imagine what grades I may have had if not for all those long nights watching playoff games and storied regular season comebacks, Super Bowl showdowns, and all the media that went with it.
I remember asking a college economics professor if they could give an exam on a Wednesday morning instead of a Monday morning because it would be the Monday morning after the Patriots had their first rematch against the Seattle Seahawks following the infamous Super Bowl XLIX on Sunday Night Football.
I remember leaving a marketing class and heading to Logan Airport to fly to Super Bowl LI, which would enter the history books 48 hours later as the greatest comeback in history, and not worrying about anything—my professors were very understanding. It was as if I had to leave class early to meet the President. In Boston, during Tom Brady’s career, football was serious business—it was a big deal.
I remember staying up past my bedtime to watch Sunday night rubber matches against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, being thrilled as an 11 year-old when the Patriots went 16-0 in the regular season and kids in school wore shirts that reflected the Patriots’ growing unbeaten record with each passing week.
I remember falling asleep the night they ultimately lost to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII, waking up and turning on WBZ Channel 4 to see two stunned and somber anchors. In school the next day students and teachers alike were mute. Nobody said anything. Time moved slowly. It was as if someone died.
I remember our homeroom teacher in our Catholic school later that year mentioning Tom Brady’s torn ACL and wishing for a speedy recovery during intentions in morning prayer. I remember developing a significant hatred for the city of Denver throughout high school as the Patriots somehow always lost there with its crowd noise and vaunted pass rush, as well as disdain for Baltimore and its defense that excelled at always playing its best against the Patriots. I recall the profound shame of losing in the Super Bowl to the Giants for a second time four years after the first one.
I remember watching Super Bowl XLIX and the Malcolm Butler interception from Massachusetts General Hospital during a blizzard when my sister was having surgery.
I remember running around at recess as a kid playing backyard football and imagining every throw was taking place during a two-minute drill at the end of the Super Bowl.
I remember being an intern at NBC Sports Boston covering the Super Bowl during the Patriots’ final championship against the Los Angeles Rams, perfectly bookending their dynasty that began nearly 20 years prior with a win over what were then the St. Louis Rams.
How did it all happen? It seems too surreal to be true. I know folks tend to regard people my age as being spoiled. Generations never saw the Red Sox win a championship, and certainly not the dumpster fire Patriots of yesteryear. I’ve been able to see six Super Bowl wins in nine appearances, four Red Sox World Series wins, and the Celtics and Bruins each with a title in 2008 and 2011, respectively.
People not from Boston, like my peers for instance, certainly think that way. Perhaps they’re right. But they probably also think of Boston as a “fun” place for students, or at least see the city very differently than my experience living here my whole life, having seen the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The thing people need to understand is that Boston can be a pretty miserable place, all things considered. It’s a land of gray winters and brief and humid summers, institutionalized austerity and gloom, hospitals and schools, churches and banks, Dunkin’ Donuts and CVS, ripped up asphalt, dirty snow piles, and traffic patterns that Alexander the Great couldn’t traverse. Its politics are the stuff of films like Black Mass, three consecutive house speakers brought up on corruption, and a construction project called the Big Dig that somehow took 25 years. Sure, we’re a center of biotech and innovation, prestigious schools and large companies. But for the rank and file–in terms of things to get excited about–it can feel like we don’t really have much here without our sports.
It’s not New York and the opportunities and effulgence which that city entails, it does not have the good nature of the Midwest, the warm weather of the South, the august of the mid Atlantic, the elysium of the West Coast, or the perks and incentives that bring folks to other parts of our nation. For many of us, Boston is just sort of here.
There’s a reason the Red Sox’ fan base is called the “Fellowship of the Miserable.”
Things like Tom Brady and the Patriots just don’t happen here. It’s truly amazing in retrospect.
At the end of the day, it wasn’t about the football or the titles, or the pomp and circumstance.
It was about what Tom Brady, the San Mateo, CA native, reportedly said was his first reaction to learning he was drafted by the Patriots in 2000—”Where even is New England?”
It put us on the map. It shined a national light onto a land of enduring darkness.
For those of you who might think I’m taking the sports too seriously, and that a quarterback isn’t this important, let me try to explain: it’s not about the X’s and O’s. It’s not about the stats or even the football. It’s about the positive example of perseverance, optimism, and confidence that the man created for an entire region for 20 years.
Several years ago, The Brookline Country Club—a bastion of the old days of the tweedy Boston brahmin, denied Brady and his wife, supermodel Gisele Bundchen, membership in its ranks, not because they could not afford the fee or were of ill repute, but because the couple was actually “too famous,” according to The Boston Globe:
“I don’t know what they’ll do about Brady,” an unnamed prominent Boston businessperson told the Globe. “The Country Club believes your name should appear in the newspaper just two times: When you’re born and when you die.” [emphasis added]
What a positive attitude!
This is the Boston of old. Tom Brady completely flipped the script. Tom Brady gave us something positive and unifying to look forward to, something to be excited about, something to believe in on a weekly basis. He gave us something that never happened here, and provided a counterexample to the institutionalized stoic and acerbic negativism of the city and state.
I don’t mean to be hokey—it’s not entirely as simple as that.
More specifically, Tom Brady gave myself and my generation that grew up here something quite powerful—constancy.
Whether I was in elementary school, middle school, high school, college, or law school—whether I was studying for a spelling test, the SAT, the LSAT, or a Property final during 1L—whether I was dealing with trouble in school, at work, at home, failures and heartbreak, rejection letters and squabbles, bad grades and bad dates, and even the loss of a loved one, Tom Brady was always playing football on Sunday.
Whether it was our own world, or all of our worlds, that felt like they were being turned upside down—9/11, wars overseas, the 2008 financial meltdown, the Boston Marathon bombing, political upheval, the COVID-19 pandemic—Tom Brady was always playing football.
In a sense, no matter what I was dealing with, no matter how bad my week was, I always took solace in the knowledge that football would be played on Sunday, and Tom Brady would be leading the team out of the tunnel and onto the field.
You never had to worry about that. It was never in doubt. Other than in 2008, Tom Brady somehow never even got hurt. He was superhuman. Through the ups and downs of life, Tom Brady gave us one thing not to worry about.
Like Omar Little said on The Wire, “Worryin’ about you be like wonderin’ if the sun gonna come up.”
Prominent LSAT preparation company PowerScore wrote an entire article called “Tom Brady and the LSAT” about applying the quarterback’s focus and consistency to law school and its entrance exam.
I remember reading it when I was studying for the LSAT.
Telling the story of a law student who initially struggled on the exam, PowerScore writes:
“…We discussed how what he had already done had beaten the expectations of others. He started at 143 [LSAT score], and if you ask most people if someone with a starting score of 143 can hit the mid-160s, the answer is no, it probably won’t happen (that’s not my answer, however). Against expectations [he] had already achieved that, and now he was pretty close to 170. But, he remained uncertain as to whether he could make it the rest of the way, in part because people had told him he couldn’t make it to 170.
The point I relayed to him was that, if 20 years ago you asked a panel of NFL experts whether a 6th round draft choice was going to become [the] greatest quarterback in NFL history, they would have uniformly said no, it was extremely unlikely. Yet, that very thing happened. In [the student’s] case, he’s already done something that most people didn’t think he could do. So what was stopping him from going just a little bit further?”
Tom Brady gave us a source of inspiration, a source of entertainment, a source of stability through turbulence, and a level of focus and achievement to admire. I’ll always be thankful.
Featured image from Wikimedia, used under the Creative Commons 4.0 license.