FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – In the charmed life of Tom Brady, the setbacks, if you will, stand out because they are so rare.
Brady grew up in a great family in suburban San Francisco, was a star athlete and won a full-ride to the University of Michigan. He's now a rich, famous, three-time Super Bowl champion and is married to a Brazilian supermodel only because he decided to break up with a Hollywood actress. The couple recently bought a $20 million home.
Sunday brought the latest bit of triumph, Brady advancing to his fifth Super Bowl as quarterback of the New England Patriots, where the New York Giants offer a shot at redemption for one of the rare rough patches of his professional life.
Since Brady, presumably, doesn't consider his endorsement deal with Ugg a negative, here's some of what constitutes adversity: having to compete for the starting job at Michigan, being drafted in the sixth round by the Patriots (still drafted, mind you, just five rounds after he probably dreamed it) and having New England's run at a 19-0 perfect season ruined by the Giants at the Super Bowl in 2008.
Brady possesses one of the key attributes of a successful NFL player, the ability to motivate himself into a maniacal worker. The league is filled with the undrafted and unknown; all have taken the job of someone once believed to have better pure ability. Players joke that "NFL" stands for "Not For Long" and if you're not improving, you're on your way out.
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Brady is a testament to sustained excellence. It doesn't just happen by accident.
And so when Michigan coach Lloyd Carr didn't immediately install him as the Wolverines' quarterback, he dedicated himself to earning the job anyway. When on draft day the league thought six other quarterbacks were better than him (famously branded the Brady Six) it inspired him to show everyone up.
And when those Giants crushed that once-in-a-generation shot at true history, only the second perfect season in league history (the 1972 Miami Dolphins) and the only 19-0 campaign, the loss stung like no other.
Brady had thrown for 50 touchdowns that season, 23 of them to Randy Moss in a blast of offensive genius the league had never seen. In that Super Bowl against the Giants the Patriots managed just 14 points, overwhelmed by a pass rush that was equal parts violent and brilliant. The Giants won by three. Brady walked off despondent.
He'd always been focused. He'd always pushed and pushed and pushed, for more and greater glory, clearing hurdles real and imagined. This, some of his teammates say, was even more intense. If the other slights were more about perception, the loss to the Giants was both tangible and terrible.
This was the game that he'd take to his grave, especially if he never got back and won another Super Bowl.
"I still can't watch highlights from that game," Brady told WEEI on Monday morning.
The following season, he injured his left knee in the opening game and was lost for the year. The next year, top receiver Wes Welker was injured in the regular-season finale, leading to a humbling loss to Baltimore in the playoffs. Last year the rival New York Jets, who New England had manhandled just a month before, stunned the Patriots in another opening-round tournament defeat.
Brady had always expressed an understanding about how difficult it was to reach a Super Bowl, how precious those opportunities were, how no one thinks the last one is the last one until it's too late.
Still, here it was, reinforced year after year. From 18-0 juggernaut to nothing in the blink of a David Tyree helmet catch. It's been seven long years since Tom Brady has won a Super Bowl. And no one is more aware that at age 34 windows close fast in the NFL.
Brady was, in his own estimation, terrible in Sunday's 23-20 AFC championship victory over Baltimore. He overthrew wide-open receivers, including an easy touchdown to Rob Gronkowski. He made bad decisions, tossed two interceptions and no touchdowns.
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The conversation covers (among other things): Tom Brady's recent big-game struggles, his overall greatness and his fierce motivation to win a fourth Super Bowl; Bill Belichick, the NFL's last anarchist; how Tom Coughlin has taken on his team's personality, not vice versa; and whether or not Eli Manning is considered "elite," there is no questioning his toughness and heart anymore.
Yet on what would be the winning score, staring at fourth-and-goal at the Baltimore 1-yard line, Brady did what the great ones do. He stared across at the menacing form of Ray Lewis ready to batter him and gamely called his own number.
"We keep telling him to stop doing that stuff but he doesn't listen to us very well," lineman Matt Light said.
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Brady took the snap, cleared the pile in a prone position, got the ball over the line and felt Lewis drill him in the back.
It was a passion play for the too-cool quarterback. It was rough-and-tumble stuff in a career filled with glamorous highlights. It was winning ugly courtesy of some beautiful pain, mano-a-mano with Ray Lewis.
"That showed you how much he wanted it," running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis said. "He took that for the team."
On a bad day Tom Brady had the Super Bowl in his sights and wouldn't be stopped.
Now here comes New York, here comes another shot at the last of those rare dips in his career. It's a different Giants team, just as this is a different Patriots team, but there are key parts that return.
So much was lost that Sunday night in Arizona. And Tom Brady has spent four full years working and driving and focusing on winning some of it back.
All those early morning workouts; all those late-night film sessions, all the ferocity breed form those short playoff runs and long offseasons, now it's all here for the changing. That Giants loss, it turns out, became the late-career motivation that helped extend his brilliance.
"There is one game to play and it means everything," Brady told WEEI.
Now comes the chance for a final righting of a rare wrong.
"I can't wait."
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