INDIANAPOLIS – Tom Brady sat facing his locker, his head down and draped in a white towel, staring at the space between his cleats.
He was in full uniform. He was in full thought. There were the plays that hadn't been made. There were the opportunities not seized. There was the Super Bowl that had slipped away, 21-17 to the New York Giants. Again, the Giants. Again.
It was 10:04 p.m.
The minutes ticked by and Brady didn't move. Across the Patriots’ locker room there was dejection and depression, hushed whispers and thousand-yard stares. This is the pain of almost having everything. This was the hurt of winding up with nothing. All the money these guys make, all the glory they receive, it does nothing in times like this, the losing locker room after the biggest of games.
Nobody was taking it quite like Brady though. Others slipped out of their uniforms or headed to the media interview area in full dress. Some shuffled off to the showers or patted each other on the back.
Not Brady. He just kept staring at the floor.
His longtime physical therapist, Alex Guerrero, sat in an empty locker next to him and tried to offer words of comfort. They had no impact. Brady never moved.
It was 10:12 p.m.
Robert Kraft, the team owner who Brady wanted this fourth Super Bowl for so desperately, came by, saw the carnage and went to Brady. Kraft bent over, put a hand on his shoulder pads and pulled the quarterback in. He spoke softly in his ear. He then hugged Brady's head and finally let go.
Brady nodded but never looked up. The towel was still in place.
It was 10:14 p.m.
Kraft retreated and ran into Patriots coach Bill Belichick, one wearing a look more stunned than the other. This long, twisting, seven-year quest for another Super Bowl had been in their grasp. They had the ball and the lead with four minutes to play. They had the Giants on the ropes.
The defense had proven resilient. Brady had shaken off early mistakes to put together a brilliant 16-for-16 and two-touchdown passing stretch. All they needed to make was one more play. On offense. On defense. Somewhere. Anywhere.
It never happened. Instead they marched off Lucas Oil Field with Giants confetti falling above them, another Super Bowl dashed by the New Yorkers.
How? Why? There's no simple answer.
Not now. Maybe not ever. The last Super Bowl loss haunted them, hung over them, motivated them to get back. They know that pain too well to think this will be any different. The first night is always the longest. They don't get much shorter though.
They talked briefly and split, Belichick to change, Kraft to nowhere in particular.
He looked back at Brady, still in his state of disaster.
Brady's head was down but he begun tugging on some loose tape around his right ankle. He unraveled slowly. He stood briefly, grabbed a half-full bottle of Vitamin Water Zero lemonade and took a swig. The towel finally fell off his head and down onto his shoulder pads and eventually the floor. He sat back down, hard.
Kraft came over for another hug. Another couple words.
It was 10:18 p.m.
Brady began to pull at his shoulder pads. Guerrero helped slide them off. He stood again and began glancing around the mostly empty locker room. He focused on nothing in particular. His eyes were red.
He's supposedly too cool, or that's what rival fans say. He's supposedly too much of a pretty boy, or that's what they mock. Not here. The guy with everything looked empty.
This was a football player, a true football player, in among the worst moments the game can provide.
An NFL public relations person asked if he'd go to the podium, talk to the media. Belichick had already trudged there and tried to make sense of it. "We ended up a couple plays short," he said. Many of his teammates had already been there and back.
Brady would shower and change first, the NFL was informed. He took off his knee brace and put it in his bag. He headed to clean up.
It was 10:23 p.m.
Brady's agent, Donald Yee, arrived. It's a friendship more than a business relationship at this point. No one who knows Brady on a personal level could watch this without feeling the emotion.
"Even a long NFL career is a short career," Yee said.
Brady is a competitor. He's a worker. For all his fame and fortune now, he's a self-made quarterback, no one's glamour boy when this all started. The three Super Bowl wins in his first four years as a starter may have made him think, at least a bit, that the fairy tale always turns out true.
These last seven seasons, the first loss to the Giants, the knee injury in 2008, the various playoff disappointments and now this, have changed everything. Who knows when the opportunity comes again? Brady is 34. Windows always close faster than anyone anticipates.
Can he ever get title No. 4? Can he ever get past Eli Manning?
He'd just gone 27 for 41 for 276 yards and two touchdowns and it wasn't enough. There was the deep ball to Rob Gronkowski that was intercepted because he didn't get enough on it. There was a slight overthrow to an open Wes Welker in the fourth quarter that could have sealed a victory. There was … well, there will always be another there was. Always.
That's football. That's the deal.
It was 10:31 p.m.
Brady was adjusting his black three-piece suit that he had picked out presuming he'd wear it in victory, wear it in a moment of professional bliss, wear it, maybe, to a celebration party. It was precisely the kind of high fashion outfit he's become famous for. He wore no tie. He didn't need it.
He'd said little to anyone, made eye contact with almost no one. It was time to go to the podium. Westwood One Radio, with Jim Gray as the reporter, was waiting outside the locker room for a brief live interview. It's an NFL contracted deal. Brady understood his obligation.
Flanked by security he walked up to where Gray and a producer were standing. He nodded and said nothing. Gray began barking into the microphone, telling the production crew he had the quarterback and they needed to throw it to him. Now.
Nothing happened. Fifteen seconds. Twenty seconds. Twenty-five seconds. Brady stared at the producer's media badge. Every second felt like 10 minutes.
"Come on, Howard!" Gray shouted into the microphone.
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Finally it was on. Brady engaged and spoke softly. Gray asked what he was thinking for all those minutes under the towel, staring at that locker room floor.
"I think it was just the missed opportunities," Brady said.
Soon he was ushered into a hallway, off to where the podium waited. He went through a side exit, not the main one where his wife, Gisele Bundchen, the Brazilian supermodel, had been waiting.
She heard he’d gotten past her and began sprinting – in black boots with three-inch heels – after him. He was 30 yards ahead of her.
"Tommy," she shouted. "Tommy! Tommy!"
He didn't hear her. She finally plowed through the crowd, the lingerie model throwing elbows until she stopped him in mid-stride and offered a big hug, a kiss and a look into Brady's still-red eyes. Cameras flashed all around them.
It was 10:43 p.m.
Brady took to the podium, a crowd 12-15 deep wedged all around him, cameras and recorders straining to catch his voice.
"First, I'd like to give the Giants a lot of credit," he said. "They certainly made the plays when they needed."
He talked about the incompletion to Welker, the final desperation drive and the comparison to the Super Bowl heartbreak of 2008. He fielded questions about whether this would affect his legacy and whether quarterbacks got the proper amount of credit.
He was asked about the safety he took on the Patriots' first offensive play and whether he thought he'd connect on the Hail Mary on the final one.
He said everything he could.
"They made a few more plays than we did," he said.
He spoke for 10 minutes and thirty-eight seconds and was done. He stood up, tried to get through the crowd where Gisele was still waiting. They hugged again. The cameras flashed some more.
It was 10:55 p.m.
He looked only slightly better than the moment the towel had finally fallen off his head. Stunned still. Shocked still. He'd forced his way through the postgame requirements because that's part of the job.
He grabbed Gisele's right hand and slipped it into his left and tried to walk through the back halls of Lucas Oil Stadium like they were just any couple taking a stroll. Here they were, beautiful and fabulous and entirely flustered.
Another season gone. Another Super Bowl lost.
"I'd love to keep coming back to this game and taking a shot," Brady had said. "It's better than sitting at home and not playing in this game."
The couple finally got out of the stadium and into the cool night air. A Miller Trailways Bus sat idling, half full of late-leaving players and Patriots’ support staff. Katy Perry came bouncing by and tried to catch their attention. They either didn't notice, or simply chose to ignore her.
Gisele climbed on board. Brady followed. They took seats 35 and 36 and through the big side windows, as clear as can be, Tom Brady hung his head and pressed it up against the back of the seat in front of him.
He stared down between his feet.
It was 11 p.m.
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