GLENDALE, Ariz. – Inside Tom Brady's locker rested a picture of him and his family – his wife and three kids. They were on a beach somewhere, smiling wholesome family vacation smiles, like just any old tourists. This was nothing fancy. Hair was windswept. The poses were haphazard. The shot isn't perfectly framed. It looked like it could've been taken with a disposable camera, handed to some dumbfounded fellow beachgoer.
On one wall hung a crumbled, kid-written sign, complete with three handprints of paint that could be stuck to a refrigerator anywhere. It read: "Go Patriots, We Love You Daddy." Below it laid another card with all his children's names printed on it.
This is what Tom Brady wanted to see before taking the field for Super Bowl XLIX. This is what he wanted his final vision to be, both pregame and halftime, of the latest, greatest game of his life.
And that, perhaps, was what he used as a grounding force before he shook off two interceptions and a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit to orchestrate two dramatic touchdown drives and lead the New England Patriots past the Seattle Seahawks 28-24 for a fourth Super Bowl title.
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This was a reminder of family, a reminder of priorities, a reminder that this time was so much different for Brady, so much different than when he was young and single and winning these things seemingly every year.
"This one," his longtime agent Donald Yee said, "is special because he is sharing it with a young, growing family. It's different."
What Tom Brady did in the fourth quarter here was pick himself up and play as great as he's ever played, as great as anyone's ever played – 13 of 15, 124 yards and two touchdowns on the two fourth-quarter scoring drives. He clinched it in the final seconds with a cadence change that drew Seattle offsides and gave New England room for the sweetest of victory formations.
It all came at the end of a particularly trying period of Brady's career, one made so much more challenging because of that family. These late-career seasons, on the edges of middle age, are about the joy of sharing it with the kids, but also the agony of knowing that those who love him most are hearing the worst.
For two weeks Tom Brady was a cheater, propped up by pushing envelopes, just part of some elaborate Patriots way. Some of it was reasonable and may continue depending on the results of the NFL's investigation. Some of it, however, was simply absurd. You can tune out the noise as a player. It's not so easy as a family and essentially impossible as a kid.
As much as Brady is seen as a glamour-boy celebrity, fashion conscious and married to a Brazilian supermodel, in the end he tries to build his personal life around family and fatherhood, the trips to the Boston Back Bay playgrounds and postgame hugs with the children wearing his jersey. He tries, best he can, to be just another dad in a family photo, kids draped all over him.
He isn't alone. He'll tell you he isn't anything special here, and he isn't. There are a lot of great fathers in the NFL and motivations like this are common with the old veterans. They are the ones with families who in this modern era of labeling and lambasting find themselves believing the social media insults of a few matter more than the cheers of a million.
To compound matters, Brady was en route to having those two interceptions and thus three consecutive Super Bowl losses turn into some negative referendum on his career. "Crappy plays," he acknowledged. He was kicking this shot away. After all the relentless effort to get here again and again and again, back from a knee injury, back from crushing losses, this one might have hurt the worst.
The man has nothing to prove, of course. His spot in Canton assured, the Super Bowl rings already on his fingers not going away.
That isn't how it works these days, however, and everyone knows that deal. Win enough games and you become easy to hate. Hang around long enough and you become easy to mock.
The hot takes, the "First Takes" were awaiting.
Can't win the big one anymore.
Can't win with a properly inflated ball.
Can't win without SpyGate.
This was about shutting them up, shutting that down, even if he isn't going to give anyone the satisfaction of knowing that.
"No," he said, "I don't feel any [vindication]."
Those around him aren't so sure.
"To win this year, this way, especially under these circumstances…" owner Robert Kraft said.
There were no secrets on how it happened, Brady said. He was named the game's MVP for a third time, but he said it was a team win. So many big catches, so many tough tackles. So many key defensive stops to keep it close and, in the end, a goal-line stand to clinch the win.
In the postgame locker room, he went halfway down a row of lockers shaking hands and thanking teammates for "working so hard," for "battling."
"L.G.," he shouted at LeGarrette Blount, the bulldog back who bludgeoned for just 40 yards, but was enough of a threat to keep linebackers honest. "Way to slug it out."
"Best to ever play," Blount said of his quarterback.
Brady reminded that he didn't need to lead, didn't need to remind everyone to believe victory was possible. He didn't want the credit. This victory was formed from months, years even, of building, so there would never be a doubt. Bill Belichick cited how the team kept fighting even in the second half of the calamitous early season loss at Kansas City that left some pundits claiming Brady was all but done.
"I don't think he's done," Kraft said with a smile.
"We were down 10," Brady said, "and we just said, 'Look, we've got to put one good drive together to get us back in the game. We made the plays…"
He shrugged a little. He's played in six Super Bowls and win or lose they all could've have gone a different way.
"These games," he said, "they're tough."
With four touchdowns Sunday, Brady passed Joe Montana for the most in Super Bowl history. He owns his fair share of other records, regular and postseason. He's 37 years old now and has been slinging footballs going on three decades.
That didn't matter Sunday. He was leaving nothing to chance. The guy is known for being cool. In that locker hung four different suit jackets, one seemingly more expensive than the next, leaving him myriad of sartorial choices to change into postgame.
Yet sitting there next to his family picture of what he was playing for, were humble, hand-scribbled little notes, crib sheets featuring the smallest of reminders, the most simple of concepts of how to play. It was something a high school sophomore would do in his first varsity game.
"More on toes."
"Stay behind the ball."
Somewhere in the middle of a game going all wrong, of a performance about to be defined by those two crappy plays and the pounds per square inch of the ball, Brady leaned back on those basics and returned to being himself – 13 for 15 with everything on the line, two touchdowns with history in the balance.
He won those first three titles for being driven, as a sixth-round pick, to will himself to excellence and prove himself to nameless doubters he didn't know.
That was then. This is now.
"His family," his agent was saying. "His family is everything."
This, this Super Bowl, was about showing something to and for the people who know him best, the hands on that poster, the faces in that picture.