Streets empty, hearts heavy: Boston mourns Tom Brady's exit amid the coronavirus pandemic

BOSTON – Empty streets, empty hearts.

On a day in South Boston annually dedicated to revelry and excess, the most sobering of St. Patrick's Day moments came around 8:43 a.m. on Tuesday morning.

Tom Brady announced on Instagram he'd be leaving the New England Patriots. That the news was expected didn't make it any less jarring. Tom Brady had become part of the backdrop around here, as much a part of the Boston scenery as the Prudential Tower and the Zakim Bridge.

Brady starting on Sunday was as predictable as a Kennedy in Congress, Guinness on tap and some idiot getting stuck on Storrow Drive during college move-in weekend. Along the way, he changed everything.

At a time when we are all bracing for a new normal from the COVID-19 health crisis, another new normal came Tuesday morning. Brady's departure is a frozen moment amid frozen lives, with the desolate streets and melancholy mood a chilling and appropriate backdrop.

In more normal times, this would call for a man-on-the-street story, peering into the soul of the city through conversations with bartenders, barbers and patrons. With that not feasible – or even socially acceptable – you'll have to settle for the perspective of a man who has been on the street.

My view of Tom Brady's impact on the city comes from South Boston, a tightly knit neighborhood known as Southie where I've lived the past dozen years. To understand Southie is to understand Boston isn't a giant, sweeping city like New York or Chicago or Los Angeles. It's a city of less than a million people, chopped into actual neighborhoods with the intimacy and familiarity of corner pubs where the bartenders know your name.

My NFL Sundays are usually spent on planes, as I cover college football and am typically returning home. But on weekends when I stick around or return early, my Sundays include trips to work in local coffee shops, where I've seen first-hand the rituals of South Boston in the Brady era unfold out the windows.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady shakes hands with a fan as he leaves the field after losing an NFL wild-card playoff football game to the Tennessee Titans, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady shakes hands with a fan as he leaves the field after losing an NFL wild-card playoff football game to the Tennessee Titans, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

There are millennials walking down the street like stormtroopers, 30-packs of Bud Light in hand as they trudge back to their apartments. They're often wearing Brady jerseys in the fall, and Patriots-themed winter hats when the weather turns. For both men and women, the dress code remains consistent — each year appears a bit more creative than the next. After all, it's an outfit worn predictably every week.

If the locals didn't cram into the small apartments off Broadway, they'd be heading to one of the oversized bars like Lincoln, Capo or Shenanigans. The lines routinely stretched 100-deep at noon for 1 p.m. kicks. There was an entire industry of Brady, from early September through late January, as reliable as the Sunday service at Gate of Heaven.

In a way, Tom Brady helped turn South Boston into a college town every weekend, a home-or-away tribal celebration of football. Gillette Stadium is about 30 miles south of the city, and the traffic is suffocating enough on Route 1 that you'd have to leave next week to get there for the preseason opener. Instead of a college town where folks would wander off to the stadium before kick, here in Southie an all-day party raged for more than a decade.

Amid the raw reality of Tuesday morning in Southie, I went to The Juice Box to get some takeout. While chatting with the proprietor about Brady's departure, I looked behind the counter and saw TB12 protein powder. From the juice bars to the real ones, Brady was literally everywhere here.

It's daunting to attempt to quantify what Tom Brady meant to New England. And it's much more than the six Super Bowl wins, the nine Super Bowl appearances and 14 Pro Bowls. Brady's ultimate legacy in New England goes well beyond becoming his own brand, his own protein powder, his global celebrity and supermodel wife. He turned a sports town ridiculed as being full of losers to one of relentless, defiant and often obnoxious winners. Somehow, we turned into those obnoxious Yankee fans who I loathed so much upon arriving at Syracuse University in the middle of their golden run. (David Ortiz surely co-starred in this stunning plot twist.)

Brady's two-decade run turned the Boston area from a football netherworld to the hub of the sport. We went from bumbling former owner Victor Kiam and moving to St. Louis or Hartford to the place every other football city hated because the Patriots won too much.

As Brady changed the sports scene in Boston, Southie changed with it. The bar where famed Whitey Bulger once collected unpaid loans, Triple O's Lounge, is now a trendy restaurant flanked by a yoga studio and sushi house. The triple-deckers for multiple generations of families are now million-dollar condos. The neighborhood has kept its roots, but a fiercely local and parochial place has made way for a generation of young people who don't know a football life without Brady.

How deep is Brady ingrained in this region? Consider there are college kids who've grown up with a Super Bowl appearance as nearly a right, something that comes every other year. Consider there are college graduates from this area, who likely started paying attention to football around grade school, who've never known another starting quarterback. Tom Brady went from someone whose jersey they got as a fifth-grader, to who they rooted for in high school to the guy they crushed beers watching during Sunday Fundays.

This ending shouldn't be a surprise. The same cold, clinical and emotionless way that Bill Belichick parted ways with Lawyer Milloy, Richard Seymour, Adam Vinatieri, Mike Vrabel and Jamie Collins, he did to Brady. The same tactics that built the greatest run of modern football ever witnessed weren't going to suddenly develop a sentimental streak. Not even for TB12, who got the job after the unceremonious departure of Drew Bledsoe.

On a raw day amid the empty streets of South Boston, it's hard to not get sentimental. It's hard to imagine the carefree Sundays of stormtroopers headed to Southie Liquors for their 30-pack. In these strange times, it's fitting we can't imagine what the next party is going to look like.

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