The "Tecmo Bowl" games at Tom Brady’s first condo in Massachusetts used to get so vicious and competitive that the loser would have to streak naked through the condo’s quad. Brady himself suffered this punishment at least once, running buck-naked through the cold Northeastern night in between downing slices of pizza, cans of beer and piles of hot wings.
Yes, Tom Brady was once a normal, "Tecmo Bowl"-playing, wing-devouring bro just like so many of his fans. It was a giddy time for him, those first months in New England, the days before he was TOM BRADY. Back then, in the final few weeks before he became nationally, and then internationally, famous, Brady could just kick back and enjoy life … for a few minutes at a time, at least.
Beneath that backward-ballcap, Axe-body-spray exterior beat an unsatisfied, driven heart, even back then. As Seth Wickersham notes in “Better to be Feared,” his exceptional bio on Brady and Bill Belichick — which includes the above "Tecmo"-streaker anecdote — even back then Brady was a relentless worker, arriving at the stadium at 6 a.m., leaving at 7 p.m. to grab dinner at the condo, then returning at 9:30 p.m. to study film or throw balls at the practice facility late into the night.
Brady spent the entirety of his early life trying to prove others wrong, trying to live up to some absurd ideal for himself. In high school, he vowed to play college ball. At Michigan, he vowed his name would be mentioned among the greats. In New England one evening, he told team owner Robert Kraft — who had just called him “Kyle” by mistake — “It’s one of the best decisions you ever made, picking me.”
He was right, of course. Brady hit all his marks — surpassed them, really, by such a wide and incomprehensible margin that he’s the indisputable GOAT of the NFL. Seven rings with two different teams, MVP-caliber play against players two decades his junior, all the fame and adulation and approval a human being could want … at least, in theory.
Thing is, when your entire existence hinges on you proving people wrong, what happens when there’s no more need to do that? What do you do when everyone concedes that you’re the best ever? When you’ve reached the top of the mountain, the only person who’s still around to fight is yourself.
There’s a meme going around right now that shows a sallow, sunken-cheeked Brady next to a wide-eyed, consciousness-orbiting-Saturn Aaron Rodgers. “It’s not worth it folks,” the meme reads, “eat ice cream.”
On one hand, it’s a cheap laugh at what two of the best ever to play football have done to themselves at this late stage in their careers, from extreme diets to mind-altering enhancements, denying themselves the simple pleasures in life, like ice cream … and, probably, wings, pizza and "Tecmo Bowl."
On another level, it’s sad as hell, too. It’s a look at what you have to surrender to be the best, how much of yourself you have to give up in order to beat back whatever demons you have raging inside you. Look at Brady’s demeanor here as he walks into Sunday’s game against the New Orleans Saints:
That’s a man who looks exhausted, mentally and physically. And it’s only Week 2! What should be a celebratory career victory lap is looking a lot more like a slog.
Brady won that game the same way he won Week 1’s marquee showdown against the Dallas Cowboys: with relentless, hit-the-marks professionalism, displaying about as much passion and effort as a concert pianist playing “Chopsticks.” The only real times he showed fire Sunday in New Orleans were when the Saints got chippy, or when the Bucs’ drives sputtered:
Brady might or might not be having marital problems. If you believe the tabloid media and “sources close to” wife Gisele, all is very much not well in the Brady household, and hasn’t been since he decided to unretire this past spring. Regardless, Brady has been dealing with off-field “personal” issues — his words — and gave a quick peek behind the curtain when he returned from an extended training camp absence, looking drawn and weary: “I’m 45 years old, man. There’s a lot of s*** going on.”
Just this weekend, word came down that Brady would be excused from Wednesday practices for the entirety of the season, a highly unusual arrangement. Brady has enough rings that he can do whatever he wants — he could probably show up on only Sundays and still beat half the teams in the league without even knowing his teammates’ names — but when a guy who once worked from before dawn to long after sunset starts taking full days off, something significant has changed somewhere along the line.
Marital issues are nobody’s damn business but the Bradys. The problem is, Tom Brady the human being is now in direct conflict with TOM BRADY, the institution. Like the Rolling Stones, Tom Brady is not just a human being, but an entire enterprise unto himself — quarterback of a Super Bowl-caliber team, future Fox Sports personality with a contract worth a third of a billion dollars. And so, like the Rolling Stones, Brady must put aside whatever personal issues he may be having as he continues to play the part of TOM BRADY. Too much is already invested in him. The beast must be fed, even if Brady skips out on Wednesdays.
Regardless of whatever is happening in his personal life, Brady has a long, tough road ahead. Every professional athlete, driven by forces those in the stands can’t imagine, faces the moment when the road ends. Brady has staved it off longer than most, but the end is coming, no matter how much he wants to rage against it. He’ll need to figure how to lose this last fight with grace because the fight against time is one that not even Tom Brady can win.
Brady may still have something to prove to himself, something he still needs to achieve greatness in his mind. If he does, he’s the only one on earth who still needs convincing.
Contact Jay Busbee at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.