Tom Brady is leaving New England, where things will never quite be the same

Twenty years after he arrived as an unlikely draft pick, made a team that had never won much of anything as a fourth-stringer and then proceeded to turn the New England Patriots into the NFL’s premier franchise and himself into an all-time icon … Tom Brady is leaving Foxborough.

Here in one the most surreal weeks of anyone’s life, on a St. Patrick’s Day where the Southie bars, let alone the parade, are shut down, his era with the only NFL team he ever played for ended with an Instagram post.

“I don’t know what my football future holds,” Brady wrote, “but it is time for me to open a new stage for my life and career.”

Brady’s destination is unknown. Only this is certain: When the Patriots’ next home game comes, he won’t be charging onto the field, sprinting end zone to end zone and pumping his fists at the fans chanting his name.

No more fourth-quarter comebacks for New England. No more Super Bowl marches. No more sense of calm, even entitlement, among fans that no matter how dire the moment, TB12 could lead them back. No more “Brady, Brady” ringing into the Massachusetts night.

During a time when nothing is the same, add this one to the pile.

The news finally landed Tuesday: Tom Brady is leaving the New England Patriots. (Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)
The news finally landed Tuesday: Tom Brady is leaving the New England Patriots. (Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

In the end, the gap between Brady and Bill Belichick proved too significant for a return. The details will come, perhaps, although the truth will likely be a matter of perspective. Brady made it clear that he preferred to return, even with his supporting cast full of game-breaking holes.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft was adamant that he wanted the franchise’s greatest player to end a storybook career in Foxborough.

Belichick never expressed such sentiments, comparing Brady’s contractual situation to all the other unsigned free agents out there. Brady will be 43 by the start of next season, and Belichick has never allowed sentiment to get in the way of “doing what’s best for the team.”

He did, however, offer up a lengthy statement on Brady’s impact in New England, going as far as saying, “Tom and I will always have a great relationship built on love, admiration, respect and appreciation.”

The end result remains for Belichick. For the old football godfather whose career first rose to prominence in North Jersey, it’s always business, nothing personal. Even if this makes bottom line sense, it’s an emotional gut punch to many.

Tom Brady has left the building.

Brady worked to attain the freedom to choose his next path – he renegotiated his deal and pulled back from various off-field projects. Yet he appeared hesitant to make the leap. That ended Tuesday morning.

Will he head to Tampa, where the Bucs are said to have made an “aggressive” pitch and have a ton of weapons, a respected coach and a tropical climate to offer? Will he head to the Los Angeles Chargers, in his native California, where a fresh start always seems possible? How about Las Vegas? Is there a mystery team out there?

The speculation continues.

“To all my teammates, coaches, executives and staff, Coach Belichick, [Robert Kraft] and the Kraft family and the entire Kraft organization, I want to say thank you for the past 20 years and the daily commitment to winning and creating a winning culture built on great values,” Brady wrote on Twitter. “Although my football journey will take place elsewhere, I appreciate everything we have achieved and am grateful for our TEAM accomplishments.”

These are the rarest of stories in the modern sports world. Two decades long and a complete 180 in exit and arrival.

Brady was a gangly quarterback out of Michigan that NFL scouts doubted because he wasn’t granted the full-time starting job until late in his senior year. Despite beating Ohio State, Penn State and Alabama, despite leading comeback after comeback, few thought of him as a pro.

The Patriots had scouted him relentlessly, talked with Michigan and rated him higher than anyone else. Belichick was a brand-new coach, however, given a second shot after getting fired in Cleveland. His roster was depleted (it went 5-11 in 2000), and the one thing he had was a good QB in Drew Bledsoe plus two competent backups.

“We had a lot of rebuilding to do,” Belichick said at the time.

On draft weekend, Brady watched round after round go by without getting picked. Six QBs went ahead of him. He thought he was better than all of them. Sitting at his parents’ house in San Mateo, California, the frustration grew to the point he got up, grabbed a baseball bat and told his parents he was going for a walk. Once outside, he swung the bat to get out the disappointment and anger. In truth, that humiliation would fuel him his entire career.

It wasn’t until Brady slid to the sixth round that the Patriots finally decided to make a so-called value pick. It was a questionable decision and few thought Brady would actually make the team. When he arrived at training camp, fourth on a depth chart at a position that only occasionally goes past two, he ran into Kraft.

“Hello, Mr. Kraft, I’m Tom Brady,” he said.

“I know who you are,” Kraft said. “You’re our sixth-round pick out of Michigan.”

Brady nodded, but wanted to set the expectations.

“I’m the best decision this franchise has ever made,” he said.

Cute story. True one, too. The Pats back then played in a worn-down stadium, spending as much time as a local and national laughingstock as anything else. They’d been to a couple of Super Bowls, but lost them both (most famously as cannon fodder for the 1985 Chicago Bears).

By the time the Pats were in the process of losing their second game of the 2001 season, nothing looked like it was going to change. This was the first game after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and was as much about gathering as a community and a country as the start of an epic football juggernaut.

The New York Jets would win. The Pats would fall to 0-2 and 5-13 in Belichick’s tenure. Bledsoe would get hurt. You could see it all going bad.

Tom Brady came out of nowhere to win Super Bowl XXXVI with the Patriots to cap the 2001 season, and would go on to win five more titles. (REUTERS/Win McNamee GAC)
Tom Brady came out of nowhere to win Super Bowl XXXVI with the Patriots to cap the 2001 season and would go on to win five more titles. (REUTERS/Win McNamee GAC)

Brady took over late, though, and almost immediately everything changed. The Pats would streak to an 11-5 record and improbable Super Bowl title that season, including winning in a snowstorm (the “Tuck Rule” game) against Oakland and then as a 14-point underdog against the St. Louis Rams.

Eight more Super Bowl appearances followed. Five more victories. Unbelievable performances and games. The rivalry with Peyton Manning. The owning of the AFC East. The Steelers. The Ravens. The 28-3 comeback against Atlanta. The Malcolm Butler Super Bowl over Seattle. Even the scandals were wild. Deflategate was a farce. The man went 219-64 in the regular season for the Pats and won a whopping 30 more games in the playoffs.

By the end he was leading teammates and terrifying opponents who had first watched him win Super Bowls on television when they were 7 or 8. He was this in-the-flesh football Superman and they were in a movie they’d seen before.

Brady became everything in New England, as big (if not bigger) than Larry Bird or Ted Williams or Bobby Orr. They’ll name a bridge or a tunnel or a half-dozen schools after him one day. He made Boston a football town. He helped make Belichick the greatest coach who ever lived.

Now it’s over. The hero is riding off into the sunset, yet into a sunrise somewhere else. No one could have ever expected he’d last this long, yet now he’s going to last even longer somewhere else.

Will it be a second act that pales in comparison – Michael Jordan in Washington? Or is there another run or two in him – Manning in Denver?

That’s the next chapter. The old ones in New England are over.

“You opened your heart to me,” Brady wrote to Patriots fans. “And I opened my heart to you.”

It’ll never be quite the same in Foxborough.

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