Tom Brady is remarkable, but let's cool it with the 'greatest athlete of all time' talk

On Sunday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers earned a spot in Super Bowl LV, and their quarterback Tom Brady will make his 10th appearance in the NFL’s championship game.

It’s a remarkable achievement for Brady. His 10 conference championship wins are twice as many as any other quarterback in the game’s history, and while this is his 21st season in the league, it was his 19th as full-time starter. He played in just one game as a rookie in 2000, and his 2008 season ended in the first quarter of the first game when he suffered a torn ACL. That means in the seasons he has started, over half of them ended in the Super Bowl.

Social media loves hyperbole, and so it wasn’t long after the NFC championship ended that the question was posed:

Is Brady the greatest athlete of all time?

My answer: No. Not by most people’s definition of the word.

Tom Brady is in the conversation for greatest NFL player ever. But greatest athlete? That's more dicey. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Tom Brady is in the conversation for greatest NFL player ever. But greatest athlete? That's more dicey. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

If we’re debating whether Brady is the greatest player ever in the four major American team sports (football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey), we can have that argument. Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Wayne Gretzky, Sue Bird and Derek Jeter are part of that argument. Brady certainly is as well.

But in team sports, well, it takes the team. Brady may have changed the culture in Tampa Bay, but on Sunday he didn’t do it alone, and he was the first to say as much. As he struggled in the second half with interceptions on three straight possessions, it was the Buccaneers’ defense that kept the Green Bay Packers from taking the lead.

Again, this isn’t to say that Brady’s achievements aren’t incredible, and seemingly impossible to match or surpass by another NFL player. I saw every home and playoff game the man played for over a decade, and saw every single game he played for nine years.

And not for nothing, but have you seen Brady run? Again, even he knows he’s not exactly fleet of foot. The man can dissect a defense and is unflappable under pressure, sure, but outside of juking Brian Urlacher that one time, there are more jokes about his running than he has postseason wins.

For my money, “greatest athlete” is more of an individual pursuit and offers a clearer-cut answer on greatness. When no one else is there to bail you out, do you rise to the occasion?

By that standard, American decathlete Ashton Eaton is the greatest athlete ever. When he retired in 2017, Eaton did it as the world record-holder in the grueling two-day event, which sees participants complete 10 disparate disciplines, from the javelin throw to pole vault to the 1500-meter run (which is just shy of a mile, for those of us who don’t dabble in the metric system).

And it’s not just that Eaton was competent in each event, which is merely a requirement. To be the world record-holder, he had to be among the best on the planet at several of them. At once. In 2012, when Eaton broke the world record for the first time at U.S. Olympic Trials, his long jump of 8.23 meters (27 feet) was 14th best in the world that year; his 10.21-second 100 meter sprint put him among the 100 fastest men on the planet.

Eaton won back-to-back Olympic golds in the decathlon, as well as two outdoor World Championship golds and three World Championship indoor heptathlon golds. (He’s also world record-holder in that event.)

It’s not just Eaton. We could make the argument for numerous track and field athletes here, from Jackie Joyner-Kersee — who, in addition to still holding the women’s record for heptathlon and being the best female long jumper in the world for a stretch, was also a four-year starter on the UCLA basketball team — to Carl Lewis to Michael Johnson to Allyson Felix.

How many can hold a candle to Serena Williams’ 20-plus year run of dominance? Or Simone Biles’ incomparable achievements in gymnastics, a sport that rewards youth unlike any other? Or Michael Phelps, who won 13 individual gold medals over four Olympics, and 10 more in relays? Or Muhammad Ali’s sustained success? Or Lindsey Vonn’s greatness despite numerous career-threatening injuries?

And those are just the Americans. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, Usain Bolt and Veronica Campbell Brown, Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova — they can all make their own case.

Among those who made their name playing team sports, you could argue Jim Brown was a better athlete than Brady, considered by some to be not just the greatest running back ever but also the greatest lacrosse player, and even averaged 15 points per game for Syracuse’s basketball team as a sophomore. In 1992, Deion Sanders was an All-Pro cornerback for the Atlanta Falcons and had a league-best 14 triples in 303 at-bats with the Atlanta Braves.

Brady has surpassed his boyhood idol, Joe Montana, as the greatest quarterback ever and is one of the most accomplished team-sport players of the modern era. But for all of his victories, greatest athlete isn’t an argument Brady can win.

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