Being a sportswriter and getting the chance to be so close to your sporting heroes is a dream job for many fans.
It’s not as easy or as fun as it’s sometimes portrayed. That’s not to say it isn’t fun and that there aren’t great moments, but it’s a job, and no job is without its frustrations.
But for a relatively small number of us, we had the great fortune of covering the greatest quarterback in NFL history, and someone who by and large is a fundamentally decent person. Not everyone gets to say that.
In the final week of August 2006, I became the New England Patriots beat writer for the Providence Journal. The man who had held the job left for a different gig, and the powers that be in the newsroom promoted me.
I’d been around the team for a couple of years, covering home games, Super Bowl XXXIX and helping out when needed.
For the next nine years, a span of 195 preseason, regular-season and postseason games, and countless practices and media sessions, I chronicled everything the Patriots did.
And at the center of it all was Tom Brady.
On Tuesday morning, Brady announced on social media that he would be playing somewhere else in 2020. It wasn’t entirely unexpected, as there have been signs for a while that the divorce might be coming, including when Brady and wife Gisele Bündchen placed their custom-built Brookline, Massachusetts, mansion on the market during training camp last year (the asking price has been dropped to $33.9 million if you can spare the funds).
That doesn’t make it any less weird.
I grew up in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. I vividly remember Super Bowl XX, gathering at my uncle’s house for the game. Everyone was still high off of the AFC title game a couple of weeks earlier, when New England “Squished the Fish,” beating the rival Dolphins to get to the Super Bowl against Chicago.
The Patriots were promptly destroyed by the Bears.
Despite the result, it was a definite high point for a franchise that, to that point, had been an afterthought at best and an embarrassment at worst (thanks, Victor Kiam).
A series of events turned the Patriots around, starting with local businessman and longtime season-ticket holder Robert Kraft buying the team in 1994. A few years later, Kraft swung a trade for Bill Belichick, acquiring him from the New York Jets when Belichick was supposed to become the Jets’ head coach.
Then, in rapid succession: Belichick’s first draft class in 2000 included a scrawny quarterback from Michigan taken in the sixth round, Drew Bledsoe nearly died from internal bleeding after a hit from Mo Lewis in Week 2 of the 2001 season, Brady started Week 3 ... and the rest is history.
Regardless of what anyone says now, no one knew then what Brady would become. If they did, he wouldn’t have languished until late in the sixth round. There were debates in local sports media for weeks about whether the Patriots should stick with Brady or go back to Bledsoe, who at the time was the highest-paid quarterback in league history.
Brady’s play early on didn’t exactly engender confidence either: He completed 25-of-46 passes (54.3 percent) for 275 yards in his first two starts, with no touchdowns and no interceptions.
Then, the Patriots finished the regular season with six straight wins and we all know what followed — the Snow Bowl game against the Oakland Raiders, a road win against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship and one of the unlikeliest upsets in Super Bowl history, against the Greatest Show on Turf St. Louis Rams.
That began a run of success unprecedented in modern sports history, unheard of in an NFL built for parity. To put into perspective how long the Patriots have been winning Super Bowls, kids born around the time of Super Bowl XXXVI (or conceived during its celebration) are in college now.
And at the center of it all was Brady.
Before social media, Brady gave glimpses into his off-field and pre-New England life. Like a generation of kids who grew up in San Francisco, he idolized Joe Montana, and he was in the stands at Candlestick Park for “The Catch” in January 1982. He has three older sisters, all of whom were stellar athletes in their own right and who he compared himself to. He perpetually had a chip on his shoulder, even before he was the 199th pick in the draft.
As time wore on and wins piled up, Belichick made it clear that Brady was no different than anyone else on the roster. Brady was as heavily criticized in day-after film breakdown as the 53rd player. Belichick would frequently say there isn’t any other quarterback he’d want, but there was never gushing. The former, ostensibly, was to make it clear that no one got superstar treatment, even the superstar quarterback.
In front of the crush of cameras and microphones and smartphones that chronicled him, whether at the podium in the Patriots’ media workroom or in front of his locker stall (he’s superstitious, so for a time switched between the two depending on whether the team had won or lost its previous game), Brady was generally reserved, though he was good at being self-deprecating, especially about his lack of foot speed.
He’d let his guard down in one-on-one situations, if he felt comfortable to do so.
In those moments, to me anyway, you’d get a sense that even Brady couldn’t believe his life and what it had become. He wasn’t just the football underdog-turned-champion, he won multiple Super Bowls. He wasn’t just great, he was being compared to Montana (which he always downplayed), and then, simply, GOAT. He met and married the most famous woman on the planet.
And often, Brady did the little things, that some people of his stature forget. Every new teammate, even 16, 17, 18 years into his career was greeted the same way: with a handshake and, “Hi, I’m Tom Brady.”
He created a long association with Best Buddies International, a charity for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
He met with dozens of ailing children through the Make-A-Wish program.
He took time to engage with a reporter’s children during a chance encounter.
He told a very pregnant reporter she was looking good as she waddled through the locker room (true story).
There has long been a debate about whether Belichick or Brady deserves more credit for the Patriots’ incredible run. The truth is, we may never know — this isn’t like Brady leaving at 35 or 36, with possibly a decade in front of him.
But for those of us of a certain age who grew up and remember what the Patriots were and had a front-row seat to what they are now, one thing will always be remembered: Brady was at the center of it all.
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