Why was Tom Brady so empathetic toward Antonio Brown? Maybe because he's seen teammates struggle like this before

Fresh off a dramatic, final-minute touchdown to win another NFL game, Tom Brady sat in front of a media call on Sunday and was asked about a player who played no part in that comeback.

During the third quarter, wide receiver Antonio Brown stripped out of his uniform and pads, and dramatically ran off the field — an act of either quitting or being fired, depending on whatever narrative you buy, that was unprecedented in league history.

Brady could have dodged questions about Brown the way his head coach, Bruce Arians, did. Or he could have understandably kept it simple like other teammates, who were likely as stunned and confused as everyone else.

Brady didn’t, though. His answer instead was one that sought understanding and compassion for Brown and, most of all, tried to make it clear to Brown himself that Brady and others were still there for him regardless of employment status.

“I think everybody should hopefully do what they can to help him in ways that he really needs it,” Brady said. “We all love him. We care about him deeply. We want to see him at his best. Unfortunately he can’t be with our team, but we have a lot of friendships that will last.

“Again, I think the most important things about football are the relationships with your friends and teammates,” Brady continued. “They go beyond the field. I think everyone should be compassionate and empathetic with some of the difficult things that are happening.”

Tom Brady has played 22 seasons in the NFL. He’s had over a thousand teammates during that career, ranging from brief stints during training camps to decade-long relationships. He has seen things. He knows people.

That includes witnessing struggles with mental health, with depression, with destructive behavior and even CTE.

While Brady’s career has often been seen through a glorious prism — Super Bowl titles, dramatic victories, celebratory documentaries — this is still pro football. It isn’t all highlight reels set to soaring music. He has been surrounded by carnage, by tragedy, by trauma.

He has seen teammates battle while playing. He has seen them attempt to adjust to retirement, where the structure and shared purpose of the team, plus the resources franchises provide, are gone. It’s rarely easy.

Brady isn’t one to speak on such things (nor should he be expected to), but there may be no one else in the NFL who understands how dangerous of a situation Antonio Brown might be in, how things quickly can get dramatically worse than anyone ever seems to imagine.

Maybe that’s why he was striking such a different tone. One of outreach. One of concern. One of noting, quite accurately, that Brown needs help “in ways that he really needs.” In other words, not ways football or fans or teammates need.

Tom Brady struck an empathetic tone for Antonio Brown after Sunday's bizarre scene, perhaps because he's had teammates who've battled major issues before. (AP Photo/Brian Westerholt)
Tom Brady struck an empathetic tone for Antonio Brown after Sunday's bizarre scene, perhaps because he's had teammates who've battled major issues before. (AP Photo/Brian Westerholt)

In a time when the mental health of athletes has been a focus, there was painfully little Sunday when it came to Antonio Brown. This despite an outburst that seemed more cry for help than anything else — who just quits a Super Bowl team in the middle of a game in that manner?

None of this excuses Brown’s past behavior, which has ranged from potentially criminal (alleged domestic violence and sexual misconduct) to simply boorish (fights with teammates, coaches and executives), to completely ridiculous (frostbite due to cryotherapy, a fake vaccine card).

He owns his actions and the fallout that comes with it. All of it. Yet just because he isn't a very sympathetic figure doesn't mean he is worthless.

Nor is this the first plea for Brown to get help. Every team he has played for has sought that for him. Even if the motivations were based mostly on keeping his talent on the field, it doesn’t mean resources weren’t available or the concern real. Giving him a job wasn’t enabling him. It was employing him. He needed it.

Until Brown accepts the help, however, not much can be done. At least Brady was trying to maintain ties in the hope of making this Brown’s rock bottom. He is certainly aware that it can get much, much worse.

Brady has had three former teammates commit suicide. Each was later found to suffer from advanced CTE. That includes the tragic death of Junior Seau, a joyous and popular linebacker who played in New England from 2006-09 and shot himself in 2012 after falling into a deep depression and health challenges during retirement.

Then there is Aaron Hernandez, who played with Brady from 2010-12 and in 2017 hanged himself in a prison cell while serving a life sentence for murder. And just last year, former cornerback Phillip Adams (a 2011 Brady teammate) killed himself as police were set to arrest him following a rampage in Rock Hill, South Carolina where police say Adams killed six people.

The levels of Brady’s relationships with those three vary greatly, as do the circumstances surrounding their deaths. Were any of them, or any of the smaller struggles and even triumphs he personally witnessed through the years, on Brady’s mind when he spoke about Brown?

Only Brady knows that. But how couldn’t they be, at least to some degree?

How many 44-year-olds can count three former coworkers that took their own life, let alone having two of them kill other people first? How can’t that person look at Antonio Brown and worry about what comes next?

Most NFL players go onto healthy and well-adjusted lives. Most NFL players, even those who suffer concussions, do not fall into lives of despair or suffer from CTE. But some do. And what we do know about Antonio Brown is he has experienced concussions before, including one courtesy of a Vontaze Burfict hit in a 2016 playoff game that was among the most vicious and violent acts in the game’s history.

How can’t you be concerned?

So Brady, who lobbied for Brown to join the Buccaneers because he believed (accurately) he could help win the Super Bowl, didn’t sound ready to just watch him fade off, to cut him loose, to turn his back on him.

He still cared about his teammate. He also may realize, more than anyone else in the game, just what’s at stake. This isn’t the time to give up on Antonio Brown the person. It’s time to fight even harder for him.