So Tom Brady leaves in much the same way as he vaulted into American conversations of the last 20 years: without a backwards glance.
His retirement this week was at once unsurprising and startling. No 44-year -old man has any business prolonging his role as the number one target in the most violent field sport on earth.
But then, no 44-year-old man has any business performing as the most influential and valuable player in a league crowded with athletes who were toddlers when he started off. Tom Brady somehow made light of both states, gliding through the past few seasons as some kind of gridiron version of Dorian Gray.
Not only was his body more supple and honed than when he had entered the NFL as the last pick out of the 199 players from the class of 2000, he had acquired a preternatural glow and vitality.
Brady will always be identified as a New England Patriot even as he moonlighted over the past two winters as quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, winning the club its second ever Superbowl title last year – just to show he could, just to lay irrefutable claim to being the chief architect behind the two decades when New England were the most feared and loathed and successful entity in American sports.
And it was entirely unsurprising that when Brady announced that he was done, taking to Instagram and twitter to deliver a polite message framed around his touchstones of hard work, gratitude and camaraderie, there was absolutely no mention of New England nor the resident coach Bill Belichick.
Reading it, one would never have guessed Brady had ever played there. It was the final cold kiss goodbye, the last unanswerable retort to the Patriots organisation for refusing him the contract he thought he deserved as he passed 40.
The silence was directed at the club but for the hundreds of thousands of New England fans who adored Brady, who had bought tickets to see him play, who openly mourned his departure, there was nothing in his farewell message. It was icy: as though the previous 20 years had never happened.
“Can a six-state region be jilted? Apparently?” wrote Beth Teitell in the Boston Globe in bottling the emotion of millions of spurned fans.
“For 20 years we sat on our couches for him. We wore his clothing and we named our dogs for him, even if they were girls. We even ate his stupid avocado ice-cream,” she recalled in a column with the headline: Tom Brady is just not that into us.
Boston is a proper sports city, which is to say it is haughty about itself and its fans expect the stars to salute. It is over 60 years since John Updike sat among the autumn crowd scattered around Fenway Park for a late September game which was meaningless in terms of the 1960 season. But Updike, “and 10,453 others, had shown up primarily because this was the Red Sox’s last home game of the season, and therefore the last time in all eternity that their regular left-fielder, known to the headlines as TED, KID, SPLINTER,THUMPER,TW, and, most cloyingly, Mister Wonderful, would play in Boston”.
It was a different world; less money and media flowed through sport so it was more accessible and less seen.
Ted Williams was by then an ageing baseball star on a declining team and had a stormy relationship with Boston. Introduced to the crowd, he stood behind a microphone and shot a significant glance at the press box before allowing that “in spite of all the terrible things that had been said about me by the maestros of the keyboard”, Boston had been the best thing in his sporting life.
It was one of those autumn afternoons of weakening light when Williams delivered what the crowd had come to see, hoping against hope: a final home run. The crowd rose, ecstatic.
But Williams, reported Updike, “ran as he always ran out home runs – hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn’t tip his cap”.
After he disappeared into the dug-out, fans wept and a chant lasting for several minutes demanded an encore, a wave. But Williams did not reappear.
The moment somehow echoed with Brady's departure. Behind the all-American looks and the insta-smile, Brady has remained an aloof and unknowable figure. He resides above the fray; his politics are at best obscure despite his friendship with Donald Trump, he is indifferent to critiques of his friendship with his spirit-guide and nutritionist Alex Guerrero and to the accompanying innuendo and he deflects the world's gaze with an old-fashioned, sunny politeness which is redolent of old Hollywood.
The average NFL career lasts for 3.2 years. It’s a brutal game. Brady has been its star for 22 years.
Go back to the strange and gripping story of how he inherited the starting quarterback role in New England. It’s well known that Brady stepped in when Drew Bledsoe, to whom the Patriots had just given a $100 million contract extension, got injured in the September 2001 game and that Brady literally took the ball, the future, everything, in his steadfast grasp.
But it’s often forgotten that the tackle on Bledsoe was so severe that it left him with concussion and blood vessel damage that caused his chest to fill with blood and left him gravely ill on the ambulance journey into Boston. Long before Bledsoe reappeared in uniform, ready to reclaim his starting role, Brady had told teammates: “I’m not giving it back’’ .
It wasn’t disrespectful but it does reveal in Brady a kind of blankness of sentiment and an iron-clad narrowness of purpose as he prepared himself to step not just into Bledsoe’s starting role but his life.
Bledsoe never started for the Patriots again and watched as back-up quarterback as Brady guided them to the first of six Super Bowls. It’s hardly a tragedy – Bledsoe won a ring after all and kept playing; he exited the game with many millions and has built a pleasant life as a wine entrepreneur. But in the narrow sphere of sport, his storyline is haunting.
Brady only needed that one chance. The time will come when he will be officially honoured in New England. And he will show up because he was brought up to be polite and respectful. He’ll wave and say all the right things – and mean them.
It will take them years to contextualise what Tom Brady meant in American life: a quarterback radiating the settler’s sense of manifest destiny who burst into the national imagination just days after 9/11. He was an absolute phenomenon at what he did.
It wasn’t just the manner in which he won – the self-possession and reliability under excruciating pressure, that absurd throwing arm – but the limitless desire for more and ever more that made him symbolic of the American appetite.
When he was with New England, he gave it everything and so naturally the people, the fans scattered across the sprawling region, believed that he was theirs.
No. They were always his – until they weren’t.