One man on my flight to the AFC championship game on Sunday was wearing a Tom Brady jersey that, like the player, had been through quite a bit. The fan had bought it not long after Brady became an NFL star, back in 2002, after Brady won his first Super Bowl.
Once a shining navy blue, the jersey had long ago faded into purple. The edges of the sleeves were frayed. But that jersey served a symbolic purpose. It has stood the test of time, just as Brady has.
What a good investment. By that I mean the jersey and Brady, who was drafted by the New England Patriots in the sixth round in 2000 yet has started in five Super Bowls. And now, after throwing three touchdown passes to lead the Patriots to a 45-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, Brady is on his way to the most Super Bowl starts by a quarterback, with six of them.
As of last autumn, Brady’s number 12 remained among the five best-selling NFL jerseys. Some fans spend their money wisely. Buying a Brady jersey is like buying a tuxedo or a little black dress: always classic, never dated.
While Brady may have shown some cracks over the years – like a season-ending knee injury in 2008 – he has always managed to rebuild himself, at times looking better than ever.
Can Brady defy time too? He already has. He was the most valuable player of that Super Bowl in 2002, when he was just 24.
At 37, despite three Super Bowl titles (and two recent Super Bowl losses), Brady is at an age when athletes start hearing their own eulogies. Peyton Manning – not for the first time – probably heard his being blasted from the loudspeakers after his Denver Broncos lost to Indianapolis in the AFC divisional round last week.
Not long ago, Manning seemed destined to end his career in Indianapolis, not in Denver. How quickly fans forgot about the old guy who used to be their guy. Many traded Manning’s worn No 18 for Andrew Luck’s crisp No 12, a jersey many Colts fans wore at Sunday’s game.
Manning heard those whispers of his end coming near. Now it’s Brady’s turn. Again. Early this season, questions about Brady’s future popped up after a bad loss to the Kansas City Chiefs dropped the Patriots to 2-2.
Brady fumed on the sidelines. Reporters wondered – once again – whether the Patriots might want to just move on without him. But coach Bill Belichick would have to make that call, and Belichick ignored the suggestion that he and Brady would be parting soon.
Brady marched on – all the way to another AFC championship game and to another Super Bowl. Against the Colts on Sunday, he was in command early on, breaking the NFL’s career record for post-season passing yards, with 6,801, even before some fans here had taken their seats. Take that, eulogists.
Only a few athletes can keep their heads down and push ahead despite the inevitable march of time (and teams). John Elway was one of those few. Slow, sad songs of his imminent demise were the soundtrack to Elway's final few years in the league, but he refused to hear them until he had his second Super Bowl trophy in his hand, at 38. Maybe Brady will push on, too, until he finally claims a fourth Super Bowl ring. Then again, he might keep going. Last year, he said he would retire only when he stunk on the field (though he used a much saltier word to describe it). So he might have a while.
But those slow, sad songs have begun to play, albeit softly. A week after Brady set the league record for post-season touchdown passes, one commentator said on Sunday that Brady’s time was “nearing the end.”
A quick glance at Brady on Sunday, though, and that end was hard to see. But the signs, however small, were there. Time has, in fact, changed him. It was impossible to see from the stands, but behind his face mask, Brady has some grey hair. And though it’s tough to say about a player who was never fleet-footed, he has probably slowed down a bit too.
One thing is for sure: his chances at winning another Super Bowl aren’t limitless, especially when his 40th birthday is so close that he now stands in its shadow.
His Super Bowl victories came rapid-fire early in his career, but he probably knows how precious they are now. It has been a decade since he has won his last Super Bowl ring - so long ago that it might be difficult for him to remember how it feels to lift the trophy.
And so long ago that some young Patriots fans might not truly know what Brady has done for their team. So much time has passed since the Patriots were at the very top of the league that if you listen closely after a slow start by the Patriots, or an ill-advised pass by Brady, you can hear a few voices at Gillette Stadium booing the best quarterback the team has ever known.
But on Sunday, with about two minutes to go, they started to cheer, “Brady! Brady!” when he was finally taken out of the game – his ninth AFC championship game, a league record. In the soaking rain, trusty Brady had delivered. Another Super Bowl title might be next.
Too old? Fading? Old No 12 jerseys, maybe. Tom Brady? Not yet.
– New York Times Service