Sideline Cut: Tom Brady’s self-belief has kept his star shining
‘Afterthought’ in the 2000 NFL draft has gone on to dominate and become an icon
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady at the Superbowl media centre in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 31st, 2019. Photograph: Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images
‘It will end badly,” Tom Brady senior promised in an interview three years ago of his son’s frightening, indomitable, supernova life as quarterback for the New England Patriots. “It does end badly. And I know that because I know what Tom wants to do. He wants to play until he is 70...It’s a cold business.”
Of the endless observations about the most adored and loathed icon in American sports, his father’s cuts to the quick. He’s so right. Professional sport lavishly rewards those who deliver on promise, and is borderline inhuman on those who don’t.
On Sunday night Brady will attempt to lead the Patriots to a record sixth Superbowl win. He is 41 years old, and continues to excel in the most exacting position of the most physically brutal sport on earth despite being, in athletic terms, on heavily borrowed time.
And he has no intention of stopping.
You can watch any number of interviews with Brady in which he is persuasive and reasonably open and pleasant, and walk away afterwards finding it impossible to remember a single thing that he has said or having gained any true insight to the imperishable confidence that has fuelled his domination of a sport for almost 20 years.
Most people with a passing interest in sport know that Brady was selected as an afterthought in the 2000 NFL draft: the most famous #199 pick in sport.
Every Superbowl show mentions his unpromising starting position; a third-choice quarterback behind Drew Bledsoe, possessed of an infinite patience, biding his time.
It came just two weeks into the 2001 season when Mo Lewis of the New York Jets came hurtling into Bledsoe close to the sideline, tearing a muscle in his chest and forcing him out of the game.
That was it. Bledsoe, who had been Mr New England Patriots since autumn 1994, never started for the team again, and watched from the sidelines as Brady conducted the most improbable Superbowl run in NFL history.
Bledsoe’s demotion was hardly a tragedy: after all he got a ring (and crucially took over for a briefly-injured Brady in the championship game, throwing 10-of-21 in a 24-17 win over Pittsburgh), signed a lavish contract as a starting quarterback with Buffalo, and then made a smooth transition into civilian life as a successful vineyard owner.
But there is a frequently-shown clip in which Bledsoe, minutes after his injury, looks back out onto the field where the number 12 was unceremoniously preparing to slip into his role, his job, his life. And the look on Bledsoe’s face is resigned and haunting.
Bledsoe’s entry to the NFL was the opposite of Brady’s. Bledsoe was the number one overall pick in the 1993 draft: everyone wanted him and everything seemed to come easily to him.
But all professional sport is a beautifully produced show, and none of us from the outside has much of clue of how much time, how much physical and emotional absolutism from early childhood, went into the cast making it.
Tom Brady was the sixth quarterback selected in his draft year in 2000. The overall first pick that year, a defensive linesman named Courtney Brown, was out of the league just five years later, regarded as a bust, a cautionary tale.
The five quarterbacks chosen ahead of Brady had wildly varying degrees of success.
Chad Pennington (#18 overall) played in the league for 11 years. Tee Martin (#163) lasted for three games and completed six passes. “You get it done or you aren’t there anymore,” Martin explained of the bottom line sentiment within the NFL.
Giovanni Carmazzi (#65) was chosen by the San Francisco 49ers that year – the local team Brady and his family had watched in Candlestick Park; the team he had hoped to play for. But the scouting notes on Brady were comically unpromising – skinny, a Slow Joe even for a quarterback, a loopy spiral, a so-so arm.
None of it allowed for the utter absence of doubt, the forensic coolness under extreme duress.
There’s a famous clip of Brady turning choked-up and teary recalling the pure tension of those few hours on draft day when his hopes of going in the second or third round were dashed.
And when his name wasn’t called in the fifth round it seemed as if his limitless self-belief wouldn’t be enough.
Then, late in the single round, a lone phone call and an offer of interest from the Patriots. Brady remembered the outpouring of relief and of thinking “I don’t have to be an insurance salesman.”
The remark represents a rare crossing point between Willy Loman (Death of a Salesman) and the American dream, which Brady represents.
Curiously, Brady got to play in Candlestick Park in an exhibition game against the 49ers not long after he was drafted. He seized the day: Carmazzi, however, threw an intercept, lost the trust of the coaching staff, and never played so much as a single regular season game and disappeared from the league a year later.
By then Brady’s star had already begun to fill the sky. All the scouting dossiers on Brady suddenly looked laughable. He fitted the quarterback archetype: white, tall, uncomplicatedly handsome in that straight-jawed, big smiled slightly vacant way, and, for all the friendliness, utterly remote.
He has remained that way for 18 years now, a beacon in American life, there to be imitated, revered and “hated” in the way that sports fans can flaunt their comic-book hatred of a rival star.
The fascinating question about Brady now is how long can he keep this going? His rival quarterback in Sunday night’s Superbowl, Jared Goff, is 24 years old, and was the number one pick in the 2016 draft. Like Brady, he is a Californian; like Brady he reveres the 49ers former star Joe Montana, and wears #16 in tribute.
Brady wears 12 because when he arrived in New England as #199 pick he wasn’t given the luxury of choosing a number: he took the one he was allocated – and then made it his own.
If he wins his sixth Superbowl on Sunday it will sate nothing. The game in which he has excelled is a wasteland of talent gone wrong, of bad luck, or moments of fate, of seeing everything crumble with just one errant pass, of one badly-timed injury.
No wonder Brady has never looked back: sooner or later it will catch him anyhow.