“Hi Mr. Kraft, I want to introduce myself. I’m Tom Brady, and I’m the best decision this organization has ever made.”
Although Tom himself insists that after his name, he said “you’ll never regret picking me,” the words above are how Robert Kraft remembers it. The sentiment is confident, bordering on cocky, and unabashedly himself. There’s no other way to put it, and the tone has not changed 23 years later, as that sixth-round pick from Michigan has finally decided to step away from the game through which he has proven his introduction to be unequivocally correct, and asserted himself undeniably the best to ever play. There’s endless stats, records, accomplishments and other accolades we can use to summarize his career, and while they’re the incomparably impressive building blocks of his legacy, they fall short of capturing everything that was special about the greatest career the game of football has ever seen. The only way to fill in the blanks is with stories, the kinds of things that can’t be read off of a stat sheet- to get them, you just had to be there. Or, you can listen to someone who was, and I was lucky enough to be there for so many of the most special moments, whether I was screaming my lungs out in Gillette Stadium, watching with my Dad in our old living room, or somewhere in between, with fellow fans and/or rivals, none of whom could take their eyes off of what was happening.
Back in 2012, I went to one of my first Patriots games after getting tickets for my 13th birthday. We made the drive up from New Jersey the night before the noon kickoff for a final-week clash against the division rival Buffalo Bills. The Bills didn’t have a lot to play for, other than pride and a general hatred of the Patriots, and the Pats had the division extremely locked up, but they did need a win to clinch the conference’s top seed. I couldn’t have been more excited to watch the fan favorites and young stars of the team- Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Devin McCourty, and a bench-riding wide receiver turned defensive back named Julian Edelman…but most of all, I was there to see Tom Brady. So you can imagine my disappointment when after a quarter was gone, the Pats hadn’t generated a first down on offense, and the Bills were up 21-0. I’m not here to tell you the stadium felt like the party it sometimes does, but there was no panic. There was almost no concern, just a stoic calm across the crowd, and an energy that never wavered. Sure enough, the touchdowns started coming, two before halftime. After the break, the Pats grabbed a pair of field goals, and never looked back- they won the game 49-21, and locked up home field advantage through the AFC Playoffs.
Seven years later, a lot of things had changed, but a couple basic facts were the same; I got Patriots tickets for my birthday, they were playing the Bills, and there was playoff seeding on the line- this time, the Pats would clinch the AFC East with a win, while a loss would have put the Bills in an extremely commanding position to win the division themselves. Another difference was that this game was in the 4:25 Eastern Time slot, in December, in Massachusetts- in other words, it was pitch black, the lights were on, and it was Saturday Night Football for all intents and purposes. And I’ll tell you- the vibes matched the setting. My Dad, Sister and I had incredible seats to take it all in; the spark and boom of the firing crew’s muskets through the cold New England night, the flashes of thousands of cameras, the lighthouse foghorn (if you’re not familiar, just go with it), Julian Edelman’s pregame sprint down the entire field punctuated by a salute to the fans, and of course, Tom Brady’s competitive, intense, fiery and explosive yet businesslike demeanor.
Number 12 was on a mission all night, and it was a true nailbiter; Edelman missing some time with a minor injury and Stephon Gilmore forgetting what defense was made things tough. But eventually, in front of a crowd that was raucous every second from kickoff to the final whistle and never stopped believing in the magic- believing that we not only could, but would win- Tom and company racked up 11 unanswered fourth quarter points to seal the comeback win, and the division title. The go-ahead score was met with an absolutely deafening roar, the perfect punctuation to possibly my favorite football game I’ve ever attended as a fan. Truly, it’s probably the most special sports moment I’ve ever witnessed in person; I didn’t know it then- I don’t think anyone expected this to be the case, with the last-place Dolphins and sixth-seeded Titans on the horizon- but that was Tom Brady’s final win as a New England Patriot.
Now, let’s jump to a story that takes place after Tom’s departure to the Gulf Coast, my most recent trip to Foxborough; Christmas Eve 2022. It was my first NFL game since the COVID-19 pandemic, and similarly, my first Patriots game that would not feature Tom Brady. While I’ve never had a bad day at Patriot Place, this one was not off to a great start. The offense and defense both looked absolutely dreadful, and the defending AFC Champion Bengals jumped out to a quick and easy 12-0 lead. By halftime, that margin had swelled to 22-0, and after most of the third quarter went by without the Pats chipping away even the slightest bit, hope began to fade. Then, after a wild sequence of plays and drives that started with an incredible Marcus Jones pick-six, and ended with with a Bengals fumble, the Pats had narrowed the deficit down with a score of 22-18, and they had possession on the Cincinnati 43 yard line with just over three minutes to go- a real chance to win! I looked around to once again soak in the atmosphere of another big Pats comeback and I saw…a half-empty, half-enthusiastic stadium.
I realized that fans had left in droves when the game looked and felt hopeless- just a day before Christmas, the crowd had all forgotten how to believe. I’ll concede that it was bitterly cold, aggressively windy, and of course it was Christmas Eve. Still, I know for a fact that if #12 was still under center, with a playoff trip on the line no less, that stadium would’ve been packed to the gills with rabidly cheering New Englanders, without a single empty seat in the house. I think your favorite team’s stadium is a special place for any sports fan, and Gillette is absolutely no exception. But it feels like in the post-Brady era, it’s just a touch less special; a brand of magic that only one player could provide is gone.
I want to be clear on one thing- I am above all else not a Tom Brady fan, but a Patriots fan. I’ve enthusiastically supported his pursuits in Tampa Bay, as the Pats have rarely been involved. But when Tom visited Gillette Stadium for the last time – the first as a visitor – I desperately wanted to beat him, and I still lament the decisions Coach Belichick made as that game slipped away in the waning moments. Almost three years ago now, I wrote an article that was posted on the blog that my fellow Lineups writer Jacob Wayne was running at the time. It was a Patriot fan’s goodbye and thank you to the man who took our franchise from absolutely nothing to the all-time mountaintop in NFL history, told largely through the lens of several comebacks throughout his New England career. Near the end, I remarked that in a career characterized by comebacks, he had one final, biggest comeback to make- a comeback from being shunned by the only NFL team he’d ever represented.
And oh my word, did he ever do it, in spectacular fashion. There was of course the win over New England, but his first two years in Tampa also included his second- and third-highest single-season touchdown totals, as well as his second-highest yards per game tally. Brady’s second season as a Buc was also his second-ever season leading the league in both passing yardage and touchdowns, a campaign that unequivocally should have yielded his fourth MVP award. Oh, and there’s the Super Bowl he won in his first year away from New England, on the team with the worst all-time winning percentage in NFL history, via a run where he became the first quarterback to beat three other Super Bowl winning signal-callers en route to the ring. That ring was an unprecedented seventh, a number that we all know sets him above any franchise in NFL history, a fitting accomplishment for a man who really does stand alone. And wasn’t that really the point of going to Tampa? To stand alone? Having played with so many excellent players, and under potentially the best coach of all time throughout his New England career, Tom needed to separate his excellence from that by which he was surrounded during his Patriots tenure. He needed to define a legacy on his own, and remove any shadow of a doubt about whether he was the primary engine that powered the Patriots’ unprecedented level of success.
Like all fans, I want the magic to be with my franchise. Some fans actually get that; there was an undeniable aura around the San Francisco Giants of the early 2010s, the Los Angeles Kings of the same era, and Auburn football…also in the same era. Man, the late 00’s and early 10’s were really a heck of a time in sports. But undeniably, for the dynastic Patriots, that magic lies with one player, and one player only; it was always Tom. The Patriots have spent the last three seasons being fourth quarter flops, and TB12 is still pulling off the highly improbable. Even this year, undeniably his worst since leaving New England, he ripped off 4 fourth quarter comebacks and 5 game winning drives. These included his latest-ever game-winning touchdown pass in a contest that ended in regulation, thrown in a game the Bucs won after trailing 16-3 with barely more than 3 minutes left, and another double-digit fourth-quarter comeback to clinch the division.
It would have been great to see him finish a bit more on top, rather than struggle through a mediocre statistical campaign that ended with an 8-9 regular season record and a playoff drubbing at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys, who Tom has generally owned throughout his career. But really, he has nothing left to prove. The man has had three Hall of Fame careers in one, and has given two franchises everything they could have possibly asked for and more. More importantly, he helped us all believe. Believe in magic and comebacks, of which we all know he was the master. Believe in dreams coming true – I mean who didn’t love watching Brady absolutely loving life at Disney World with Julian Edelman, a kid who grew up idolizing Tom just like so many others, after winning their third Super Bowl together.
And believe in a role model and leader who, in over two decades in the public eye, generated scandals around nothing more than baseless cheating allegations and loving his children, while always showing us the value of hard work and the delicate balance between humility and belief in one’s self. It was a career of great moments, memorable teammates, faithful fans, and some of the best competition a player or fan could have ever asked for. In short, it was a career that can only be described as the Greatest Of All Time. Besides, when it comes down to it, he’s just a sixth round pick; I think he’s lived up to the draft spot. Thank you for everything Tom, and I’ll see you in Canton.