In Greek mythology, Helen of Troy was the face that launched a thousand ships. In Boston sports mythology, Tom of San Mateo is the face that launched a dozen championship banners.
The departure of iconic quarterback Tom Brady from the Patriots is not just the end of an era for the local football team. It feels like the end of an era of good feelings and the ritual of duck boat caravans carving their ways through Boston’s streets to fete yet another champion.
The Cinderella signal-caller turned Mona Lisa masterpiece was the face that launched — befitting his jersey number — 12 pro sports championships for Boston since 2001. What an odyssey it has been the last 20 seasons, and now it’s over, with Brady breaking free of Bill Belichick to take his talents to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who reside in a strip mall/strip club haven that lacks the sports passion that’s innate in New England.
We have Brady to thank for the halcyon days in the Hub. The 2001 Patriots changed everything on the Boston sports landscape, and Brady changed everything for the 2001 Patriots. He took over for incumbent franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe after New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis delivered a blow so brutal it sheared a blood vessel in Bledsoe’s chest in the second game of that season. The rest is history. The Patriots and Brady raised the bar for franchises in this town and raised banners.
Suddenly, keeping up with the Joneses — or the Krafts in this case — meant winning championships. Fans wouldn’t settle for anything else. Teams that couldn’t or wouldn’t provide championship contention risked fading into irrelevance. This positive peer pressure is the greatest gift that Brady gave to Boston sports fans — more significant, more lasting, more wonderful than all the great highlights from his career.
For sports fans of a certain age, it’s probably hard to remember a time when winning a championship every few years didn’t feel like a birthright. Remember the young man who has shown up at so many of these parades with a sign updating his age and the championship count? “Sign Kid” saw a dozen championship parades in his first 17 years on the planet.
We had the Dark Ages from 1987 through 2001 years when no Boston teams captured a championship. It was so bad we held a celebration for Bruins legend Ray Bourque at City Hall Plaza in 2001 for winning the Stanley Cup . . . with the Colorado Avalanche. Licking up the crumbs of another team’s championship represented the nadir of that title-starved time period.
We weren’t Loserville, more like Not Good Enough City. The only teams to even play for titles during that time were the hobbled 1986-87 Celtics, who succumbed to the Lakers in six games in the last NBA Finals of the Larry Bird era; the Bruins, who faced the Oilers in the Stanley Cup Final in 1988 and 1990 and won one game total in nine tries; and Bill Parcells’s 1996 Patriots, who flew back from Super Bowl XXXI without a victory and without Parcells.
Brady changed it all on Feb. 3, 2002, with his game-winning drive in Super Bowl XXXVI against the heavily favored St. Louis Rams, defying the advice of broadcast oracle John Madden. Mr. Madden opined that the young QB and the Patriots should just kneel on the ball and play for overtime.
Brady made us believe that anything was possible long before Kevin Garnett screamed those words in exultation on the parquet after the Celtics captured their 17th NBA title in 2008. He made us believe we were winners, destined to prevail. It became our collective manifest destiny.
Where captious cynicism reigned before, the Patriot reign replaced that with haughty confidence that Brady was the chosen one and Boston sports fans were favored by the sports gods.
Brady was the talisman for Titletown and an entire epoch when times were so good, so good. He arrived at the beginning of a new century and ushered in a new reality. His rise from unheralded sixth-round pick to all-time great mirrored Boston sports fortunes this millennium.
The Patriots won six Super Bowls with Brady and appeared in nine of them Big Games during his tenure from 2000-19. The Red Sox, previously star-crossed chokers of the highest order with a torturous 86-year title drought serving as their characteristic mark, broke through in 2004 and have won all four World Series they’ve appeared in this century.
The Celtics won the NBA title in ’08 behind the New Big Three of KG, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. They likely would have won another in 2010 against Kobe & Co. if Kendrick Perkins’s knee hadn’t exploded in Game 6 of the Finals. The Bruins have been to three Stanley Cup Finals (2011, 2013, and 2019), capturing the Cup in 2011 for the first time since Bobby Orr graced Causeway Street and Richard Nixon was in the White House.
Add it all up, that’s 12 championships and 18 championship-round appearances. It’s 23 if you count the five MLS Cup appearances by the Revolution, the only one of our major pro sports teams without a title this century.
Perhaps the luck has turned in the Hub of Hardware. As Brady symbolized an era of unbridled success, his departure might be the most obvious sign of the end of championship days.
Stars Kyrie Irving, Mookie Betts, and Brady have all departed in less than nine months.
In succession, the Irving Celtics imploded because of internal bickering, and Irving later reneged on his pledge to remain a Celtic; the Bruins blew Game 7 on home ice and handed Lord Stanley’s chalice to the St. Louis Blues; the Red Sox limped to a third-place finish defending their 2018 World Series crown, fired their president of baseball operations, and saw manager Alex Cora commit PR seppuku when MLB singled him out in the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal.
Did I mention ace Chris Sale needs Tommy John surgery?
In Brady’s final season here, the Patriots hobbled down the stretch, blew a bye, and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs for the first time in 10 years. Brady’s final pass as a Patriot was a pick-6. Brady then deserted us for the sports franchise with the lowest winning percentage among the traditional Big Four sports. Unthinkable.
The universe, it seems, demands balance. It demands that a karmic debt be repaid in full.
Brady’s turn as New England sports totem demanded excellence, not just of his team, but of all the teams in the market. We’re all better for that internal competition.
People ask me what type of sports town Boston is. Is it a baseball town or a hockey town? It’s a winner’s town. Whether it’s Orr’s Bruins, Bird’s Celtics, Brady’s Patriots, or David Ortiz’s Red Sox, to capture the imagination of Boston sports fans, you must win.
Brady was the Holy Grail of Boston sports. Now, he's lost.
But his legacy goes beyond the Patriots. It’s being the catalyst for the Boston sports renaissance.