FOXBOROUGH — Close to an hour after Tom Brady kneeled to run out the clock in the final seconds of the fourth quarter Sunday night, the 44-year-old quarterback freshened up inside the visiting team’s locker room at Gillette Stadium and prepared to speak to the media.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians, wide receiver Antonio Brown, outside linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, and kicker Ryan Succop each had already fielded questions following their team’s 19-17 victory over the Patriots.
After Succop delivered a heartfelt answer about the close relationship he shares with Patriots kicker Nick Folk, who missed a potentially game-winning field goal from 56 yards with 59 seconds left, a Buccaneers official announced that Brady would be the next player at the podium.
But in came linebacker Devin White and then running back Leonard Fournette. Once Fournette left, another 10 or so minutes passed before a staffer announced there was “an unexpected delay” in Brady’s arrival.
So, what was the holdup?
Coach Bill Belichick, after completing his own media responsibilities for the evening, had entered the Buccaneers’ locker room to have a private chat with his former quarterback.
The two men who won six Super Bowls during their 20 years together in New England had briefly embraced at midfield at the end of the game, when Belichick offered his quick congratulations and briskly walked away. But it turns out there was a reason for the brevity, as both knew they planned to chat again later. When the pair reconnected, they talked for nearly 25 minutes.
Unsurprisingly, Brady declined to elaborate on the conversation. “All those are personal,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of personal conversations that should remain that way and are very private.”
While reports indicate the relationship between Brady and Belichick soured ahead of their split, both parties have repeatedly denied accounts of escalating turmoil. Brady took a moment Sunday night to reiterate his perspective.
“So much is made of our relationship,” he said. “But nothing is really accurate that I ever see. It’s all kind of — it definitely doesn’t come from my personal feelings or beliefs. I have a lot of respect for [Bill] as a coach and, obviously, a lot of respect for this organization and all the different people here that try to make it successful.”
The extended meeting with Belichick capped an eventful, emotional 36 hours for Brady, who made his return to Gillette Stadium for the first time since signing with the Buccaneers as a free agent more than a season ago.
The festivities started Saturday night at the Omni Hotel in Providence, where a group of fans stationed themselves outside to greet Brady upon arrival. The Buccaneers landed at Rhode Island T.F. Green International Airport around 7:45 p.m. and then made the 20-minute drive to the team’s hotel via bus and police escort.
“Brady! Brady! Brady!” fans chanted as the quarterback entered the lobby.
A warm reception seemed to find Brady at every turn.
When the Buccaneers arrived at the stadium around 5 p.m. Sunday evening, a horde of ticket-holders staked out the visiting team’s drop-off location. As Brady deboarded one of the buses, he once again was greeted with whistles and cheers.
“He probably doesn’t know where the visitors’ locker room is,” one fan cracked.
Brady, dressed casually in black jacket over a hoodie with his last name across the chest, sure enough found his way there. Patriots owner Robert Kraft made a point to say hello, as the two shared a hug and exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes in the tunnel.
Then, about an hour before kickoff, the “Brady! Brady! Brady!” chants returned, this time from inside the stadium. A throng of fans, despite the increasingly heavy rain, filled a fenced-off area near the visiting team’s tunnel and unabashedly showed their support.
Brady’s No. 12 jerseys of all iterations were spotted throughout the stadium. Most repped the Patriots, while a handful even sported split jerseys with both teams. Also spotted in the crowd were folks wearing Brady’s No. 10 Michigan jerseys and TB12-branded merchandise.
Others brought signs, including one that read, “God, Family, Brady,” with a red heart and another that featured Brady’s head photoshopped onto the body of Jesus.
The Brady mania infiltrated the “Mac Attack Corner,” a section in the lower bowl that had been dedicated to cheering for Patriots rookie quarterback (and Brady’s successor) Mac Jones. On Sunday, however, their banner hung perpendicular to one that read, “Brady’s Corner #12.”
“It was awesome,” Brady said of the overwhelmingly friendly welcome.
Once the game kicked off, the crowd’s allegiances shifted a bit. Fans booed when the Buccaneers took the field for their opening drive — and again whenever the referees made a call in Tampa Bay’s favor. Many in the lower bowl stayed on their feet for the duration of the game, making their presence known at every opportunity.
The Patriots and Buccaneers did their best to simmer the hype surrounding Sunday’s matchup. In the first quarter, when Brady surpassed Drew Brees to set the record for most career passing yards in NFL history, the moment was barely acknowledged.
“I didn’t even know he broke the record,” Fournette said. “I’m not going to lie.”
Brady said he felt normal during the game (”He’s always poised, it’s hard to get into his head,” Brown said), but there were moments where Brady’s emotions surfaced.
In the second quarter, he did not appreciate when outside linebacker Matt Judon sacked him for a loss of 8 yards and lingered on the tackle. Early in the fourth quarter, when Brady scrambled to convert on a third and 6 to keep Tampa’s drive alive at its 42-yard line, he couldn’t help but smile. Two plays later, when the Buccaneers had to burn their first timeout of the half, he furiously butted his hands together.
Brady was also uncharacteristically inaccurate, completing just 51.2 percent of his passes. In the first half, he recorded 10 off-target throws, which already exceeded his season-high.
But the final image for Brady was one of rejoice.
After Folk missed his 56-yard attempt that sealed Tampa’s victory, Brady clutched offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich in celebration.
“I think it’s very, very special for him,” Arians said. “You know, he kept it inside all week and he’s probably letting it out right now.”
The smiles and hugs continued after the game. At midfield, Brady greeted a number of former teammates and coaches, starting with linebacker Kyle Van Noy, safety Devin McCourty, center David Andrews, quarterback Brian Hoyer, special teamer Matthew Slater, wide receivers coach Troy Brown, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
“There is a whole crew,” Brady said. “These are the people that I’ve shared my life with. I’m very grateful for everything they’ve kind of contributed to my life. Very blessed.”
The “Brady! Brady! Brady!” chants from fans returned one last time when he ran off the field and into the locker room.
After Brady finished speaking to the media, he began to make his way out, with the record-setting football and a 64-ounce stainless steel water bottle tucked in his camo duffel bag. En route, he stopped for a couple of last hugs, including one with longtime Patriots videographer Jimmy Dee.
Around 1 a.m., Brady ducked behind a black curtain to the team buses. Trainer and business partner Alex Guerrero trailed right behind him.
Might Sunday mark the last time Brady visits Gillette? He hinted that won’t be the case.
“I don’t know what the future holds,” he said. “Obviously, there could be an opportunity to come back here. We’ll see. I feel like I’ll always be a part of this community. I’ll be up here quite a bit when it’s all said and done.”