One of the more compelling recurring themes in “It’s Better To Be Feared,” ESPN reporter Seth Wickersham’s thorough and thoughtful book on the dynastic Patriots, is that Tom Brady’s rise to becoming a football and cultural icon doesn’t have a singular origin story.
There were moments when he announced his arrival (the final drive of Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams) and moments when he ratcheted up his performance to another level, and then another level beyond that (the vengeful 2007 regular season).
But as Wickersham revisits and collects in sum, there are many sliding doors Brady could have slipped through that would have altered his storybook football journey in a significant and likely negative way.
Would we know this Tom Brady now, had his frustrations from being buried on the Michigan depth chart led him to transfer to the University of California, as he considered? Would we ever have met him at all? What if Bill Belichick hadn’t seen enough in the scrawny sixth-round pick to keep a fourth quarterback on a thin and undermanned roster in 2000? What if Drew Bledsoe had seen Mo Lewis coming? What if?
For a time — several times — it seemed as if Brady, resolute that he would succeed even when others needed to be convinced, would never get the proper opportunity to seize.
One of the more poignant moments in the book comes as Brady waited, with increasing frustration, to hear his name called during the 2000 NFL Draft. His father, Tom Sr., finds himself looking for the right frank, but comforting, words to tell his son that all athletic careers come to an end at some point. He’s reminded of something a parent once told him at one of the Brady daughters’ softball tournaments.
“You know, Tom,” the parent said, “some of these kids will never progress beyond this point. Some kids peak out at 12, some kids peak out at 14, some kids don’t make it on their varsity high school team, some peak out in college. Sooner or later, all of the kids are going to peak out.”
It was something Brady Sr. had never thought much about. He found it profound, and was about to deliver his version of the sentiment to his devastated son. But then the phone rang. It was Belichick. The Patriots had just made the greatest draft pick in the history of professional sports.
Wickersham (full disclosure: I moderated a book event for him Monday night) says that Brady blanches at the suggestion that luck has been a factor in the Patriots’ success. The reality is that luck is a factor, always, in any prolonged success in sports. Serendipity has been the Patriots’ friend at times, and has abandoned them at others during their six Super Bowl victories in nine visits.
But it’s understandable why Brady chooses to believe in hard work, mindfulness, and preparation over good fortune. His journey was not an easy one. Yet it has brought him to that rarest of altitudes in professional sports: He gets to determine when it ends.
Wickersham’s book is an honest, sprawling, meticulously reported, and beautifully written portrayal of perhaps the greatest and probably the most unlikely dynasty in modern professional sports. It does not hopscotch from Super Bowl to Super Bowl, but instead draws richly detailed portraits of Brady, Belichick, the dynasty’s third constant in owner Robert Kraft, and how their personalities and relationships changed through the years. Copies of “It’s Better To Be Feared” will not be sent out as party favors to Patriots season ticket-holders, as Jeff Benedict’s mostly enjoyable Kraftiography “The Dynasty” was.
Belichick said on his weekly WEEI radio appearance last week that he wasn’t sure if he’s ever talked to Wickersham. In essence, a statement like that gives more sensitive former Patriots permission to dismiss the book out of hand, even though Wickersham is entirely fair to Belichick throughout.
Anyone familiar with Wickersham’s reporting on the Patriots over the past 20 years — a sturdy foundation for the book — knows Belichick is being disingenuous at best. He has conversed with the author numerous times through the decades, and in one vivid scene in the book, Belichick physically demonstrates a quarterback’s dropback for the author.
Wickersham is more than fair to all of the key figures, including Belichick. My favorite paragraph in the book might be the author’s assessment of the different levels of football understanding among particular groups. At the bottom are “most fans, who get the basics," with talk-radio hosts a rung up. (I’d flip those two groups.) At the top of the scale, he writes, are “NFL head coaches; winning NFL head coaches; Super Bowl-winning head coaches; and finally, at the very top of arcane knowledge and expertise, in a faintly ridiculous corner of American intellectual esotery, Bill Belichick.”
Wickersham also unearths what Brady and Belichick have in common, besides a particular combination of genius, competitiveness, and pure love for the sport. They’re both optimists in their own way, Brady earnestly, and Belichick by dwelling on and addressing everything that can possibly go wrong in a game until he’s certain he’s prepared enough for it to go right.
Even though they’re now apart, there are still chapters of the Brady/Belichick story to be written. And any postscript still seems like it’s seasons away. But the story of their 20 years together has now been told, expertly and entertainingly. “It’s Better To Be Feared” is the accounting the Patriots dynasty deserves.