In September 2014, during his weekly interview on WEEI a few days before the season opener, Tom Brady was asked a pertinent question:
How much longer did he intend to play?
Brady was 37 years old, and about to enter his 15th NFL season. He was still playing exceptionally well; in 2013, he threw for 4,343 yards and finished second to Denver’s Peyton Manning in the Most Valuable Player balloting.
But there were percolating frustrations. His contract was up at season’s end. Bill Belichick had drafted Brady’s presumed successor, Eastern Illinois’s Jimmy Garoppolo, in the second round that April. And the Patriots, despite being an annual contender, hadn’t won a Super Bowl since the 2004 season.
It was fair to ask whether the window might be closing. Even the finest quarterbacks in NFL history had struggled to maintain a high level of performance deep into their 30s. Pretty much only Brett Favre and Warren Moon found a season or two of success in their early 40s before Father Time bull-rushed them, too.
Brady was different, but how different?
As it turns out, so different that, eight years later, here on the day of his retirement at 44 years old, his answer that morning stands as further tribute to his singular greatness.
“When I suck, I’ll retire,” Brady said that morning. “But I don’t plan on sucking for a long time.”
As your championship DVD collection should confirm, the Patriots won the Super Bowl in that ‘14 season. (“Malcolm, go!”) They won again two seasons later (reports are the Falcons held a big lead at one point), and two more seasons beyond that (Greatest Show on Turf II: Grounded). Brady won another with the Buccaneers, just because he could, then nearly chucked the Lombardi Trophy in the ocean, just because he could.
In the end, Brady did something much cooler than fulfilling any desire, adjusted after excelling in his early 40s, to play quarterback at his established level until he was 45 years old.
He retired before he got to 45, his mind, body, and unparalleled legacy intact, while leaving not a single shred of doubt that he would have been the same superstar at 45, and perhaps beyond, that he was at age 25, and 35, and 40, too.
He never, ever … well, you know.
The word of his retirement got tangled up in contradictory reports Saturday afternoon, with Brady’s father telling the NFL Network that ESPN’s report was conjecture and that his son had not made up his mind yet.
But it was telling that his own TB12 brand congratulated him on social media before deleting the posts. It seemed he knew he was done but wasn’t ready to tell the world quite yet.
Brady deflected the topic on his podcast Monday night, but made what seemed inevitable official on Tuesday morning, announcing on Instagram that indeed his brilliant football career is complete.
In his farewell, the fitting bookends are easy to recognize. Brady’s first Super Bowl victory came against the Rams, when he overcame their furious rally to lead the Patriots on a winning field goal drive. In his final game, last week’s divisional playoff loss to the Rams, he led a furious comeback before Matthew Stafford led the Rams to a winning field goal.
Brady’s NFL superhero origin story begins in the 2001 AFC divisional playoff game against the Raiders, forever known as the Snow Bowl. It just seems right that the end credits on his career would run on another impossibly snowy day in New England.
A word of advice as all of this plays out: If anyone on your television, radio, social media, or to your face, begins a sentence about Brady with, “To be the contrarian …” immediately pound the mute button, change the station, go read the newspaper, or just walk away, because that phrase is a tell that the person either doesn’t know what they’re talking about, is desperate for attention, or may be Aaron Rodgers.
Brady is the greatest football player of all time, and the only argument should be about who is second. Brady played in 10 Super Bowls and won seven, six with the Patriots. He was named Super Bowl MVP five times, and regular-season MVP three times (and he deserves to add a fourth for a 2021 season in which he led the league in completions, passing yardage, and touchdown passes).
He is professional football’s all-time leader in passing yards (84,520), touchdown passes (624), and wins (243). He went 35-12 in the playoffs, throwing for 13,049 yards and 86 touchdowns. His career can be divided into two Hall of Fame careers (say, 2000-10 and 2011-21) and arguably three (2000-07, 2008-14, 2015-21).
I suppose there will be some small catharsis in his retirement in that the foolish Brady-or-Belichick debate will recede (for the last time, the greatest quarterback and coach in NFL history benefited from each other’s particular genius). But mostly, there’s a melancholy feeling to it for Patriots fans of just about any era.
As a middle-aged fella who grew up watching Steve Grogan, Drew Bledsoe, and an assortment of errant pigskin-chuckers in between, I made a conscious effort throughout Brady’s career not to take him for granted, though his habitual excellence sometimes made that impossible.
For younger generations, the Boston sports developments of this past week — David Ortiz makes the Baseball Hall of Fame, Brady retires — are cause for appreciation, but also a reminder that childhood was longer ago than a couple of yesterdays.
Brady’s career was so exceptional that there remains plenty of room for deep dives on amazing feats that get overshadowed by his more famous amazing feats. But beyond all of the beautiful touchdowns, unforgettable comebacks, and thrilling victories that will live on in the NFL Films vault and on the wall of your sports room, the most impressive thing about him might be this:
That long-ago comment — “I’ll retire when I suck” — turned out to be a promise Tom Brady was too good to keep.