Tom Brady wasn’t always the GOAT.
When I started at The Boston Globe in 2003, Brady was just a guy — a slightly doughy one at that — with a goofy, aw-shucks grin, and a bad haircut. He was a regular at a pizza joint near Gillette Stadium, where he’d order a ham-and-cheese grinder and onion rings, and wolf it down with a cold orange soda.
Brady was 25 at the time. He’d won the first of his seven Super Bowl championships, but he wasn’t yet a brand. He wasn’t wearing hand-stitched Italian shirts, hawking $5,000 Tag Heuer watches, or touting the health benefits of brown rice and quinoa. I covered the QB’s off-the-field exploits then, and they were mostly unremarkable. Brady was more dude than deity; he lived in a Quincy condo and went to the movies. Normal stuff.
But success has a way of changing people, and Brady, who announced his retirement this past week, is no exception. Over two decades, he mutated, from a schlub who entered the NFL as an afterthought — the 199th pick in the draft — into a celebrity known around the world. He became the greatest quarterback in history, and his reward was a life of unimaginable wealth and privilege and the adoration of millions.
“Nobody’s brought more joy to New England, and that includes the Founding Fathers,” said Alec Sulkin, a Patriots fan and comedy writer whose credits include “Family Guy” and “Ted 2,” in which Brady makes a cameo.
The metamorphosis took time, though. Even after his third Super Bowl title, in 2005, Brady seemed resistant to the trappings of fame, insisting he was just a regular Joe. “I hate that golden-boy image!” he told GQ. “I think that’s all [expletive.]” Within a year, though, he was dating the world’s most famous supermodel, Gisele Bündchen, whom he’d later marry, and living in a $6.2-million penthouse on Beacon Street in Boston’s stately Back Bay neighborhood.
As magnificent as Bill Russell, Bobby Orr, Larry Bird, and David Ortiz were, no other local athlete experienced the level of celebrity Brady did. He hosted “Saturday Night Live”; was a guest at one of President George W. Bush’s State of the Union speeches; became a fixture, with Bündchen, at the ultra-fashionable Met Gala; was namechecked in hip-hop tracks by Lil Wayne, Meek Mill, Eminem, and Pusha T; played pickup basketball with Michael Jordan and golf with Donald Trump; and put together a gaudy real-estate portfolio that included a deluxe Peter Marino-designed condo in Manhattan, a sprawling manse near The Country Club (where he and Bündchen were finally admitted as members in 2017), and an eco-conscious estate in Los Angeles that he and Bündchen later sold to Dr. Dre for $40 million.
As his star rose, Brady gradually withdrew from public life. Ordinariness no longer suited him. His face was on billboards, but he rarely joined teammates on outings to Red Sox and Celtics games and was guarded, often to the point of banality, with Boston media. He did a weekly radio spot, but declined interview requests unrelated to football. He and Bündchen were hunted by paparazzi, whose shots sometimes made headlines — like the time Brady was snapped outside a hair-restoration clinic or, before the 2008 Super Bowl, when he was photographed in a walking boot. (The previously undefeated Patriots went on to lose the game to the Giants.)
Eventually, Brady decided to embrace — or perhaps exploit — his celebrity, signing lucrative endorsement deals, typically with luxury brands. He hyped the Italian fashion house Zegna; was a pitchman for the sports apparel company Under Armour; and became global ambassador for UGGs, promoting the company’s pricey, sheepskin slippers and boots. I wrote about Brady’s deal with UGGs when it was announced in 2010, and a week later a pair of the fur-lined sneakers, size 11, appeared on my desk.
It was inevitable that Brady would start his own imprint. In 2008, he trademarked TB12 and embarked on what Business Insider called a “robust brand strategy.” A year ago, Brady had over 125 active trademarks — more than most, if not all, superstar athletes, including LeBron James — covering a range of health-and-wellness products, eyewear, clothing, trading cards, digital collectibles, and an NFT startup called Autograph, which has a multiyear deal with ESPN to mint the sports network’s first non-fungible token collection.
As he continued to play at a high level into his 40s — well past the prime of most NFL players — Brady became health-obsessive, attributing his durability, in part, to an unconventional diet heavy on mung beans, oat flour, and yuzu juice. It proved to be another business opportunity; Brady created a cookbook — he calls it a “nutrition manual” — which sold for $200.
With his personal trainer Alex Guerrero, Brady opened TB12 gyms — “performance & recovery centers” — in Foxboro, Boston, New York, and Tampa. Guerrero, whose unorthodox approach to fitness emphasizes “pliability,” has been the subject of controversy: He was once sanctioned by the Federal Trade Commission for promoting a beverage he falsely claimed could help prevent or cure cancer, heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes.
Brady went all in on cryptocurrency, doing paid ads for the crypto exchange FTX. It was a bold wager that didn’t work out. When FTX declared bankruptcy in November, Brady lost big; his stake in the company, once worth a reported $45 million, was wiped out. Now the quarterback is one of several high-profile promoters of the company facing a class-action lawsuit filed by FTX investors angry that he and other credible figures in sports and entertainment urged them to buy the crypto exchange.
Amidst his many ventures, Brady didn’t lose interest in football. In 2020, after departing the Patriots for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Brady won the Super Bowl yet again. It was an astonishing achievement — seven titles is the NFL record for one player — and it seemed like he might actually play forever. But after an early exit in the playoffs a year ago, Brady decided to retire, only to unretire 40 days later. This season, he moved like he was made of wood and looked miserable. The Buccaneers faltered and Brady’s marriage to Bündchen, with whom he has two children, abruptly ended.
On and off the field, Brady’s veil of invincibility had finally slipped and he seemed closer to mediocre than almighty. We should have seen it coming. His father did. In a 2015 New York Times Sunday Magazine piece, titled “Tom Brady Cannot Stop,” Tom Brady Sr. predicted an unhappy end to his son’s sensational football career: “It will end badly,” Brady Sr. said. “I know that because I know what Tommy wants to do. He wants to play till he’s 70.”
He couldn’t, so this past week Brady retired. Again. In a tearful farewell posted on Twitter, he said he’d lived his “absolute dream” and leaves with no regrets. He looked tired and thinner than the pasty, dimple-chinned pass-thrower he was all those years ago. But he’ll still be on TV every week. The future Hall of Famer signed a king-size contract to be Fox Sports’ No. 1 NFL analyst. The 10-year, $375 million pact will pay Brady more money to talk about football than he earned playing it for 23 seasons.