FOXBOROUGH — By the time he was almost done talking, his voice was hoarse, but his heart was full.
And then, with six words to wrap up his reason for returning to Gillette Stadium this opening NFL Sunday, Tom Brady filled the hearts of football fans across New England.
“I am a Patriot for life,” Brady declared from a stage that had been rolled onto the field at halftime of the Patriots’ opening game against the Eagles, one there for the sole purpose of celebrating Brady’s transcendent Patriot career.
Gone were the memories of his late career departure to Tampa, moved aside as an acceptable coda to the two-decade, six-championship run in New England. This was a day with room only for gratitude, for fans to say “Thank you” to Brady, for Brady to say “Thank you” to them. And as he did, the newly-avowed forever Patriot was engulfed in applause, raining down from the fans in the highest stadium rafters, rising up from the family, friends, and former teammates on the field before him. As their volume grew, Brady raised his arms in triumph one more time on these personal fields of glory, celebrating as he had done so many times with his Patriot brethren.
Stepping to the mike, Brady licked his lips and settled his breath, mouthing the words “Thank you” over and over again. He opened by joking that he was definitely not in game shape anymore, a lesson learned all too painfully after he’d taken a familiar pre-ceremony jog down the sideline, skipping his way into the end zone and firing up the crowd just the way he used to do before games.
“What a day,” he finally exhaled. “Thank you guys. What a day. You know that run-out was a little longer today than it used to be. I’m not quite in game shape, but it’s important for me, to be in this stadium full of you amazing fans with some of the best teammates, with my family, with all my friends, [and] run out like I did for 20 years.
“I was so fortunate to be drafted here two decades ago, 23 years to be exact, not even knowing where New England was on the map. Not that we put it on the map, but I think a lot more people in the US know where the New England Patriots play.”
Brady had no trouble finding his way back to Foxborough, arriving through the suite entrances around 2:30 p.m. Sunday, and kudos to the DJ who chose the hit song “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” by devoted Pats fan Jon Bon Jovi as the soundtrack for his departure from the field. His post on social media shortly after arrival included the line “it’s good to be back” alongside a photo of the six Lombardi Trophies he put in these halls, and moments before kickoff, he found his way to the new lighthouse towering above the brand new end zone scoreboard and rang the bell.
He made his way to the box of team owner Robert Kraft, sitting with Robert, his son Jonathan, and his own family, including his three children. He stood and cheered when his successor Mac Jones connected with Hunter Henry for the Pats’ first touchdown of the game, high-fiving the elder Kraft and kissing him on the head.
Alas, there was not enough additional offensive magic for the home team to complete a comeback, a 25-20 loss buried by the type of early-game mistakes that would have driven Brady nuts back in his day. An exacting teammate who expected those around him to care as much and work as hard as he did, his return certainly shined a harsh spotlight on what has happened since he left, a 25-27 overall record by the Pats while he went on to win a seventh Super Bowl in New England.
But really, there is no point in comparing any subsequent career with Brady’s, who was introduced by Kraft as the unequivocal greatest of all time to play this game. No argument here.
“We dealt with whatever came our way, a lot of adversities, and it toughened us up,” Brady told the crowd. “And we represented you guys every time we took the field. It’s one of my core beliefs, that there’s nothing in life that can be accomplished as an individual. It’s always about the team, a culture of teammates that cares about two things. They care about each other and they care about winning. And if you don’t care about those two things, you did not last very long. And we were very happy to play against you.
“I think we proved to America what teamwork is all about. We proved that believing in each other, playing for this community, playing for a common mission, we were able to pour out six of those banners and celebrate them in this stadium.”
The crowd roared once again, as if willing the ceremony to go on. But the echo of a glorious past could only last so long, and Brady was eventually shepherded off the field, peeling the familiar blue No. 12 jersey off his sticky torso as he made his way down the stairs toward the locker rooms. But as Kraft had noted early in his introductory speech, halftime was never going to be enough time to honor what Brady did here. And so the owner announced the waiving of the customary four-year eligibility requirement for the Patriots Hall of Fame, booking June 12, 2024 to add Brady’s bust, a ceremony he said will be held right back here at Gillette.
“Thank you for another day in this stadium I’ll never forget,” Brady said. “I love you guys so much and I’ll see you next summer.”
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