Do you remember Tom Brady?
Not Tom Brady the smiling idol in the Tom Ford suit and sunglasses who gave his fans a papal wave last week when he stepped out of a helicopter for a talk at Salem State. And not Tom Brady the Super Bowl MVP who remained blithely mum when asked why he blew off an invitation to join his teammates at the White House.
Do you remember the other Tom Brady, the one who showed up here 15 years ago as just another mook from the University of Michigan? The slightly doughy, dimple-chinned guy who didn’t insist on designer clothes, dared to live in a Quincy condo near ordinary people, and was unscripted enough to date a party girl like Tara Reid?
It’s tough to remember that Tom Brady amid the media frenzy that’s erupted since Deflategate and forced the Patriots quarterback to retreat even further from view, deploying a phalanx of lawyers and handlers to stage manage his every move.
That Brady began his disappearing act years ago, long before he was accused of throwing under-inflated footballs. He’s a superstar whose likeness appears on the sides of buildings hawking high-priced sheepskin boots, and yet he remains strangely absent here — among us, but not of us. As he completes the fourth quarter of a Hall of Fame career, Brady the man seems almost entirely obscured by his enormous celebrity.
Since arriving in New England as the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL draft, Brady has become one of the game’s greatest players, helping the Patriots win an unfathomable four Super Bowls. Success has brought the trappings of fame — a gorgeous spouse, supermodel Gisele Bundchen; lucrative endorsements; the sprawling homes — but after all these years we’re no closer to knowing Tom Brady.
Boston is partially to blame. People here treat sports like a religion and Brady like a deity. Fans, and some in the media, get on bended knee when the handsome face of the NFL appears in front of a camera. They fiercely defend the QB to critics who say he should have cooperated more during the Deflategate investigation. They even bite their tongues when No. 12 dons a dreaded Yankees cap. Veneration suits Brady, given his achievements, but may also leave him more vulnerable, in some quarters, to doubt and suspicion.
It didn’t used to be this way. We can remember when Brady was not so hard to know. He had dorky haircuts and deigned to make in-store appearances, albeit at boutiques like Ermenegildo Zegna, the trendy clothier where he buys hand-stitched ensembles.
In 2006, when his then-girlfriend, actress Bridget Moynahan, made the cover of Boston Common magazine, Brady wandered into the publisher’s party at the InterContinental Hotel wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt.
In those days, he lived modestly, for a star, at Marina Bay in Quincy, in a 4,000-square-foot condo with a billiards table and state-of-the-art home theater. But he soon needed a bigger trophy case, and moved to a brick townhouse on Beacon Street that offered great views of the Back Bay and a garage for his black Audi A8 sedan.
From there, it was on to LA’s exclusive Brentwood neighborhood, where Brady and Bundchen spent millions building a lavish limestone mansion with nine bathrooms and seven fireplaces. They eventually sold the place to rapper Dr. Dre for a reported $40 million, and downsized to a secluded 5-acre spread in Brookline, not far from the home of Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
If Brady made a decision to gradually withdraw, it’s likely because for a while he was ubiquitous. The soap-opera story line that was his personal life — the breakup with Moynahan in 2006, the revelation that she was pregnant, the high-profile romance with Bundchen — made Brady fodder for gossip sites in a way Boston athletes rarely are. He was Joe Namath without the full-length fur coat, drawing the sort of attention normally reserved for faux-talent celebutantes like Kim Kardashian. When Brady injured his ankle before the 2007 Super Bowl, it was the paparazzi, not sportswriters, who broke the story.
“The guy can’t walk down the street without drawing a crowd,” says Steve DiFillippo, the owner of Davio’s restaurant and a friend of Brady. “It’s like he’s one of the Beatles. It’s crazy.”
In response to the scrutiny, Brady’s image has become more tightly controlled. He seldom does interviews with Boston media, consenting occasionally to cover stories in national magazines like Details and GQ, whose soft focus is on fashion. Or, better yet, devoutly admiring stories like the one titled “Tom Brady Cannot Stop,” that ran on Super Bowl Sunday in The New York Times Magazine.
‘The guy can’t walk down the street without drawing a crowd. It’s like he’s one of the Beatles. It’s crazy.’ --Steve DiFillippo, owner of Davio’s restaurant and a friend of Tom Brady
Poking fun at this carefully cultivated persona, humor site The Onion last week wrote a satirical piece in which Brady referred to himself in the third person: “The Golden Boy would like to state right now, for the record, that at no time did the Golden Boy have any knowledge that team assistants were tampering with game balls.”
That he is married to one of the world’s most famous women only makes Brady seem harder to reach. That’s because Bundchen, like her husband, is instantly recognizable but largely unknown. It is a solid bet that most of the Brazilian beauty’s 5 million Instagram followers have never heard her speak.
Brady is even discreet about his charity work. He doesn’t have an eponymous foundation like many celebrities, but participates in an annual event with Best Buddies International and supports the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Nor has he used his chiseled visage to flack for car companies or credit cards, instead doing tasteful spots for luxury goods like UGG shoes, Stetson cologne, and Movado watches, as well as Under Armour sports apparel.
To counter the impression that he’s isolated, to demystify the hero he is to so many, and perhaps to redefine himself going forward, Brady lately has resorted to social media to connect with fans. The change has been notable.
In the past several months, he — or more likely someone working on his behalf — has begun posting photos and videos on Facebook that seem clearly intended to humanize him, make him seem like a regular guy. In April, after playing a pickup basketball game with Michael Jordan, Brady posted a photoshopped picture of himself in a full-body cast, captioned “Jordan’s crossover is no joke!”
It is an effort to descend from Olympus — at least from time to time. Now the embattled Brady, forced to lead another kind of come-from- behind drive, may choose to embrace social media even more as he seeks to turn public opinion in his favor.
Still, whatever you think of Brady, or how remote from us he can seem, those who know him, even a little, swear he’s remarkably unchanged by fame and fortune. Ken Rhoads and his wife, Rebecca, an executive at Raytheon, bought the quarterback’s condo in Marina Bay, including the billiards table and the QB’s king-size bed. Last summer, they say, he stopped by and walked around the place.
“We found him to be very accessible, articulate, and funny,” says Rhoads, a retired civil engineer surveyor. “We moved his bed into the guest room, so if you end up spending the night at our house, you’ll be sleeping in Tom Brady’s bed. That’s pretty cool, right?”