Winning Super Bowl XLIX and his fourth championship, Tom Brady made his case for consideration as the greatest quarterback of all time. He also threw his hat, or helmet, as it may be, into the ring for another, loftier title — greatest athlete in the modern history of Boston professional sports.
I think I just felt my e-mail inbox bulging under the weight of replies fired off at Mach speed to that last sentence.
A case can be made that Brady is at the head of the class of professional sports athletes in this town.
He inspires a faith that is usually reserved for Sunday Mass. He has won more championships than Bobby Orr and Ted Williams combined. He is more popular and possesses a higher national profile than Celtics legend Bill Russell, a statement on both the popularity of the NBA and the reluctant embracing of African-American idols during Russell’s era. At 37, Brady’s prime has outlasted Larry Bird’s.
Brady is the best combination of individual brilliance, statistical accomplishment, championship credentials, and pop culture panache to grace Boston sports. He is both celebrated and a celebrity. He makes news when he tries to dance, takes a vacation, or changes hair styles.
We have been blessed that some of the most illustrious athletes in American professional sports have plied their trade and constructed their pedestals in our backyard. Teddy Ballgame, Russ, Orr, Yaz, John Havlicek, Bird, Rocket Roger Clemens, and Brady to name a few.
One of the unalienable rights of following sports is the ability to compare and debate athletes, games, and teams. Like taste in movies or music, it’s subjective.
A few rules should apply in a discussion of Boston’s best, though.
You can’t be the greatest in Boston sports history if you’re not the greatest in your own franchise’s history. Unless you think Yaz or David Ortiz are better than Ted Williams, they’re not eligible for the discussion.
You can’t be the greatest if the defining time in your career occurred elsewhere (see: Ruth, Babe).
If it’s all about winning, then there is one choice and one choice only, William Felton Russell. Next to the word winner in the dictionary, there should be a picture of Russell swatting a shot. He won 11 titles for the Celtics in 13 seasons and was the fulcrum of a dynasty. He revolutionized the way basketball was played by dominating with defense and rebounding. He won five MVP awards while never averaging 20 points per game in a season.
If I had a time machine, he is one of the first athletes I would get in the DeLorean to go back and see.
If it’s about being a sui generis talent, then the answer is No. 4, Bobby Orr. He danced across the ice like a firefly on a warm summer night. He is the only defenseman to ever win an NHL scoring title, doing it twice. His game-winning goal in the 1970 Stanley Cup Final and parallel-to-the-ice exultation is one of the most iconic poses ever. It was the sports equivalent of a Farrah Fawcett poster in the 1970s.
Orr won three consecutive Hart Trophies as the NHL’s MVP (1970-72) and two Stanley Cups. Like John F. Kennedy, his legend has only been enhanced by the fact he was taken away too soon. His left knee gave out in 1975, at age 27. He was coming off a season in which he had scored a career-high 46 goals and 135 points.
If it’s about being a larger-than-life hero and the master of the hardest feat in American sports — hitting a round ball with a round bat — then it’s Theodore Samuel Williams. The Splendid Splinter is the last man to hit .400 in a major league season, batting .406 in 1941. He batted .388 at age 38. His .482 career on-base percentage is the highest in baseball history. He won two Triple Crowns and six batting titles.
Williams lost parts of five seasons to military service as a fighter pilot, serving during World War II and the Korean War. He landed a burning plane during the Korean War.
At 41, he hit a home run in his final major league at-bat, the moment inspiring John Updike’s famous panegyric. He became such an avid fisherman that he hosted his own show and was inducted into the Fishing Hall of Fame. Williams was a man of such diverse talents and accomplishments that his life was better than fiction.
As a child of the 1980s, there will always be a soft spot in my heart for Bird.
Bird’s rivalry-turned-friendship with Magic Johnson begat the modern NBA. He won three straight MVPs from 1984-86. He led the Celtics to five NBA Finals and hoisted three banners to the rafters. Bird elevated passing to an art form. He practically invented the dagger 3-pointer.
But you can’t be the greatest Boston athlete of all time if you’re not the greatest Celtic.
If it’s about the total package, it’s Brady. He has the Horatio Alger backstory of being a lightly regarded sixth-round pick, which only adds to his mystique. Quarterback is the glamour position in American sports, so Brady gets bonus points for that.
Brady had the 50-touchdown season in 2007. He has been to six Super Bowls. He has won three Super Bowl MVPs and two regular-season MVPs. His rivalry with Peyton Manning is one of the most indelible individual matchups in all of North American sports history.
Is Brady the greatest Boston sports athlete of all time? No, the distinction still goes to Russell in this corner.
But let’s revisit the discussion after TB12’s Drive For Five next season. If he becomes the only quarterback to win five Super Bowls, we might have to do some rearranging of the seating chart on our own Mount Olympus.