New England fell in love with Brady primarily because he delivered three Super Bowls in four years. That’s reason enough to love any athlete in a sports town like this one. But back then — when he was just some goofy kid who drove a bright yellow Jeep Wrangler and, as a result, got ragged on mercilessly by Ty Law – there was so much more to love, too.
Brady’s was a rags-to-riches story so perfect that it almost didn’t seem real. He was a perennial underdog at the University of Michigan, someone who had to compete with Drew Henson for a starting job, someone who was so torn up by his lack of opportunity that he spent most of college entertaining the idea of transferring to Berkeley, where he could be closer to home and hopefully not quite so underappreciated.
Just a few years later, Mo Lewis changed his life forever.
Brady watched on the sidelines during Week 2 of the 2001 season as the Jets' linebacker took out Drew Bledsoe, causing internal bleeding and paving the way for a backup with zero starting experience and three total pass attempts in his young career.
Almost 10 years later, that perennial underdog is virtually unrecognizable. Brady won three rings and two Super Bowl MVPs, he embarked on some embarrassing Hollywood dalliances (Tara Reid) and some not-so-embarrassing dalliances (Bridget Moynahan) before deciding to settle down with the one person in the world who gets paid more to pose in swimwear than he does.
Now, Brady’s rags-to-riches tale has reached a new level of riches. He has officially gone Hollywood, and in the aftermath, Patriots Nation — whether it likes to admit it or not — has struggled with one question: Has Brady’s new lifestyle impeded his on-the-field performance?
It’s hard to say yes, only because Brady has become so beloved a character in the hearts of New England sports fans that very few dare say anything negative about him. He’s polite, he wears funny hats, he always smiles during postgame news conferences even after taking a beating from the Ravens in the first round of the playoffs and his hair always looks nice. He’s like the really cool brother/uncle/nephew you never had.
Plus, it’s hard to level criticism on a guy who not only delivered three Lombardi Trophies in four years to a championship-starved football town, but also rebounded admirably from devastating ACL and MCL injuries that easily could have derailed his entire career.
Still, though — this is Boston, a city that thrives on dirt-dog types and hard-nosed athletes who value winning above all else. Brady seems to be the exception to every rule. Fans don’t care that his idea of an awesome Saturday night is putting on a tux and having his photograph taken at the Costume Institute Gala, as long as he shows up wearing his uniform every Sunday. Instead of finding it strange to regularly see their quarterback on PerezHilton.com, Brady’s Hollywood-ism has become endearing to New England fans. It makes him that much more lovable.
Because of his Super Bowls, Brady is allowed to get away with things no other quarterback could, especially in New England. He’s allowed to pose with goats in GQ, carry a "satchel" (or a man-purse), wear Yankees paraphernalia and possibly allow a bodyguard to fire gunshots at paparazzi who attempt to photograph his super-secret wedding to the world’s most successful supermodel. When you win, you earn the right to do whatever you want.
But Brady hasn’t won in a while. At what point does that begin to be a problem?
The region is already growing restless. Whether fans want to admit it or not, some of them question whether Brady will ever be the same guy who fearlessly led the Patriots to those Super Bowl wins over the Rams, Panthers and Eagles with ice in his veins. They wonder what changed — they wonder whether the problem is the knee injury or the Hollywood persona that Brady has adopted.
The entire Patriots team, much like Brady, was an example to the rest of the NFL in 2007. It preached a one-game-at-a-time mantra, it rejected personal success in the name of teamwork, and most importantly, it refused to acknowledge its own potential invincibility. That is exactly what allowed that team to succeed. They never considered themselves undefeated, because to those players, every game was a new season.
Except that when it mattered the most, on Super Bowl Sunday, the Patriots weren’t the Patriots anymore. They were walking down red carpets in Miami while Ryan Seacrest emceed, they were joking about running up the score on an underdog Giants team and, for the very first time, they acknowledged the 19-0 thing.
Then, they lost focus and lost when it mattered most. Brady’s not doing the same now — is he?
New England will always love Tom Brady. He’s a model citizen to other NFL quarterbacks, he’s proven that he’s absolutely unwavering under pressure, and when you win as much as he has, you earn the right to wear stupid hats on magazine covers every once in a while. Plus, Brady, just like every other celebrity, deserves privacy and a family and a life off the gridiron.
But there was once a time where Brady would be the first person to arrive at OTAs and the last to leave. There was a time where nothing mattered as much as football. He’s older now; perhaps the priority shift is a natural human progression.
It would still be nice, however, to put all those unpleasant questions to rest for good — the ones that no one wants to ask — by winning it all again soon.