The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tom Brady still has the itch, and it’s taken him places no football player has been

Tom Brady is a Super Bowl champion for the seventh time. (David J. Phillip/AP)
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How he gets that ageless skin is not the real question. The real question is what’s under Tom Brady’s skin — apart from the victory champagne in his blood, that is.

He is a master of reserve, a man of surface banality who talked about his seventh Super Bowl victory in terms as neatly shaved of emotion as his chin. It was only from a couple of wheedled-out details that you got a glimpse, on the morning after, of the consuming burn beneath his facade. He’d had just two hours of sleep, and not in his own bed, because there were bodies strewn all over his home, he said, exultant family members who had fallen on whatever pillow they happened to grab, so he crawled into his daughter’s room. That tells you a little something about how much he’d wanted it.

So did the way he chased down Kansas City Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu to cuss him on the Super Bowl field Sunday night after a collision, reportedly requiring a postgame texted apology. “I never really saw that side of Tom Brady, to be honest,” Mathieu said afterward. Other telltale stories leaked out from some of his teammates, intimations of what a guttural, grating striver he was all season, how forcefully he had pushed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to this title. Lavonte David told CBS that after the NFC championship game, Brady came into the locker room to see some of them weeping with joy because they had never experienced a trip to the Super Bowl. “What the f--- are you crying for?” Brady growled. “We’re not done yet.” David surreptitiously wiped away a couple of tears.

Every night in the run-up to the game Brady texted his teammates, sometimes as late as 11 p.m., chafing at them. “We’re gonna win this game,” he wrote. A man well known for his strict bed-at-8 routine was still awake, trying to put an edge on his teammates. The Chiefs weren’t as tough as they looked, he texted Leonard Fournette. Put a shoulder into them and “they’re not going to want to tackle you.”

And “that’s exactly what happened,” Fournette said after their 31-9 victory in Super Bowl LV. “We believed him.”

Tom Brady, the one-man dynasty, was Tampa Bay’s perfect missing piece

There were many reasons the Buccaneers so overwhelmed the Chiefs, from the superb defense cooked up by coordinator Todd Bowles and led by the spearing 22-year-old Devin White, to Coach Bruce Arians’s masterful synthesis of a talented but cobbled-together roster during a pandemic. But the bonding element was Brady and his immersive work from the moment he arrived as a free agent from New England, which was its own kind of contagion.

In a way, the coronavirus played right into Brady’s hands. A punctilious perfectionist, Brady was able to hold his entire team captive to his habits. The social nullity of the virus shutdowns wiped out distractions and enclosed him and his new teammates in a bubble.

“With the coronavirus situation and all the protocols, it was really like football for junkies,” Brady said Monday morning. “You know, there was really not a lot of things to do but show up for work and play football. Normally a lot of other things go along with playing. So, if you love football, this was the year to be a player in the NFL because that’s all it was. It was like football camp with your buddies all year ’round. I really enjoyed that.”

Brady didn’t have his first formal practice with the team until mid-August. From September through November, they went 7-5, and it was obvious he was having some trouble connecting all the dots in Arians’s system, mastering the verbiage for receiver routes. “He’d say: ‘What the hell’s that play? What’s the word? And what the hell is the guy going to do?’ ” Arians related. But he kept “battling through it,” Arians said. “It was slow, steady progress every game, every week.”

Brady’s six previous Super Bowl rings gave him credibility with the Buccaneers, but it was his daily relish for the grind that was more important in seeding their belief. It was “understanding why he wins,” Fournette said. His attention to detail is such that every throwing motion must finish with his left shoulder properly closed and his arm in perfect alignment with his cheekbones. His personal mania for practicing the little things right became tremendously influential even on the defensive side of the ball. It meant momentary slackness was impossible for his lowest teammate, according to Bowles.

“Just from talking to guys after practicing and monitoring how they felt, they saw how hard he works at everything he does and how diligently he does it,” Bowles said last week. “Nobody wanted to let anybody down. Those guys worked even harder from that standpoint. You don’t want to be embarrassed at practice by Brady picking on you, so you better pick your game up. I think a lot of that carried over to the defense and made them more accountable.”

Most NFL teams do things right about 75 percent of the time. That’s pretty good — unless you’re trying to build a bridge, in which case 75 percent gets you a bridge that collapses. Brady showed the Bucs the 100 percent, the uncut corner, made them understand the applied workload required to get to a Super Bowl. “We really didn’t know how to win,” Arians said. “… The leadership he brings and the attitude, it permeated our whole locker room. His belief and knowing he had been there and done it, it changed our entire football team.”

They went 8-0 the rest of the way. Though Brady still had to wear a play-call sheet strapped to his forearm in the playoffs, they became the first team ever to score 30 points or more in four games in a postseason. And in the Super Bowl, “We ended up playing our best game of the year,” Brady said.

What went wrong for the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes in a brutal Super Bowl defeat

Who can explain why a bejewel-fingered 43-year-old, wealthy and privileged beyond all imagining, would be so driven at this stage of his life? “The itch,” Michael Jordan used to call his own prickling drive.

Maybe it was being reared in a family so competitive they would race home from church. Maybe it was the father, Tom Sr., who would bet him carwashes on the golf course and then beat him like a drum until he owed the old man 160 of them, and would throw his clubs and have to be sent to the car, or swing his putter like a hockey stick and knock his ball off the green rather than lose again. Maybe it was the three older athlete-sisters who pushed around the sweaty younger brother until he was frantic with frustration, beat him at softball until he threw his bat, and in touch football told him to go long, and then laughed and refused to throw it to him. One of the sisters grabbed him in a postgame hug Sunday night and murmured in his ear “a few things that probably aren’t appropriate” to repeat, Brady said laughing, “like we all do when we win.”

Maybe it was the chronic underestimation, shared even by the New England Patriots in the end that he wasn’t worth top dollar and a long-term investment, that treated his birth date like it was an expiration date stamped on a can. Maybe it was the lifelong oh-so-mistaken tendency to take him at face value, to see just his exterior gawk and the commonplace physique, the failure to divine his internals. Which has so galled him all these years that he still has his NFL draft evaluation, and periodically posts it on his social media as a self-reminder. And which is worth reciting one more time, for posterity:

“Poor build, Skinny, lacks great physical stature and arm strength, Lacks mobility and the ability to avoid the rush, lacks a really strong arm, Can’t drive the ball downfield, Does not throw a really tight spiral, System-type player who can get exposed if forced to ad-lib. Gets knocked down easily.”

From the outside, that is.