The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tom Brady is telling his own story and doing it at his own pace

Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady has won twice as many playoff games as any other NFL quarterback. (Alex Menendez/AP)
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Tom Brady owns his time. If that seems like an unimpressive act, ask yourself if you own yours as you find yourself hastily eating something over the sink in a hunched posture, worn out before your day has even begun. There is something worth studying in Brady’s physical demeanor beyond the precision of that arrowing arm: his basic sense of repose. The man almost never seems hurried or reactive, at anything.

Brady might have teetered off the pedestal climb to all-time greatness a long time ago, played out by jittery exhaustion or jadedness, had he not found a quiet stance amid all the action. His career is an essay on the refusal to let others use him up or drain him, as the NFL so indifferently can. “He is super-conscious of energy,” says his documentary collaborator and friend Gotham Chopra by phone. “He talks a lot about inputs and outputs.” His talent for conservation, not just of the body but of the psyche, as much as anything has gotten him to the age of 44 in the league and allowed him to more than double the number of postseason victories of any other quarterback who ever lived. Yes, double, with 34 to Joe Montana’s 16, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are just getting started in the first round.

The trouble with winning is that Donald Trump starts calling you, and so do celebrity golf events and car companies, and pretty soon if you’re not careful, you become a harried guy with more obligations than fulfillment. After his first Super Bowl victory with the New England Patriots in 2002, his life turned “into a Sharpie party,” Brady reflected a few years ago. Right then, he could have gone down in all of the suck. Instead, he commandeered his time back, turned down potential seven-figure deals in a quest for some internal restfulness, with an emphasis on what he wanted to do, not what others wanted from him. Two recent projects capture this, Chopra’s multipart series with Brady for ESPN, “Man in the Arena,” and Seth Wickersham’s book on the Patriots, “It’s Better to Be Feared.” Both trace Brady’s longevity to the same thing: his persistent ability to shut out the noise and junk, and love his work to the point of total absorption.

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What Brady loves most, far more than a Tag Heuer, is the plebeian surroundings of a locker room, the simple no-frills atmosphere with a brotherhood in egalitarian sweats. It’s a place that, unlike the rest of his life, is straightforward, where there are no extravagances and complications, where no reward can be bought and which demands his entire blissful concentration. It’s a place where he doesn’t “have to take on all the issues of the world,” as he tells Chopra, a place that is “nourishing your soul in a way.”

The great former New York Yankees performance coach Dana Cavalea has remarked that elite athletes, for all that they punish their bodies, tend to lead less stressful lives compared with the rest of us. “From the minute they report to the field, they are just moving from station to station all day, and that actually keeps them very relaxed and comfortable,” he observes. There is peace and calm in the rigid structure of their days, because “people who own their schedules own their lives,” he says.

As Brady moves into his unprecedented mid-40s, he has only gotten more preemptive and intentional with the schedule and stations of his life. His “pliability” training regimen with Alex Guerrero has apparently become a 24-7 holistic rest-recovery approach, compounded with Toltec teachings, meditation and yoga. “What used to be four days a week has turned into seven days a week,” Chopra notes. “He’s codified it.”

“Man in the Arena” is, of course, another form of self-ownership for Brady. His business deals these days revolve around personal equity stakes: His Under Armour deal was paid in stock options, he has launched “Brady Brand” clothing, and he has ultimate say over the content of “Man in the Arena” as partner in the production company he and Chopra co-founded with Michael Strahan, Religion of Sports.

The documentary is worth watching if only to study how Brady creates equanimity for himself. It’s his attempt to overdub the noise, “the ‘Real Housewives’ conversation,” as he puts it. The public scoffing at his unconventional methods, the frostbiting coldness of professional judgments and stale prepackaged assumptions about how quarterbacks inevitably fall off a cliff at 40, all of it could have oxidized and corroded him, killed his enthusiasm for his work before his body ever failed. Instead, he cleared out space for himself and built his own narrative, and that’s a feat mightily worth respecting, worth more than a Super Bowl.

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“Maybe it’s not about being understood by everyone else but understanding for himself, ‘How did this happen?’ ” Chopra says. “Also, we’re living in a time unlike any other, where with sports radio and blogs you’re constantly talked about. And as much as you try to block that out, you hear it, and someone forwards you something, and it’s like, ‘Wait, I’ll tell my own story.’ ”

Brady is not just telling his own story; he’s doing it at his own pace, as his own producer, from his own viewpoint, saying what he wants to say to the naysayers. “Yeah, I may hear you, but in the end, it’s not going to affect me,” he says on camera.

But he makes it clear that on-camera has never been the place that he wanted to be. It’s not where he is most comfortable. The locker room and field are where he’s at his simplest, most reduced and real.

“Football has been that meditative place for me,” he says, “a place where I could control what the outcome was. I’m the one with the ball in my hand. I’m ultimately going to have the last decision, whether to snap the ball or not, what play we’re in. That’s a very comforting place for me and has been for a long time.”

And he still has one episode to go.