Over time, the trophy-shine around Tom Brady began to get in the eyes and obscure the most essential fact about his NFL career: It was entirely self-made, manufactured. “Poor build. … Gets knocked down easily,” a draft scout wrote about him so infamously all those years ago. What if Brady had accepted it as the final judgment, surrendered to the opinion? Don’t ever let the seven Super Bowls and all the records gloss over that most vital lesson: What people say about you is always wrong, if you make it so.
Brady proved that any kid with perfectly ordinary athletic prospects, the middle-of-the-packer who doesn’t come with some preloaded or far-fetched anatomical gift, can construct greatness. What made him great was an inner curiosity, an urge to fill in his blanks and see what might happen with enough study and sweat. Here’s the real verdict on him as he retires at 44: If you study and sweat hard enough for long enough, you can win everything in sight and leave so many unattainable records etched into the books that they might as well be written in granite.
Brady’s 2000 NFL draft evaluation will go down in history as one of those infamous misjudgments on par with a talent scout’s assessment of Fred Astaire’s screen test: “Can’t act; slightly bald; can dance a little.” It’s worth reciting the assessment once more for posterity and the pure fun of it. “Skinny. Lacks great physical stature and arm strength,” the scout wrote. “Lacks mobility and the ability to avoid the rush. Lacks a really strong arm. Can’t drive the ball down the field. Does not throw a really tight spiral. System-type player who can get exposed if forced to ad-lib.” Was it really so inaccurate? No, it wasn’t. It was merely the truth — but the incomplete truth.
The complete truth was that at every single stage of his career, he labored to overcome major physical deficits, as anyone who worked with him over the years tried to tell you. As Tom Moore, legendary offensive consultant for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said before last year’s Super Bowl triumph, “He wanted to have greatness, and he worked hard to get it; it didn’t just fall out of the trees.”
At Junipero Serra High, he started out as a scrub on a team that didn’t win a game.
“When I showed up as a freshman in high school, I didn’t know how to put pads in my pants,” he once said. Brady spent four years at Michigan, fighting his way off the bench, and even as a senior had to split time with a sophomore, Drew Henson, whom coaches saw as more talented. He was prone to sulk about it, until, in the single most important pivot in his career, he saw a sports psychologist named Greg Harden who made a man out of him by telling him he was responsible for his own performance in the world. “It’s really a shift in the mind,” Brady told filmmaker Gotham Chopra in the documentary “Man in the Arena.” “You go from being a victim to being empowered by the fact that you went through something difficult and you learned from it.”
His physical performance at the annual NFL combine was unremarkable: He ran a slogging time of 5.28 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Again, nobody seemed to see much in him. During the draft, he sat for hours as team after team passed on him, and the insult and injury of it could still make his eyes well up years later. “I just remember thinking, whichever team picked me, I was going to make the other 31 regret it,” he once said on his TB12 Sports website.
The piece that everyone missed about him was how much he loved the way the game chiseled him, how intriguing he found its demands. “The competition was fierce and deep, JUST HOW WE LIKE IT,” he wrote in the most telling part of his farewell announcement. Brady loved proving he could master an NFL playbook, which was so thick “you would think we were building rockets,” he once said. He loved solving the schematics and diagrams, which were “part science, part math, part geometry.” He loved the all-consuming test in which mental acuity could trump physical deficiency. “You’re at your most vulnerable,” he told Chopra. “You’re fully exposed. There’s no hiding. There’s this armor you take out on the field, but that’s really you on the field. Those are your real emotions.”
Even at his peak and his prime — actually was there ever anything less than a prime? — he was not a great improviser, could not throw well on the move with those slow feet. He had to know where he was going with the ball and get it away quick in order to look so good. He never hid from the fact; he just refined his throwing motion and scorched his eyes staring at film so he could outsmart the people boring down on him.
“Not everybody is great at everything,” he said at an Adobe corporate summit in 2020. “There’s things I don’t do very well. … I recognize that I’m a person who doesn’t run around and try to ad-lib and make things happen after the ball is in my hand. So much of my thinking happens before I ever touch the ball. So by the time I do touch the ball, I’m on the clock, and I know that my clock has to move very quickly in order to anticipate. … I don’t like guesswork. I don’t like the idea of just trying to figure things out on the go.”
As he aged, it became just one more problem to solve, one more interesting test, and a way to disprove all the doubters about who he was. Stereotypes of limp-armed quarterbacks began to color perceptions of his play, became more persuasive to some people than his actual performance, and led to his exit from New England and a second wind with Tampa Bay. “All right, well, I’ll just go prove ’em wrong again," Brady told Chopra. "They didn’t learn their lesson last year obviously, or the year before that, or the year before that.” With sheer determination, he established that a man in his 40s didn’t have to suffer arm slackness and that with pure application he could learn any system. Above all, he showed the value of ignoring what others say about you.
Brady’s litany of performances is susceptible to mythologizing, and the glossy magazine covers only enhanced the impression that he had some kind of mysterious ease. The highlight films with voice-over narration make his play seem cinematic and the victories inevitable. But the reality was that game day was just one small part of his workweek and a Super Bowl in February was just one small part of his year-round labor. “It’s what he does in April and May and June,” Chopra said. “It’s film work and obsessing over his hip movements and watching game tape in the middle of June at 11 o’clock at night.”
That’s what made him finally call it a career — not his age but the “all-in” effort required. He said in his announcement, “I am not going to make that competitive commitment anymore.” Note the choice inherent in that statement. He didn’t say he couldn’t do it anymore, merely that he wouldn’t. It was just one more act of self-determination.
In retirement, Brady will finally begin to show his years and eventually become just another un-suave, plodding person, a bad golfer with a steadily thickening middle, who diminishes like the rest of us. As he takes that long, slow walk back toward averageness, remember this about him: Had Brady listened to conventional wisdom, had he accepted the judgments of others about who and what he was, had he retired before the age of 40 as most quarterbacks are expected to, we would have missed this most crucial fact about him. His greatness was not in the power of his arm but in the power of his intention to decide for himself who he wanted to be.
More on Tom Brady’s NFL career
Considered by many the greatest quarterback in NFL history, Tom Brady announced on social media that he is stepping away after 22 seasons.
Sally Jenkins: On paper, Tom Brady was unremarkable. On the field, he grew into a legend.
From 2017: Tom Brady didn’t just have the best Super Bowl ever. He played the greatest football game ever.
Jerry Brewer: Tom Brady is incomparable. So why do so many insist on comparing him to others?
From 2016: In the beginning there was Brady-Manning Part 1, and an NFL legend was born
From the archives: Brady’s Rise to ‘King of the Hill’