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For competition addicts like Tom Brady, there will always be unfinished business

Tom Brady announced he will return for a 23rd NFL season. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
6 min

And on the 41st day of his retirement, Tom Brady said enough. Who was he kidding? The most prolific winner in NFL history wasn’t ready for civilian life. He couldn’t carry on without a jersey to wear, a defense to dissect, an audience to captivate.

So Brady is back. He probably didn’t have time to finish his wife’s honey-do list, but he’s back. All those wonderful tributes from last month are outdated. His retirement was merely a long vacation.

In August, Brady will celebrate his 45th birthday at training camp, preparing for his 23rd pro season, expecting again to be the surest quarterback thing in the league. When 2022 ends, he will have spent more of his life in the NFL than outside it, another remarkable feat of longevity. And if you think one more dance will satisfy him, well, don’t bet on it. Competition addicts aren’t inclined to leave success on the table. There’s always more to accomplish, more to prove and, in this lucrative business, more to earn.

That mentality drove him to return. It kept him from truly giving the football afterlife a chance.

Tom Brady changes course, announces he will return to Buccaneers for 2022 NFL season

It is, and forever will be, the one thing Brady can’t beat. He isn’t wired to be content. The kind of success he feeds is insatiable. Brady may have seven Super Bowl rings, 624 touchdown passes, 84,520 passing yards and every other record that makes the eyeballs protrude. But, amazingly, he hasn’t emptied his talent. He couldn’t leave with so much good football left in him.

At 44, Brady led an NFL full of mesmerizing young quarterbacks in passing yards and touchdown passes last season. He carried the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when injuries depleted their star power. It wasn’t a season in which he could economize the physical strain, but it didn’t matter. Brady dazzled for 17 games in 2021, and while playing as the defending Super Bowl champions, the Buccaneers went 13-4 in the regular season. In the playoffs, they lost in the divisional round, 30-27, to the eventual champion Los Angeles Rams. Though there was speculation Brady would walk away, his play argued the thought was premature.

He convinced himself otherwise. Nine days after that playoff loss, Brady made his goodbye official. Now, a month and a half later, the announcement is obsolete. Never trust the decisions of a distraught competitor so soon after defeat.

Brady interrupted Selection Sunday to reveal that he had changed his mind. Only he would dare compete with the NCAA tournament.

“These past two months I’ve realized my place is still on the field and not in the stands,” Brady wrote on Twitter. “That time will come. But it’s not now. I love my teammates, and I love my supportive family. They make it all possible. I’m coming back for my 23rd season in Tampa.”

He closed by saying he has unfinished business. Only he would dare consider his body of work incomplete.

As free agency begins, the Buccaneers will hustle to maintain and improve a championship-caliber roster. When we last saw them, they nearly pulled off an incredible comeback against the Rams. With good health and a few tweaks, Brady and Tampa Bay could win a second title in three years. The Rams, Bucs and Green Bay Packers are the obvious NFC front-runners as offseason transactions start.

Perhaps a fairy-tale championship ending last season would’ve convinced Brady to quit for good. But probably not. Perhaps a fairy tale this season will leave him figuring life can’t get better. But probably not. It’s most likely that he won’t exit until the game leaves no doubt that his time has passed. As long as Brady is an elite player on an elite team, he will remain greedy to achieve.

He has the interests and life perspective to thrive once he’s done playing. He’s already becoming a business and entertainment mogul. If he wants, he could run for office and win. Still, nothing else he does professionally will compare to his Greatest Of All Time quarterback status.

Brady realized he owes many parts of himself this opportunity. It’s for his curiosity, his ego, his sense of identity, his love of the sport and his diligently maintained body. Most of all, it’s for his competitiveness. For 40 days, he tried to imagine a life without needing to win another football game. And on the 41st day, he admitted he wasn’t satisfied.

Don’t call it a comeback. No, really — don’t. The man didn’t miss a game. He didn’t even miss a minicamp. Don’t call it a sabbatical or a leave of absence or anything else. Brady told everyone he was leaving the party, and an hour later he was still there. Just forget it and pour him another drink.

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“Tom Brady loves to play football as much as anyone I have ever been around,” Tampa Bay Coach Bruce Arians said in a statement. “As Tom said, his place right now is on the football field.”

His place will always be on the football field. In every sport, the game is undefeated. We like to say some athletes transcend the game, but who are these artists without their canvases?

Brady has redefined several standards in the sport, but football still defines him. So he’s holding on to it and hoping to get more from it. That desire to maximize a great thing reminds you he is human.

Those obsessed with legacy sometimes say they want superstars to leave on top. A few fortunate ones do. But most competitors would rather leave empty. Brady is just the latest legend who’s afraid to say goodbye. Spend a career pushing the limits, and it makes little sense to waste lingering greatness.

So Brady, the quiet family man, can wait. A week ago, quarterbacks were making all kinds of noise, starting with Aaron Rodgers deciding to return to Green Bay and Russell Wilson being traded to Denver. Now here comes Brady, the greatest of them all, stopping the sports world on a day reserved for college basketball.

Unfinished business. Look hard enough, and you can always find unfinished business.

Some day, he will retire for real. But as long as he can throw a football, you should remain skeptical.

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