Tom Brady speaks with the media Wednesday in advance of Sunday’s game against the Washington Redskins. (Steven Senne/Associated Press)

Tom Brady’s hair is hacked off like a zealot monk’s, and he is thin to the point of meanness. He is dieting with a hard focus, converting every morsel he eats into a purposeful burn. It’s one way to beat those slack-bellied and soft-tissued lawyers who torment him.

In Brady’s victory-obsessed state, even a piece of fruit has too much sugar and is foregone in favor of kale. What better answer to DeflateGate — and those who accuse him of participating in a scheme to underinflate footballs — than to play like a cleansed and purified essence? At the age of 38, Brady is destroying the National Football League with the best form of his life, undefeated at 7-0 with 20 touchdowns to just one interception entering Sunday’s game against the Washington Redskins. Each throw seems to have a vengeful velocity that says, “Am I cheating now?”

This is the real outcome of DeflateGate: A guy who had nothing left to gain now has everything to prove. “They did us a favor,” says New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

The events of the past year have delineated Brady’s competitive makeup in a way no Super Bowl victory could. “His reputation, and who he is, was being challenged, and when you challenge Tom Brady in any way, you’re gonna be in for a fight,” says his former college coach at Michigan, Lloyd Carr.

Late last month, the NFL filed another court brief seeking to enforce Commissioner Roger Goodell’s four-game suspension of Brady, claiming there is “significant evidence” that he approved the deflation of game balls in last season’s AFC championship game, a 45-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts. According to league lawyers, Brady undermined the “integrity of the game” in a manner similar to the 1919 Chicago Black Sox.

It has become clear what Brady’s greatest asset is, and it’s not that precision-tuned throwing arm or the photographic memory that allows him to recall opponents’ tendencies from a decade ago. It’s the ability to maintain a controlled burn without imploding in the face of any charge. “I’ve always tried to work mentally to overcome whatever obstacles I’ve had to face,” Brady says blandly.

Tom Brady talking to his offensive line on the bench during the Patriots game against the Dolphins on Oct. 29. (Winslow Townson/AP)

The ongoing legal battle might have exhausted Brady or driven him into a sullen brood. Instead he has apparently decided to add to the surfeit of success that provoked such suspicion of him in the first place — the four Super Bowl victories, the three MVP awards. He has also chosen to dwell on other superior aspects of his life, such as the trio of prospering children and a wife of singular beauty, supermodel Gisele Bundchen. “I got a good life, and nothing that anybody can do to me is really gonna hurt me,” he told his father, Tom Brady Sr., during the depths of DeflateGate.

Superiority is an attitude that permeates the entire Patriots franchise, and it starts at the top. The 74-year-old industrialist Kraft, like Brady, embodies everything rivals so hate about the Patriots, with his combination of wealth, assured informality and pugnacity. He sits behind a messy desk in a pullover sweater and jeans, surrounded by photos showing off the time he danced with Jackie Kennedy and the time he got the Dalai Lama to wear a Patriots cap. At one point as he commiserated with Brady over the events of past few months, Kraft told Brady they were the lucky ones because at least they weren’t “on the outside looking in” at all their success. “It’s better to be envied than the one who envies,” Kraft says.

It has long been Kraft’s mantra that “every bump is a boost.” The saying resonates with Brady because it perfectly describes his own halting, obstacle-impeded early career, which is by now well known: how at Michigan he started out as the seventh quarterback on the roster, how he wasn’t drafted until the 199th pick in the sixth round in 2000. Less well known are the more distant athletic failures of his childhood in San Mateo, Calif., the psychological roots of a seething athletic insecurity and ambition. All of which he was still chewing over even on the cusp of a third Super Bowl victory in 2005.

“I’ve never been the fastest guy in the world. I’ve never moved the best. I’ve never been very strong. People have always said, ‘You can’t,’ ” he said then. “. . . You don’t forget where you came from. The scars that you have from those days are deep scars.”

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft with Tom Brady before a game against the Cowboys on Oct. 11. (Tim Sharp/AP)

If being drafted in the sixth round left a scar, then DeflateGate must have left a gash. Brady is accustomed to having his physical talents questioned, but this is the first time his character has been. His image as a squeaky-clean guy whose career has been all about the sweat has taken an undeniable hit. What’s more, the charge of ball-tampering is almost impossible to defend against — and the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit is unlikely to clear up the matter any time soon, if at all. The court will not hear the case until February and then will focus on narrow procedural arguments over Goodell’s powers rather than Brady’s guilt or innocence.

Brady therefore appears to believe that the best way to exonerate himself is to attack the record book in a way no one can quarrel with. With every ball scrutinized, he is directing the NFL’s top scoring offense, averaging 35.6 points a game, and he is on pace to break the single-season record for passing yardage.

His father sees this as proof that DeflateGate is a politically motivated “vendetta,” led by a commissioner seeking to shore up his authority and appease jealous rivals incensed by the Patriots’ success. At one point Brady told his father, “You have to understand that this is not about me. It’s all about other people’s agendas.”

Brady himself has never aired such sentiments publicly, choosing to remain all but wordless and channel his responses to the field. When his former high school teammate John Kirby voiced disbelief that Brady would tamper with footballs, Brady texted him back with a brief “Thanks for your support. There’s not a lot of people who believe me right now.” Even when U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman lifted Brady’s suspension in September with a harshly worded rebuke of the league for lacking evidence, Brady chose to withhold his reaction. “Obviously I have a lot of personal feelings, but I don’t care to share any of those,” he said. But the gall felt by his family is surely a fair measure of them. “I mean it is such a ridiculous, stupid deal,” his father says.

According to his sister Julie, Brady’s ability to sublimate his feelings and talk with his arm instead of his mouth is not surprising. It’s a lifelong habit.

“This has been going on since he was kid,” Julie says. “As far as proof or making a statement, he has always felt the best way to do that was on the field. That’s nothing new for him.”

Determined to succeed

He was the youngest kid straining to keep up in a household so competitive that driving home from church on Sundays turned into a road race. Brady’s mother, Gaylynn, would drive one family car, and Tom Sr. would drive the other. Tom Sr. would practically jump curbs to beat his wife into the driveway, while their four kids hung out of the windows taunting each other. When they pulled up to the house, all of them would spill out running, and whoever touched the front door first would hold up a finger in the air: No.1. The tradition lingers to this day. “I find myself racing my husband,” Julie says.

A Patriots fan holds a Brady poster during New England’s game against the Dolphins at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., on Oct. 29. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Brady walks past a sign in the stands at halftime during the Patriots’ game against the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis Oct. 18. (Brian Spurlock/Usa Today Sports)

Brady’s three older sisters were champion athletes who played on so many different teams that in one year their parents attended 315 games, according to one Brady biographer, Charles Pierce. Their kid brother insisted on playing in their suburban street pickup ballgames, refusing to be left out even though “he reached the height of the other boys’ belly buttons,” Julie says. The older boys would mess with him, tell him to run deep and then never throw him the ball. He would trot back to the huddle flushed and perspiring, and tell them, “I was open.” They would say, “Go long again,” and run him ragged. He would return the next afternoon wearing the same sweaty, smelly jersey, ready to go again.

“Fierce as a lion,” Julie says. “He was this cute little boy who wouldn’t take showers for days. Call it what you want: strong-minded, hard-headed, determined. Tommy was all that.”

Tom Sr. was the sort of father who was unafraid to kiss his son in public but also gently baited him. He would hit pop flies and then rate the throw Brady made back to home plate. Brady was already a tall kid by then with a powerful arm, but his father would act unimpressed and purposely underrate the throw. Brady would fire a ball that was a clear nine. “I give it a seven,” Tom Sr. would say.

By the time Brady reached adolescence, he was a fierce competitor who sent video game controllers sailing across the room when he lost. “He would want to keep fighting until he won,” Julie says. “He might have thrown a few golf clubs, remotes, baseball bats, gloves and balls.”

With Joe Montana-esque fantasies in his head, he tried out for quarterback on the freshman team at Junipero Serra High School, an all-boys Catholic school with a rich athletic tradition, and suffered his first real reversal, worse than any family teasing. He not only lost the job to his best friend, Kevin Krystofiak, but he was a benchwarmer on a team that went 0-8 and didn’t score a single touchdown. “That tells you how bad I was,” he has said. “I couldn’t crack the starting lineup of a team that didn’t win a game.”

Brady warms up during practice on Nov. 4. (Steven Senne/AP)

But he was a big kid at 6 feet 2 who even then could throw a fade, and he had a work ethic. He became the starter after Krystofiak quit the team to play basketball, and discovered that he could make up in mechanics and study what he lacked in natural gifts. “He was never scared to face his fears,” Julie says. “He chose to work through them.” His father took him to see Tom Martinez, a renowned quarterbacks coach at the College of San Mateo, who was such a stickler for proper form that he would station his students in front of a brick wall and tell them to throw — then examine the scrapes on their knuckles to be sure they had the correct motion.

Serra’s varsity coach, Tom McKenzie, was impressed by Brady’s arm but not by his legs. He said Brady had a Division I upper body but the lower body of a scrub. The remark stung, and so did jokes from his teammates about his plodding platypus feet. McKenzie had a “five-dot” drill, which required players to jab their feet in a staccato tempo at a series of marked spots. One afternoon, Kirby, Brady’s friend and wide receiver, went over to Brady’s house and found that he had spray-painted five dots onto the floor of his garage. “It turns out he was doing that drill every morning because he wanted to prove his feet were great,” Kirby says.

Brady told Krystofiak that a quarterback didn’t need to be fast; he just needed to be “quick in a phone booth.” He became as agile as anyone on the team at the five dots drill. “He had a will that he wasn’t going to let anyone dictate his success, even though people tried to,” Kristofiak says.

The pattern would repeat itself over and over again. At Michigan he was so frustrated at not getting snaps with the first team that he threatened to transfer. Carr told him to quit worrying about the other guys and “worry about yourself.” His father, too, told him he wasn’t going to win by taking on the head coach; he could only take on himself. A day later, Brady came back to Carr’s office. “I thought it over, and I’m gonna stay and prove to you I’m a great quarterback,” he told Carr.

“Honestly from that day forward he was relentless in the pursuit of proving who he was,” Carr says.

Brady during the Patriots’ 36-7 win over the Dolphins on Oct. 29. (Darren Mccollester/Getty Images)

On vacations back home in San Mateo, Brady assured his old high school friends that he was “every bit as good as the people in front of me.” They told him he just hadn’t seen real talent. “We honestly kind of didn’t believe him,” Krystofiak says.

Even after his searing humiliation in the NFL draft left him as a fourth-string rookie reserve for the Patriots, Brady kept trying to tell people back home he was going to make it. He watched the Patriots’ starter, Drew Bledsoe, and told Kirby and Kristofiak: “Guys, I can play with this guy. I do a lot of things better than him.” Once again, they didn’t believe him.

As a rookie he was so seldom called on to do anything that, “I got to like, eat nachos before the game,” he recalled this past week. “I didn’t know if I was dressing or active. I just had to bring my playbook to the meetings. That was as much as I had to do that year.”

His parents went to games anyway, arriving three hours early so they could watch him throw in warmups. At a game against San Diego, a woman introduced herself and said, “My husband just loves your son.” She turned out to be Dallas Pioli, wife of then-Patriots general manager Scott Pioli. She told them the usual things about how Tom was the first one in the building and the last one to leave. But then she said, “He comes back at 11:30 at night when no one is around.” Scott Pioli had begun getting phone calls from security guards at the stadium that the kid was trying to get into the building to do extra work in the dead of night. Pioli drove over to check, and there was Brady’s car in the lot at 1 a.m.

Four Super Bowl victories later, “I learned that when he says something, I’ll take his word for it,” Krystofiak says.

Proving his doubters wrong

Over the years, the diamond gleam of Super Bowl rings and gloss of magazine covers have obscured the grinder with awkward feet who is desperate to prove everybody wrong. But he’s still there — he shows himself occasionally in a fit of sideline temper, a seizure-like scream of frustration or a geyser from a thrown water cup. At the start of training camp this past summer, wide receiver Julian Edelman told a local radio station, “You don’t want a mad Tom Brady, and he’s a little ticked off.” Less than two weeks ago Brady threw for four touchdowns in a 36-7 victory over the Miami Dolphins, yet still pounded the ground in frustration over a single missed third-down pass. His wife told Kraft that she woke up recently at 3:30 in the morning to find her husband studying film.

“To know his level of commitment is to know how bad he wants this stuff,” Tom Sr. says.

The NFL believes Brady wants it too much — enough to cheat. The charge may never be fully resolved, given the lack of measurable evidence. All Brady can do is try to demonstrate that ball pressure has hardly been the most relevant factor in his lifelong performance.

“This season is the result of 15 years of hard work,” Tom Sr. says, “not just of a court decision two months ago.”

But his father acknowledges that revenge has been a factor in his son’s performance. “I think there is some of that,” he says, “though it’s overhyped.” What’s interesting is that Brady is able to control and compartmentalize it, much like he does his nerves in an urgent fourth-quarter comeback. “He’s got a tremendous sense of the present,” his father says. “He doesn’t get rattled. He’s got a peaceful demeanor. He’s pretty clear thinking and analytical.”

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Edelman calls Brady “the ultimate technician.” He obsesses over his well-grooved throwing motion, to the point of vanity. Recently the head of Patriots media relations brought him a photo to autograph. Brady rejected it because he didn’t like the way his finish looked. “I don’t want that one — look at my mechanics,” he said.

If Brady has any real competitive advantage, he says, here is where it lies. “I think at this stage in my career, I’m just very efficient with how I prepare my body,” he explains. He has a taste for tedium, the minute details that keep him in the present instead of worrying about consequences — whether the outcome of DeflateGate or his place among the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

“I love it,” he says. “I love the whole process and preparation. And I’m always looking for ways to improve. . . . Playing quarterback, there are a lot of responsibilities and requirements. Physically, you have to be able to withstand the hits in addition to being able to throw the ball. Mentally it’s being a coach on the field. It’s being a leader. For me, football is a challenge emotionally, spiritually, physically and mentally. It challenges your mental toughness. I really enjoy all of those things. I get to do something I love to do. . . . So I don’t know if it gets any better than that.”

If he can persuade a few unbelievers along the way, well, every bump is a boost. On the day his suspension was reversed, he texted his old friend Kirby exultantly. “We’re going to have our best season yet,” he promised.