O’Sullivan: Extra layers of Brady appreciation for the lifelong Patriots fans

  • New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady reacts to a touchdown against the Washington Redskins during the second half of an Oct. 2 game in Washington. Brady, the centerpiece of the Patriots’ championship dynasty over the past two decades, appears poised to leave. AP file

  • Tom Brady after a divisional playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens in Foxborough, Mass., on Jan. 10, 2015. Brady is an NFL free agent for the first time in his career. AP file

Monitor staff
Published: 3/19/2020 5:12:26 PM

The time was right for Tom Brady to find a new team and for the Patriots to find a new quarterback. That’s what I wrote about on Wednesday, the day after Brady announced he was leaving New England.

That was the objective view, the sports writer’s analytical take. It took some time, but that has become my default point of view when it comes to sports. That’s just what happens after years of being a sports reporter and not cheering in the press box or writing about games between two high schools that are both in your coverage area. If sports are part of your job, you often have to put the fan aside and forget about your favorites in order to be professional.

 

Most of the time that was easy. When it comes to Brady, not so much.

For years I’ve been referring to Brady as, “the greatest American ever.” Not just the greatest quarterback of all time, which is obvious, but the greatest American. Period. It’s a joke, of course…except to the Patriots fan in me that has never truly been squelched by 20 years of sports writing.

My inner Patriots fan has been tinged with enough sports reporter objectivity to not be personally hurt by Brady’s departure or the team’s willingness to let him go. Fan and reporter both think it was the best move for the player and the team.

While the reporter is ready to move on and figure out who the next New England quarterback will be, the fan is still looking back. There’s a little disappointment for sure, it would have been both cool to see No. 12 retire as a Patriot, but mostly there’s gratitude for all the joy Brady brought to our lives.

The young New England fans, like my 19-year-old son, who have known only one quarterback have their own appreciation for Brady. But for those of us who go back to the inglorious days, the appreciation has an extra layer.

It will surprise no one to learn I was a sports-obsessed kid. Asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say the shortstop for the Red Sox. I was totally serious. I would pore over Celtics’ box scores in the morning paper and recreate the games over a bowl of cereal because I wasn’t allowed to stay up late enough to watch on television.

As much as I loved those teams, the Patriots held a special grip on my young fan’s heart. I don’t remember it, but apparently 2-year-old me insisted on wearing my Patriots shirt every day. It only made sense – what else would go with the children’s model Pat the Patriot helmet I also wore every day?

I was fascinated by Sam “Bam” Cunningham. I was crushed by the Super Bowl loss to the Bears. I would faithfully watch every Sunday, even during the miserable Rod Rust and Dick MacPherson years. If I needed to pass the time during something boring, I would recite the team’s defensive line depth chart to myself (see what we did before cell phones?).

This devotion made all the low points feel even lower. And there were plenty of them – sexual harassment scandals, cocaine allegations, bad draft picks, brutal losses, clown coaches.

That devotion also made all of Brady’s achievements shine even brighter. And there were plenty of them, too.

When fans are reciting their lists of favorite Brady moments, most of them will start with Super Bowl highlights. For me, I honestly still have a hard time wrapping my head around them. After all those years of losing,  there’s still a twinge of disbelief about the Patriots going to nine Super Bowls in the last 20 years, never mind winning six of them, and really never mind winning two on last-second field goals, another on a last-second interception and a yet another after trailing 28-3.

Most fans get to watch their team pull out miracle wins like that once or twice in a lifetime, and usually those will happen on some random Sunday in October. But to do it in the Super Bowl? Time and again? I watched it live, I’ve seen the DVDs and it still seems surreal.

It’s easier for me to start with Brady’s origin story (every superhero has one of those, right?). It would have made more sense if the terrible Patriots found their savior after a typical 2-14 season when they had the No. 1 overall pick and used it on some can’t-miss quarterback. Instead, Brady famously arrived as the No. 199 pick in the 2000 draft and unexpectedly made the team as a fourth stringer. He didn’t dress for most of the games that season, but he kept working harder than everyone else and kept moving up the depth chart until he became the starter the next year (with some help from Mo Lewis), and a few short months later he became a Super Bowl champion.

How can you not love that story? Back then, before the Patriots became America’s sports villain, most of the country did love it.

After that, I think about how Brady has owned the AFC East. During the 1970’s, ’80’s and ’90’s, the Patriots were the team the Dolphins, Colts (yes, they used to be in the AFC East) and Bills kicked around on their way to the division title. If New England finished on top (1978, 1986, 1996-97) it felt like a fluke that was sure to be short lived. Then Brady showed up, and suddenly the loser was beating up the bully. Year after year after year.

I think about how Brady also dominated traditional AFC powers like the Raiders and Steelers. The Raiders and their fans have never really recovered from the Snow Game in 2001. And the proud Steelers, even though they’ve poached a couple of Super Bowls during New England’s dynasty, know they have been living in the Patriots’ shadow.

We’ve come a long way from pick No. 199 beating the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. The underdog Brady who went bowling with the offensive linemen has become a superstar with recovery pajamas, gallons of avocado ice cream and a Brazilian super model wife. All that makes it a lot tougher to relate to him and a little tougher to root for him. And in the last two or three years his skills have, finally, begun to show some erosion.

Those changes make it easier to move on from Brady, but it’s still not easy, especially for the lifelong Patriots fan. It’s hard to see him go, but we should all be grateful for the time he was here.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20)




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