The Quiet Desperation of Tom Brady

There’s a reason it was so hard for him to retire—he knew the void it would leave.

Tom Brady on a football field surrounded by darkness
The Atlantic; Kevin Sabitus / Getty

A few years ago, I asked Tom Brady if he ever worried that too much of his life was consumed by the game of football. This was, in retrospect, kind of a duh question to put to someone who played, you know, the game of football for a living. Rather successfully, too, and for a long time.

Brady confirmed the question’s premise that, yes, football meant pretty much everything to him and he could not imagine doing anything else with himself. “I’m not a musician, not an artist,” he told me, among other noninterests and non-hobbies. “What am I gonna do, go scuba diving?”

I took the glibness of Brady’s answer as a sign that he wasn’t particularly worried about the total commitment to football that he had so proudly made, and that had been such a celebrated hallmark of his afterthought-to-legend story. But then, Brady was still an active football player at the time, with years left to run in an epic career that finally ended last week after 23 years.

I’ve been thinking about that discussion since Brady dropped his semi-surprising “I’m retiring, for good” video. In particular, I’ve been thinking about a slightly different follow-up question I posed to him on the same theme: whether he worried that a vacuum might await him on the other side of quitting.

“You need a purpose when you wake up every morning,” Brady told me, his voice turning quite serious. “When I don’t have the purpose of football, I know that’s going to be a really hard thing for me.” In other words, Brady knew how scary retirement would be—much scarier to him than any 300-pound pass rusher ever was.

I had gotten to know Brady and his family while researching a story for The New York Times Magazine in the lead-up to what would be his fourth Super Bowl championship, a 28–24 victory for the New England Patriots over the Seattle Seahawks, in 2015. The article focused on what was, even then, the miracle of Brady’s longevity in a league where the average player’s career lasted just over three years. In the gallows lexicon of pro football, NFL stands for “Not for Long.”

Brady has, of course, been the longest-running exception to football’s short-timer rule. He was 37 at the time of our conversation, elderly by NFL standards. The story’s headline was “Tom Brady Cannot Stop.” And he still had eight years to go before he finally did.

I was struck then by how determined Brady was not only to win games but also to blow up the actuarial tables governing how long a quarterback should be allowed to participate in them. How did he pull this off? Everyone focused on what he was willing to sacrifice—his family, his safety, Big Macs. But I always felt that his extreme commitment obscured a more distressing factor in his decision to keep playing: the desperation behind it.

Brady’s protective circle of friends and family have always worried about how he would cope without the structure, mission, and intensity of football. They are worried now. “I think he is going to have a huge void in his life,” Brady’s father, Tom Brady Sr., told me when I reached him by phone last week, a few days after his son’s retirement announcement.

Tom Sr., a delightful man who refers to himself as “the Original Tom Brady” and “the Old GOAT,” was sitting in his Bay Area office, a five-minute drive from the San Mateo, California, home where he and his wife, Galynn, raised their four children and still reside. Original Tom is 78, founded a small insurance agency 51 years ago, and says he has no plans to retire himself. “But then, I don’t have to get hit all the time in this job, like Tommy did,” he told me.

Being his own boss allowed Tom Sr. to travel with his wife to nearly every game of his son’s career, including four years at the University of Michigan and the astonishing 10 Super Bowls that Junior played in. What were Brady’s dad’s plans for Sunday’s Chiefs–Eagles collision in the Super Bowl?

“I guess I’ll be watching,” he said. “Indifferently.”

But he added that his new remove as a fan would be nothing compared with what the newly retired and greatest-ever quarterback will face. “Nothing will ever replace the joy Tommy had playing in football games, hanging with teammates, and joshing around in the locker room,” Brady Sr. said. “Somehow he’s going to have to find a substitute for that, just like every other guy has.”

Not every guy has managed, and many have suffered. The physical aftermath of football is well cataloged—the ravaged bodies and brains, the proportionally higher death rates. But the psychological, sociological, and even spiritual turmoil of post-football lives can be equally brutal. No shortage of people around the game have testified to this. “The longer you play, the more you get used to the lifestyle,” Mark Murphy, a former Washington Redskins defensive back and the longtime president of the Green Bay Packers, told me for a book I wrote about the NFL in 2018. “You can lose touch with reality.”

The “reality” of football, such as it is, can be extremely different from the “reality” off the field. “Football was an island of directness in a world of circumspection,” wrote Frederick Exley in his classic 1968 “fictional memoir,” A Fan’s Notes. “There was nothing rhetorical or vague about it.”

Brady has said as much in a million different ways, and always made clear which version of “reality” he preferred. “Sports is very real-time,” he said in a podcast interview after he won his seventh and last Super Bowl, in early 2021. “What you see on that field from me is really me; it’s not an actor. This is my life. These are my real emotions. This is real joy. This is real anger. This is real disappointment. And those things are a really vulnerable place to be.”

Yet in some ways, I’ve never seen Brady so vulnerable as he has been in the years since that last championship, as he struggled with the wind-down of his playing days, his aborted retirement last February, his unretirement 40 days later, and the various other disorders served up by that other messy “reality” outside football. By then, his career plans had become their own annual cliff-hanger. When will Tommy finally quit? Retirement decisions are hard enough in private without everyone tossing out takes about whether you’re too old, acting selfishly, or need to leave. Joey in the White House can probably relate.

“You know, I’m 45 years old, man. There’s a lot of shit going on,” Brady said at a press conference this past August after an unexplained 11-day hiatus from training camp—not long before he would announce the end of his 13-year marriage to the model Gisele Bündchen. “So, you’ve just got to try to figure out life the best you can.”

What will Brady do with his life now? He says he will devote more time to his family, particularly his kids. In May of last year, Fox Sports announced a deal, reported at $375 million over 10 years, for Brady to call NFL games as soon as he finished playing. Brady’s announcement last week even ignited speculation—a mini-cliff-hanger!—that he would make his debut this weekend on Fox’s Super Bowl broadcast. But he spiked that idea when he told FS1’s Colin Cowherd that he would not begin his work for Fox until the fall of 2024. That would give Brady plenty of time to settle into a post-football routine, take up scuba diving, or maybe pursue a job opening as quarterback with his boyhood team, the San Francisco 49ers. (Kidding about the last one—sort of.)

At the very least, Brady now seems to have figured out how to retire smoothly, relative to last year’s stutter step of leaks, denials, and eventual reversal. His homemade 53-second video, filmed on a beach (apparently) in Florida, was praised as gracious and heartfelt. Several commentators observed that he seemed “at peace” with his decision, as if a burden had been lifted.

Maybe it has, but any aura of peace was lost on me. What struck me more was the waterless and overcast tableau of the video, the rows of high-rises in the background—Tom Brady all alone in a world of gray.