The Bathos of Brady
Why the greatest quarterback of all time struggled to leave the field
I’m sick of writing about Tom Brady.
You’re probably sick of reading about him. Now you know how the ancient Mesopotamians felt about Methuselah: Jeez, 969 years old—how many more hot takes do we need about when that priest is going to retire?
What we witnessed in the past year was the undead phase of Brady’s football career. The actual human version of that career ended, possibly, after his Super Bowl win with the Buccaneers, in 2021 or, more probably, with his short-lived retirement early in 2022. But Brady shambled on, liminal, cadaverous, desiccated (compare his sunken, middle-aged cheeks of 2023 with the chubby baby face of his early seasons), his demeanor on the field alternately forlorn and enraged. But as fans of The Walking Dead or The Last of Us know, the undead can be lethal.
Zombie Tom Brady, even in his final undead year, at age 45, still led the NFL in passing attempts and completions, still engineered a few astonishing fourth-quarter comebacks, and, in his playoff loss to the Cowboys, devoid of an effective running game to assist him, threw a remarkable 66 passes, for 351 yards and two touchdowns. In some ways, the undead Brady is not so physically distinguishable from the pre-undead Brady, who even as a young man staggered around outside the pocket like a mummy who had missed too many Pilates classes.
He remains the greatest quarterback of all time. But what an annus horribilis the past year has been for him. Brady began 2022 by botching the rollout of his (first) retirement announcement: Word of it leaked before a Super Bowl in which he wasn’t competing, which made him appear narcissistic and graceless. Then he alienated his religiously devoted New England fans by failing to acknowledge them in his farewell letter. Then, 40 days later, he unretired, reportedly against the wishes of his family. Then he was rumored to have gotten his Tampa Bay coach, Bruce Arians, kicked upstairs to a front-office job in favor of Todd Bowles, who he thought—wrongly, as it turned out—would oversee an offense more to his liking. Then he got separated and divorced from his supermodel wife, who was manifestly unhappy with his decision to return to the field. Then he lost an estimated $93 million in crypto when the FTX exchange collapsed. Then he got sued, as part of a class-action lawsuit, for endorsing crypto in advertisements and allegedly gulling hapless ordinary investors into losing their savings. Then he endured the first and only losing season of football in his entire life, and a peremptory early playoff exit. It’s like he combined the nadirs of Bernie Madoff, Billy Joel, and Mark Sanchez into a single, ignominious year.
To follow up his trumpets-and-fanfare retirement by unretiring not even two months later seemed undignified. Sure, Michael Jordan unretired, and so did Gordie Howe, and George Foreman, and Michael Phelps, and Mario Lemieux—but all of them at least allowed a respectable amount of time to elapse before returning. And most of them came back to achieve more glory. Jordan, after his quixotic foray into Minor League Baseball, carried the Chicago Bulls deep into the NBA playoffs right away, and then to three straight NBA championships. Foreman came back and, at age 45, was crowned the oldest heavyweight boxing champion ever. Phelps came back to win five more Olympic gold medals (plus a silver). Lemieux came back after nearly four years away to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to the NHL conference finals—and his excuse for retiring in the first place was honorable, or at least exigent: He’d had cancer. Brady allegedly retired because his wife asked him to—and then he defied her wishes by returning to the NFL. “I have my concerns,” Gisele Bündchen told Elle in September. “This is a very violent sport, and I have my children and I would like him to be more present.”
He’d had a chance to go out on top, as the commentators say, after winning the 2021 Super Bowl. Had Brady left then, it would have been Pete Sampras–style (dropping the mic after winning his 14th Grand Slam at the US Open in 2002, never to be seen again) or Ted Williams–style (bidding Hub fans adieu with the ultimate swing of his bat in 1960): a final demonstration of athletic greatness imprinted on the national retina. Instead, he faded away, still a competent quarterback but no longer an elite one, and with an aura of bathos enshrouding him. In this, Brady’s unretirement was more like Michael Jordan’s quasi-forgotten second unretirement, when he came back to play for the Washington Wizards and was … just okay, a bloated and earthbound facsimile of his former godlike self; he, like Brady in his undead phase, reeked a little of the guy who’d stayed at the party a bit too long. Or, worse, of the college alum who keeps coming back to the frat house after he’s a little too old.
Why did Brady come back, when the dimming of his star was so clearly going to be the likely result, and when his family didn’t want him to play? Was the prospect of quotidian life outside the locker room that unbearable? Maybe. Many athletes struggle in retirement; after the intensity of meaning derived from professional sports—the brothers-in-arms camaraderie, the grueling effort and the sacrifice, and the commensurate potential rewards—normal life must seem awfully pallid in comparison. When you’ve played the conquering hero each week in front of a stadium full of 70,000 screaming spectators, with tens of millions more living and dying with your every move as they watch you on television, the absence of that adulation, and the diminution of the perceived stakes of your decisions and actions, must be hard to bear—as life on Elba must have been for Napoleon.
But the normal reasons for dreading retirement shouldn’t have applied in Brady’s case. Sure, postretirement gigs can be depressing. But it’s not like he’s looking to become a Walmart greeter. He’s already got a 10-year, $37.5-million-a-year job as a color commentator lined up with Fox. Some athletes go bankrupt after their pro career ends. Even if for some reason he decides to forgo his broadcasting job, that’s not likely to happen to Brady.
Brady’s status as the GOAT is secure; in the fullness of time, the slightly sad and tawdry final season will fade beneath his corona of achievements. But one of his secret weapons was his preternatural ability to know when to bail out of a play, when to get rid of the ball in order to live to fight another down. But then his instincts abandoned him. He couldn’t let go. He wanted, like Icarus, to stay aloft, to go still higher: more records to break, more wins, another Super Bowl ring. But in holding on to his career a tick too long, he lost his marriage, he lost his unbroken streak of winning seasons, and he lost—just a little of—the sheen of greatness.