Former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson was in the middle of a rant about the NFL’s decision to hold free agency during a global health crisis when the news broke. “They want to maximize on this time, when no other sports are being played …” he said late in the third hour of Tuesday’s Toucher & Rich, the popular morning Boston sports talk radio show.
He didn’t get to finish his thought. For a moment, there was something more pressing to discuss than a pandemic and social distancing. “Hang on, hang on, stop, stop, stop, stop, stop,” interjected Jon Wallach, the show’s newsperson. “Tom Brady just tweeted this out.”
By now, most are familiar with what that statement consisted of: Brady, the 20-year NFL veteran and six-time Super Bowl champion, announced on social media that he would not return to the Patriots, the only franchise he’d ever known. A few hours later, news broke that he would reportedly sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But just before 9 a.m. ET, Wallach read Brady’s posts aloud for the first time—to himself, to his cohosts, and to a region that had been anxiously awaiting the quarterback’s decision for the better part of the past year. When he got to the reveal—“Although my football journey will take place elsewhere”—the pitch of Wallach’s voice rose. “Tom Brady is leaving,” he said before continuing on with the rest. Before long, a producer was playing the apocalyptic sounds of “O Fortuna,” and a new reality was setting in around greater New England.
“Oh boy,” said cohost Fred Toucher. “This is going to be weird.”
Tuesday was Tom Brady Departure Day—a day that everyone knew was possible, but that nonetheless rocked the sports world to its core. And New England’s two leading sports radio stations became its ground zero. For years, WEEI and 98.5 The Sports Hub have served as Boston sports fans’ communal space, where victories have been celebrated, conspiracies have been theorized, and axes have been grinded. Beginning last August, after reports surfaced that Brady might play elsewhere in 2020, the stations also became hubs for overzealous, amateur sleuths: Did Brady buy a house in Greenwich, Connecticut? What message was he trying to send with that Hulu ad? Was he looking to enroll his kids in a Nashville school?
On Tuesday, however, the two stations were reduced to outlets of grief for a fan base that hadn’t experienced much of it in the past two decades. The Kübler-Ross model was broadcast for hours: There was denial (“This thing is not a done deal,” warned Andrew, a Patriots fan calling from Orlando), bargaining (Gary in Rhode Island held out hope for a Jimmy Garoppolo homecoming), and sadness. (“It’s like being out in the school yard, and the bully’s beating you up, and then you get down, and he kicks you right in the head,” said Mike from Dracut.)
If there was a consistent refrain throughout the day, though, it was anger. And most of it was directed at one person. Shortly after Brady posted his statement online, a narrative took hold that head coach Bill Belichick had essentially forced the three-time MVP out of town. The relationship between the Patriots’ chief personnel decision-maker and star quarterback has been the subject of palace intrigue for years. It’s been the focus of breathlessly reported investigations, even if some say that any coach-QB rift was overblown. But as fans wrestled with anxiety and angst, Belichick became the natural scapegoat. In the days leading up to Tuesday, he spent the team’s limited available cap space by bringing back the McCourty twins and tendering guard Joe Thuney with the franchise tag. The talking point took hold that he prioritized those players over Brady—and possibly made little effort to retain him despite having no quarterbacks on the roster beyond 2019 fourth-rounder Jarrett Stidham and Cody freaking Kessler.
Boston’s talk radio denizens hammered Belichick for his handling of the situation, none more so than Sports Hub host and former Patriots backup quarterback Scott Zolak, who flipped a few chairs in the studio upon hearing the news. “I am angry, confused, concerned,” he said. “I know everything has an ending. What I’m upset about is the bizarre, awkward ending.” The callers weren’t much more understanding. Tony calling from his truck couldn’t believe that Belichick might have cast Brady aside as easily as he did the Danny Amendolas of the world. Adam from Braintree blasted the coach’s affinity for “nifty little special teamers” and said this shtick will wear thin on “Mr. Kraft” now that the quarterback is gone. (Yes, many ostensibly grown adults in New England refer to Patriots owner Robert Kraft as “Mr. Kraft” in everyday conversation.) Michelle in Rockland said that her allegiance will follow Brady wherever he goes; as for the Pats, “I want them to fall flat on their ass,” she said. “0-16.” But no one summed up the situation as succinctly as Toucher & Rich’s first caller after the news broke—a man, of course, named Sully.
“Yeah, um, I’m completely pissed off at Belichick and how he handled this entire situation,” Sully said. “All Brady wanted was a salary that made sense after 20 years and six championships, and he couldn’t even get that?”
Across town, on WEEI’s airwaves, Dale Arnold opened his afternoon show, Dale & Keefe, by saying that “we found something to push self-quarantine and COVID-19 off the front of our attention span around here.” Arnold also lamented how there were no open watering holes at which Pats fans could drown their sorrows—on St. Patrick’s Day in Boston, no less. A handful of first-time/long-times echoed his sentiments. Take Rick in Plymouth, who called Tuesday one of the “darkest days in Boston sports history.” “I’ve got no Bruins, I’ve got no Red Sox, now I’ve got no damn Tom Brady.”
Rick at least fared better than Tony in Bridgewater, whose attempts to steel himself for this moment didn’t quite work. “It’s like having a friend that’s dying, and suddenly, 17, 18 months later, you hear he’s passed away,” Tony said. “You’re sad, but you’ve been ramping up to it.” (“Jesus,” muttered Arnold’s cohost, Rich Keefe, in response.)
These are bleak times in New England, where the sky can feel like it’s falling on even the sunniest of days. And bleak times can lead to bleaker questions, many of which were asked on the radio Tuesday. Is Patriots backup-cum-de-facto-starter Jarrett Stidham worthy of a shot? (One caller thought Belichick was moving on to Stidham because of nepotism, the meaning of the word nepotism be damned.) Would Andy Dalton and Nick Foles be suitable replacements for Brady? (The pros and cons of each quarterback were discussed in lengthy diatribes, typically preceded by deep sighs.) And most distressingly of all: How did the Patriots let Brady get away … to the Buccaneers? (“Tom Brady is a Four Seasons kind of guy,” said Sports Hub host Tony Massarotti. “Tampa is strip joints. It’s America’s colon, and they’re asking Brady to perform a colonoscopy.”)
Amid the doomsaying, bad vibes, and debates over quarterbacks who could be jettisoned from the Bengals and Jaguars, Boston radio found room for celebrations, at least of sorts. Both prominent stations rolled out lengthy montages, one set to Green Day’s “Time of Your Life” and the other to U2’s “With or Without You.” The highlights these contained were plentiful. There were clips from draft night in 2000, when Brady fell to New England at pick no. 199; from the dynasty’s first Super Bowl win in February 2002; from oft-forgotten moments, like a regular-season comeback win over the Saints in 2013; and from the most recent run of championships, culminating in the Super Bowl LIII triumph against the Rams. But how do you sum up a two-decade run unlike anything in football history in a few 60-second spots? Can you memorialize the breakup of the greatest coach-QB duo ever with sad bumper music and platitudes? It turns out that this is hard to do, especially on the day the divorce is announced.
Tom E. Curran, an NBC Sports Boston reporter and 40-year Patriots fan who appeared on Dale & Keefe on Tuesday, tried his best to put the news in perspective. As much as he wanted to assign blame for Brady’s exit, he was appreciative, partly because of everything the quarterback had done for the franchise, and partly because of what the team’s unprecedented run has afforded him and other local media personalities. “The success that I’ve had professionally is not completely because I happen to be adept with words,” he said. “It’s because of who I’m covering. If I had been covering the Browns, the Cardinals, who knows.”
That last part gets at what the Patriots fans are truly angry about. Yes, it hurts to lose the greatest quarterback of all time, someone whose ubiquity in New England predates many friendships, marriages, and children. But what likely hurts more is the idea of the Pats going back to being just another football team. Before Mo Lewis knocked Drew Bledsoe out of a game in 2001 and thrust Brady into action, the Patriots were an also-ran, defined by a long history of disappointment. The 19 years since then have been a gift for Boston fans, even if radio debates haven’t always treated it as such. With Brady leaving, the dynasty is dead, fans may have to worry about the AFC East standings for the first time in a generation, and an entire region is left to process its emotions on the airwaves.
“From the fan perspective, it’s a huge loss,” Mary from Hartford said on the Sports Hub. “I’m a person that never listened to sports radio in my life, but Tom Brady brought me to you guys.”
Of course, Brady also brought her to people like Paul from Revere, a caller who said that he hoped Tuesday kicked off “the Brady curse.” “They’re not going to win crap, and I hope they don’t win anything ever again,” he said.
Fred Toucher was right. This is going to be weird.