On Tuesday morning, Tom Brady announced his retirement from playing in the NFL in a post on his social media accounts.
“I have always believed the sport of football is an ‘all-in’ proposition—if a 100% competitive commitment isn’t there, you won’t succeed, and success is what I love so much about our game,” Brady wrote. “This is difficult for me to write, but here it goes: I am not going to make that competitive commitment anymore. I have loved my NFL career, and now it is time to focus my time and energy on other things that require my attention.”
It was a long post, fitting for a 22-year career. CVS-receipt long. Brady thanked the Buccaneers owners, general manager Jason Licht, Bruce Arians, the entire Bucs coaching staff, “the entire Tampa-St. Petersburg region,” his trainer and business partner Alex Gurerrero, and his agents, Don Yee and Steve Dubin. He mentioned NFTs and athleisure.
He did not, however, mention Bill Belichick or the Patriots. You may have noticed this; if you listened to a minute of Boston sports radio on Tuesday you are certainly aware of it. Brady was drafted by the Patriots and spent the vast majority of his NFL career playing for New England but did not publicly mention them on the day of his retirement until he reposted a statement by owner Robert Kraft on his Instagram Story. “Thank you Patriots and Patriot Nation,” Brady captioned the post. “Beyond grateful and love you all.”
You can probably guess this was not universally well-received in the six states of New England. During the 45 minutes or so I spent listening to Boston sports radio stations on Tuesday afternoon, callers hypothesized that the snub was actually a sign that Brady was going to (1) sign a one-day contract in New England and retire a Patriot, (2) return to Foxborough to replace Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator and develop Mac Jones, or (3) run for public office in Florida, necessitating a focus on those would-be constituents. Theories varied, but most callers were not pleased to not have been thanked in Brady’s initial statement. His Instagram Story, apparently, made it worse—Brady was acknowledging the Patriots, yes, but only in the same way he was acknowledging, say, Golf Digest, whose post he also reshared with a caption.
There is baggage here, of course. The split between Brady and the Patriots after the 2019 season was not exactly amicable. ESPN’s Seth Wickersham reported then that Brady had wanted a contract that would have ensured he’d retire a Patriot but that Belichick was reluctant to make a long-term commitment to a player in his 40s and that the two had a meeting end in “a blowup,” after which Brady knew he would leave the team. Brady and Belichick had unprecedented success together, but had also clashed through the years over things like Alex Guerrero’s training practices and earlier contract extensions. Wickersham also reported that, as early as 2017, Brady had told friends he didn’t want to play for Belichick anymore, worn down by his hard-driving style.
Then he went to Tampa, won a Super Bowl, and seemed to have a very good time. He started posting memes. He joked about election deniers with Joe Biden at the White House, wisecracking that “40 percent still don’t think we won the Super Bowl.” He made dad jokes in his press conferences. He drank tequila and threw the Lombardi Trophy off a boat at the Buccaneers’ parade.
“It’s nice that I’ve found my voice more,” Brady said last offseason. “I really enjoy being around my teammates, my coaches. It’s been a different environment.”
The Buccaneers wanted Brady to be himself. They wanted him to be the main event. They included him in personnel decisions and let him get more and more involved with building businesses off the field while he was playing there. He also bent Tampa Bay’s offense to his will, first adapting with ease to Arians’s offensive system, which emphasizes deep passes, then incorporating more and more of the short-passing concepts, motion, and play-action he’d used so often in New England into Tampa Bay’s game plans. The Buccaneers were never going to define Brady, but they were perfectly happy to let him redefine them for two years, something he seemed to relish. A team that would allow a global superstar to be a global superstar, express himself freely, and tell his own story was, at that point in Brady’s career, a more natural fit than one reliant on hierarchy and consistency.
None of that is a knock on the Patriots. New England has a different culture and much longer-sustained success than the Buccaneers do. Even as Brady thanked Arians in his post, he did so by saying, “Thanks for putting up with me!” Who knows whether that could have lasted five years, let alone 20. And a funny thing happened as Brady got some distance from New England: The frost between him and Belichick seemed to thaw, at least a bit. In October, when the Buccaneers beat the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, Belichick went to the Tampa Bay locker room after the game and talked privately with Brady for more than 20 minutes. Brady’s Man in the Arena docuseries on ESPN is largely dedicated to his time in New England. It wouldn’t be the first time two people with different personalities who’d simply gotten sick of each other mended fences after some healthy time apart.
That doesn’t explain the omission of the Patriots in Brady’s post. Maybe he never will, or maybe there will be some additional video or tribute planned in the future. Maybe there are still too many open wounds. But perhaps it’s also complicated for Brady to weave New England into his retirement while still expressing himself as an individual given what they did as a collective.
Brady became a superstar as a Patriot and, together, they were the story of the league for two decades. During that time, though, Brady’s story became bigger than football alone. He became a global star, with name recognition among many who could not name a single other NFL player. He was referenced in song lyrics, modeled clothes, hosted Saturday Night Live, and married Gisele Bündchen, supermodel mogul who is recognizable internationally by only her first name. At times, this was tough to square with a team culture in which nothing is supposed to be bigger than football. Many people know the name Bill Belichick, but no one has ever snapped his photo at the Met Gala.
Few players in NFL history become bigger than the teams they play for—player movement is so routine and careers are so short that fans are used to rooting for teams over individuals, even stars, as rosters churn and reiterate themselves over and over. Brady was different, even if the very team and culture he outgrew was an essential part of how he became a singular figure. In the ultimate team game, Brady’s legacy is as an individual, particularly after his final two seasons in Tampa helped him write a final chapter apart from the only organization that could claim to eclipse his stardom. Brady didn’t retire as a Patriot, or as a Buccaneer, really. He did so as himself.