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The Two Sides of Tom Brady

Brady perfectly embodied two archetypes of the modern athlete: a golden-boy football hero and a ruthless clinician, aware of every advantage available to him

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I have seen Tom Brady get angry. I’ve seen him throw his helmet. I’ve seen him smash his clipboard. His receivers? I’ve seen him shout at them. I’ve seen him berate them. I’ve seen him sulk in their general direction.

I’ve seen Brady express other emotions, too. I’ve seen him wearing a wide and slightly deranged-looking grin of joy. I’ve seen him cry, probably, though I can’t remember when. I’m sure I’ve seen him laugh. I’ve even seen Bill Belichick laugh, though never without thinking the sound had arrived with a tiny metal lunchbox and punched a tiny clock on the way out of his throat. Do your job, dry chuckle, or it’s the waiver wire for you.

I’ve been watching Tom Brady play football for more than two decades. Basically my whole adult life. I belonged to the first class at my college to be automatically assigned email addresses, and my first password, if you can believe this, was “bledsoe.” I’m not a Patriots fan or anything like that; I just loved watching Drew Bledsoe throw deep balls. Drew Bledsoe fans: We existed! We were a force! Astonishingly, I was never hacked.

I was there at the beginning of Brady’s career, 22 years ago, rooting against him on what seemed, at the time, like a searingly righteous Team Bledsoe platform. (I also thought Ryan Leaf would be a better NFL quarterback than Peyton Manning. Fortunately, I later learned everything there is to know about sports, and none of my predictions were ever wrong again.) I was there at the end of his career, three days ago, scrolling through dog pics on Instagram when the algorithm fed me his retirement announcement. For a second I was baffled: What sort of dog account would thank the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Then I got it. This was no dog account. This was the greatest quarterback of all time hanging up his cleats. Dogs can’t wear cleats, and in any case, a dog would have thanked Bob Kraft. They’re very loyal animals.

Over 22 years, I must have seen Tom Brady experience the full range of human emotions: pride, anxiety, disappointment, triumph. When I picture him, though? I don’t see them. Most great athletes exist in my mind in a state of heightened being. I see Ali flexing over Sonny Liston, Novak Djokovic ripping off his shirt, Mo Salah punching the air. When I picture Brady, I see the opposite. I see the blank, cool, affectless calm that made him such a strange island of serenity in the frenzy of an NFL play. There was always, and especially later in his career, something heroically boring about Brady. Most iconic athletes make your heart beat faster; he makes your blood pressure drop. My mind can’t quite connect him with strong emotions because for 22 years he seemed to thrive by negating strong emotions, like a pair of Bose headphones tuned to block out fight-or-flight stimuli.

The NFL is designed to annihilate calm, in both its players and its onlookers; like talk radio and pornography, it’s an engine whose function is arousal. Good quarterbacks are famously hard to come by because decision-making is integral to the job, and when your environment is screaming at you to flinch, panic, do something, hurry, good decisions become very hard to make. Cool-headedness, the skill of not being easily flustered, is a trait shared by all good pocket passers. But Brady took cool-headedness to the point where it sometimes became weird and even a little unsettling to watch. Look at most of his 51—almost 52!—fourth-quarter comebacks over the years. You get a sense of a player very slightly out of sync with everything else that’s happening on the field. It’s as if, the way some players are given a little more speed or a little more strength than other players, he’s been given a little more time. Not much more time. Maybe an extra tenth of a second on every play. But things move fast in the NFL. A tenth of a second is a lot.

Heroically boring—I truly don’t mean that as an insult. The power to tone down the havoc that follows every snap is the best attribute a quarterback can possess. Tone down the havoc enough—tame it—and you make it look kind of dull. That’s not to say Brady was dull to watch; he wasn’t. The drama just felt different. It was like, “Why isn’t that bear tearing you limb from limb?” “Because I’m gazing at it.” Almost everything Brady did off the field left me cold to some degree, right down to the way his woo-woo nutritional pseudoscience and friendship with Donald Trump foreshadowed the American right’s ongoing swerve into fantasy medicine. On the field, though … well, you don’t come across too many bear-hypnotists in your life as a fan. Watching Brady drop back to pass, study the coverage, swing back his arm—that moment of possibility felt subtly unlike anything else in sports. Everything was still moving; everything paused.

I sometimes think it’s that same quality, that curiously intense absence of intensity, that’s made Brady an iconic figure in two seemingly incompatible ways. He’s an old-fashioned, all-American, golden-boy football hero and he’s a ruthless clinician for the analytics age. Every important American athlete of around Brady’s generation—LeBron James is the most obvious example—has to have a romantic, buzzer-beating, individual-glory-winning side and a more abstract, managerial, almost bureaucratic side. One side appeals to an older type of sports fandom, the type where you imagine standing in the shoes of the star player in the climactic moment and basking in applause after making the championship-winning play. The other side appeals to the more detached and procedural model of sports fandom that’s emerged in the wake of fantasy sports and draft guides and video-game management sims. You’re an idol but you’re also a mogul, an executive. Brady nailed both sides of the equation.

Well, mostly he did. Obviously, no one who spent 20 seasons playing under Belichick had the chance to be a true franchise architect in the LeBron mold. Few NFL players do. But as a matter of style, when it came to the things he made you think about and the modes of experience with which he seemed to chime, Brady fit in with both extremes. He was half prom king, half CEO. He was even more of a CEO, for that matter, than the more obviously corporate Peyton Manning, whose leadership had more of middle management about it. Peyton appreciated everyone coming to the meeting and wanted to make sure we all got on the same page. Peyton knew the keyboard shortcuts in PowerPoint; Brady had a private elevator to the 54th floor. Peyton and the nerds were on a first-name basis, but the nerds worked for Brady. His assistant summarized their reports.

I don’t find myself having strong feelings about his retirement. I mean, I’m not sad about it. He’s 44. I had plenty of chances to watch him. Troy Aikman played in 159 total games, regular season and playoffs, in a Hall of Fame, 12-season NFL odyssey. Brady played in 330. He stayed in the league for an entire extra Aikman! He’s played in one less game than the Houston Texans franchise. Middle-aged athletes retire; time is cruel, but he had a lot of tenths of seconds.

However calm I feel about it, I’m sure he has strong feelings about his own retirement. I’m sure of it in the same way I’m sure he had strong feelings in every game he ever played—which is to say I know it notionally, without entirely believing it. It seems more apt to think of him leaving the game dispassionately, as coolly as he played it. It feels right to imagine him doing yet another thing most of us, in our own little collapsing pockets, can never quite manage to do—watching the future rush toward him and never batting an eye.