I’m terrified. According to NESN, the next issue of ESPN the Magazine is going to “include an essay…on ‘how fans should think about quarterback Tom Brady’s polarizing legacy,’ a story on ‘what it means to love, and hate, Tom Brady.'” How fans should think about Tom Brady’s polarizing legacy? Thank you ESPN, for doing your part as a member of the mainstream media with your paternalism. How about just showing people what reality is and letting them decide what they should think? Oh, that’s right. You can’t be straightforward and honest. The only reason some people hate Brady at all is because of your consistent smear jobs.

Yesterday, I published a piece on what it means to hate the New England Patriots. I didn’t tell you not to hate them. I simply said why they don’t deserve to be hated and hinted at why they are. I’m sure ESPN will give you your fill of why hating them is not only justifiable but admirable. And that approach is exactly why I’m worried. In today’s day and age, what could they possibly say it means to love Tom Brady? We’re living in a culture where the New York Daily News ran an article that says he’s basically evil for being friends with Donald Trump because not only is Trump a rich, old, white male but he’s a racist, xenophobic rapist. So, if Brady is evil for not denouncing Trump, what are those of us who cheer Brady every Sunday in the Fall that he’s allowed to play?

The experience of loving Brady, at least if you’re from New England, is something I’ve never seen fully expressed. Sitting on the eve of his seventh Super Bowl appearance (and possibly fifth Super Bowl victory) near the end of an almost mindbogglingly successful career may be the perfect time to do so–especially as ESPN is almost certainly not going to give you the the full, true story. Allow me, who was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, the second most populous city in New England, in 1983 to a father who has had Patriots season tickets since 1973 to explain.

I’ve been known to say that Brady and head coach Bill Belichick changed my life. That statement is no exaggeration. Though to you Boston may be a city of champions, I grew up in the middle of an embarrassingly futile championship drought. I was three years old in 1986 when Larry Bird’s Celtics won their final NBA title. In that same year the Patriots got blown out so badly by the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl that the my dad left at halftime. I tried to make Bird a hero, dressing up like him for a biographical book report in elementary school. But I was reliving the glory years of my father’s fandom, not my own. For me, the Celtics were the team whose future stars died, and they, along with the Bruins, Patriots, and Red Sox never won–especially the hapless Patriots and cursed Red Sox. Hell, I even sat in the stadium with my family for years to witness the futility of the New England Revolution after they were founded in 1996.

Basically, to me, losing wasn’t a possibility, it was destiny. And this acceptance was reinforced by the political culture. Massachusetts was the land of the Kennedys, American royalty as my grandmother described them, where the man was out to keep you down and the only force that could fight him was the government. Much of the political perspective lingers, but the cultural context has changed drastically, at least for me. And it’s all thanks to Tom Brady.

The Fall of 2001 brought the tragic “where were you when” moment of 9/11 for most Americans. It also brought Super Bowl 36 for Boston sports fans. I’ll never forget cramming into a dorm room with a bunch of other 18 and 19 year olds at Ithaca College expecting the Greatest Show on Turf to roll over the Pats. A set of twin girls who knew nothing about football prattled on all game about how good looking Brady was. The Pats took an improbable lead and saw it slowly slip away. Then the previously impossible happened. With 1 minute and 30 seconds left in a tie game, Brady, armed with no timeouts, led his offense into field goal range, and as time expired, the Patriots won the Super Bowl. I was flabbergasted. I was ecstatic. I ran around campus because I didn’t know what else to do with my energy.

Two years later Brady led the team to a second title in Super Bowl 38. Then, in the same year, the perennially disappointing Boston Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years. Then the Patriots won Super Bowl 39. Then in 2007 the Red Sox won the World Series again. Then in 2008 the Boston Celtics won their first NBA Championship since 1986. Somehow, Boston had become the city of champions. Somehow, winning was now possible–and it was all thanks to Tom Brady.

In the wake of the Patriots 9th AFC Championship and the news of Brady’s friendship with President Donald Trump, a friend asked me if there is a such thing as winner’s momentum, where people like Brady and Trump inspire and feed off of each other’s success. I don’t know. With Brady, such a thing doesn’t seem likely because somehow he is internally motivated. As Belichick teaches, he has learned to ignore the noise and focus on what he needs to do. I do know, though, that Brady has inspired me and others like me. Correctly or incorrectly, we identify with him. Take this TMZ video of WWE superstar and West Newbury, MA native John Cena for example:

It’s easy to understand why Cena sees his life as parallel to Brady’s. Not only is he the same age as Brady, but he signed with the WWE in 2001 and debuted in June 0f 2002, 5 months after the Patriots’ epic first Super Bowl victory. But Cena’s belief actually runs bit deeper than these temporal similarities. His initial response to the cameraman calling the team “your Patriots” is straight out of the school of Belichick. He then goes on to explain what makes them great. “They don’t need to get hype…they just do really, really well.” And the sentence he follows that assessment with is the most important:

“Same with me.”

Here’s a man who is one of the most successful professional wrestlers ever. He’s on the verge of tying Ric Flair’s record for most World Championships. Still, he finds himself drawn to Brady and the Patriots because their story is similar to his. Their success certainly fuels him in the way my friend described. And Cena’s success in turn fuels other professional wrestlers and Boston natives. It’s no coincidence that Brady has forged friendships with other Boston storytellers Mark Wahlberg and Ben Affleck. I know because I see the parallels between Brady and myself, many born of the regional influences on my upbringing, and recognize him as a kindred spirit.

Tom Brady rewrote his story and the story of New England sports. So many lives, including my own, were never the same again as we recognized that it’s not about the man or a curse holding us down. It’s about you loving what you do and working hard to “earn it every day.” (In fact, on the January 24th edition of Smackdown, Cena basically quoted Brady, “And I never, never talk about what I deserve or how many critics I got. I just earn every day and shut every mouth.” ) Watching, admiring, and understanding Brady showed us that truth.

And, despite what ESPN or anyone else says, that’s what it means to love Tom Brady.

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