Sports superstitions are a bit silly. They’re even more absurd for fans, as if changing where or how we sit or what we wear can affect an event happening hundreds or thousands of miles away from us. Still, I have my pre-game traditions. Every football Sunday (or Thursday or Monday), I listen to the same Patriots-themed playlist. I only dry clean my Tom Brady jersey after the season is over. And under that jersey, I wear the same t-shirt.
Given to me by my mother in January of 2002 after the Patriots’ first Super Bowl victory, an upset of the St. Louis Rams, the front reads “If you didn’t believe” and the back reads “don’t talk to me.” As most people only ever saw the back, it worked as a perfect social repellent for a freshman in college who just wanted to be left alone. Over the years, it became something more though.
Over the next three years, Brady led the Patriots to two more thrilling Super Bowl titles, establishing them as the most improbable dynasty ever. Then there was the 16-0 regular season. Then there was the 4th Super Bowl title 2 years ago. And all the success was possible because Brady never gave up. That truth is why I wear the shirt under my jersey. It reminds me what, underneath it all, makes Brady great, and to always believe in him and myself.
That belief has made me the calmest of fans. I’m always taking the game one play at a time while immediately considering how the result of that play changes what the Patriots have to do next in order to earn a win. It’s why, along with their excellent execution, I never overreact to a fumble or a good play by the other team. It’s usually all part of the plan. And if it isn’t, there’s almost always an escape route out that Brady engineers or inspires.
The daring escape I most remember was a regular season opener against the Buffalo Bills. It was Brady’s first game back after his 2008 season was lost to a devastating knee injury in that season opener–the game following the heartbreaking Super Bowl loss to end the perfect season. Even worse, the team didn’t even make the playoffs without him. Was the Patriots’ magic gone?
Had that crushing 1-2 punch of games knocked out the Patriots for years as it would most franchises? Take, for example, what happened to last year’s Super Bowl losers, the Carolina Panthers. After going 17-1, they were destroyed by the Denver Broncos. In the subsequent season opener, they again lost to the Broncos, this time by 1 point with their kicker missing a field goal with nine seconds left. Their star quarterback Cam Newton hasn’t looked the same as he did in that 17-1 run since.
On Monday Night Football on September 19th, 2009 in Gillette Stadium, it looked like the same thing was going to happen to the Patriots. Down by 11 points with 5 minutes and 32 seconds remaining in the game, the team would need two quick touchdown drives and a quick stop of a Buffalo offense that had been moving the ball well all night. Except it didn’t happen at all. Tom Brady took over, and Buffalo didn’t possess the ball again (besides technically) until there were 50 seconds left and they were down by a point.
First, Brady led a 3 and a half minute drive that culminated in an 18 yard touchdown pass to tight end Benjamin Watson. On the ensuing kickoff, Patriots linebacker Pierre Woods forced Buffalo return man Leodis McKelvin to fumble, and suddenly the Patriots had the ball at the Buffalo 31 with 2 minutes and 6 seconds left and three timeouts. What seemed impossible only a few minutes ago now seemed like a foregone conclusion. And it was as Brady threw a nearly identical touchdown pass to Watson (this time for 16 yards) with :55 seconds left as the Patriots radio announcer yelled “Tom Brady you are Tom Terrific.” The defense held, and the second half of Brady’s career had begun with fireworks, and my belief was renewed.
Over the years I’ve seen Brady stage many such comebacks, from his previous four Super Bowl wins to the 2013 regular season game against the New Orleans Saints. Yet still, in the third quarter of Super Bowl LI, I defied Journey and stopped believing. At halftime, the Patriots were down 21-3 to the Atlanta Falcons. Worse yet, the Falcons were going to get the ball first. My estimation was that the defense needed a big stop and the offense needed to score on the subsequent drive. Otherwise, the combination of the score and clock would be too much to overcome. The defense delivered on their first drive, but the offense didn’t on theirs. The Falcons scored another touchdown after getting the ball back, ballooning the score to 28-3 with a quarter and a half left in the game, and I finally conceded the result.
I gave up, not because I saw the Falcons as some unstoppable opponent or anything, but because the Patriots just hadn’t made enough plays to get the scoreboard or the clock on their side. And when both of those things are your enemy, winning is basically impossible. That fact is why my mind started to retreat. It didn’t matter that Brady was leading a long scoring drive. My eyelids became heavy. My excitement disappeared. I was watching out of nothing more than loyalty.
What happened from that point on is, of course, well documented history. Brady led the greatest comeback in Super Bowl–no, football–history, emphatically hammering the nail into any allegations of cheating and greatest quarterback of all time arguments. And I was as shocked as anyone that it happened. Don’t misunderstand me. At a certain point, my belief in Brady returned and rose to the point that when the Patriots got the ball back with a chance to tie I screamed “We have three and half minutes and three times outs, and we have Tom Brady. We have Tom Brady! WE HAVE TOM BRADY!”
It was an epiphany I never thought I would have again. Over the past 15 years, belief in Brady has become such a constant in my life that I use it as inspiration to believe in myself. Part of my calm on game days comes from the knowledge that we have Brady, and part of my drive on all other days is the knowledge of what Brady had to go through to become Brady. And here on one glorious Super Bowl Sunday was a microcosm of it all.
Everything that was said about Brady as a NFL prospect was said about the Patriots in the lead up to the game. They couldn’t keep up with the faster, younger, more athletic Falcons. They didn’t have an impressive pedigree as they had played a weak schedule. And though the betting lines favored them, most people were picking or cheering against them. Then the game started and somehow Brady became the forgotten underdog again (except by Falcons receiver Taylor Gabriel, apparently). I was just as guilty of viewing him that way as anyone was. And therein is the magic of the comeback.
Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback of all time, found a way to thrill and wow me, one of his most ardent supporters, one more time. It’s fitting as One More was the marketing slogan the Patriots used for this playoff run. It captured desire for another title as well as hinting at something final. And truthfully, there was something final about this championship. Never again will I, nor should anyone, be surprised or amazed by anything Brady does on the football field.
He fought through Deflategate and the accompanying four game suspension, his mother’s battle with cancer (I presume that disease is what she has), and a 25 point 3rd quarter deficit to win his record setting 5th Super Bowl title and 4th Super Bowl MVP. Super Bowl LI was the climax of Tom Brady’s career. He may play another 3-5 years as he stated he wants to and may win another Super Bowl or two, but none of it will be more than an epilogue to what he has already done. Super Bowl LI and everything that led up to and went into it can never be topped (possibly by anyone ever).
At first, I found it difficult to celebrate the victory as the awareness of that finality brought a sadness. I witnessed the greatest moment in Brady’s career. That’s it. It’s in the past. But then I realized how freeing that moment was. Somehow, Brady was able to make me feel that wonder and inspiration and renew my belief one more time. For that experience, I will always be grateful. And now, over the next few years, all that’s left to do is appreciate him.
Now it’s time for his curtain call. May he receive all the standing ovations he deserves. The doubts, debates, and controversies are over. Tom Brady is a household name that is synonymous with greatness.
He earned it every day, and Super Bowl LI was his greatest.