Legends Grow Old, Tom Brady Just Walked Away

Tom Brady
Tom Brady / TIMOTHY A. CLARY/GettyImages

Tom Brady leaving the New England Patriots in March of 2020 was a bit devastating for me, a home-grown Patriots fan who had only ever known football with Brady under center in Foxborough. But, as we all come to know, life goes on no matter how significant a change feels in the moment. The Patriots, predictably, struggled without an all-time great quarterback on the roster. Brady went to Tampa Bay and had two picturesque Brady seasons. The first ended in a Super Bowl championship, his seventh, and the second ended prematurely in the divisional round, but not before Brady put on a show with a massive comeback he had no right to make.

That coda to Brady's career has run its course as the best player to step foot on a field announced his retirement via his social media channels on Tuesday, February 1, 2022. The career obituaries and tributes have been pouring in since Saturday, when Adam Schefter and Jeff Darlington initially broke the news that he planned to hang up the cleats.

Despite the obvious significance of the occasion, it is hard to find words to describe it. What can you say, really, about Tom Brady that hasn't already been said? After 22 freaking years, I find it to be impossible -- even if this last challenge, retirement, the downslope of life, is one of the very few Brady has yet to face.

Like every legend of sport, Brady was everything everyone says he was and more. He was the ultimate winner in NFL history, miles ahead of all his peers in every conceivable postseason statistic with unbreakable benchmarks scattered throughout the record book. He pushed the boundaries of the rule book and suffered the consequences for it (we New Englanders are allowed to admit something was a little shady about Deflategate now that Brady is done). He was a fiery competitor, an outlier in all regards, an underdog whose story will never again be replicated in any fashion. In his best moments, he was inevitable, a force of nature who could not and would not be denied.

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Unlike every other legend of sport, though, Brady did not walk away having fallen victim to Father Time, the enemy of all great athletes. It's a trope you'll see, read, and hear a lot as Brady's career is honored in every medium imaginable; Brady, never satisfied with any victory, finishing his career as the lone conqueror of age. In his final season, he led the NFL in passing yards and touchdowns. The final TD pass of his career, a 50-yard toss to Mike Evans, as majestic a deep throw you'll ever see, will serve as eternal proof that Brady never fell off physically.

Once a lifetime, a player comes along whose excellence is so outlandish next to his contemporaries that his shadow will loom over everyone and everything in the game, forever. Brady is that player for football. It is fitting, then, that he leaves the game on his own terms to the degree we've never seen before. Some players have gone out on a higher note than Brady did. Others managed to stick around for longer than Brady will. But nobody in sports history left the game as Brady has, walking away two decades after he started while still inarguably one of the best players at his position.

Fans will throw out the phrase "even legends grow old" to reassure one another that, even for their very favorite athletes, the end comes eventually. Declining play due to age is the one great equalizer that affects everyone who has ever played, regardless of how they are remembered. It is comforting for anybody who grows old to remember that even their heroes went through the aging process, but it gives even more solace because it's true for everybody, no matter what. Pick any all-time great from any sport to prove it. Look at Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky, titans of their individual professions who were forced to give up because their bodies failed them. Because they grew old.

Brady didn't grow old. He is older, yes; he walks away in his mid-40s with a big family, numerous outside interests to distract himself with, and greying hair. But he's not stepping away because he grew old. He's stepping away because he decided he's done. There's nothing left to accomplish. Brady's final act is the one that puts him above everybody else -- he snatched the decision to retire out of the hands of Father Time.

This will ultimately be the legacy of Tom Brady. Stats will be pulled and superlatives will be applied in an attempt to capture the essence of who he was as a football player. But it's rather simple: Tom Brady did what nobody else could, and then kept doing it. Over and over again. He retires with no mountain left to climb, no obstacle remaining. He will forever be the ultimate benchmark all others will be measured against.

In the end, Tom Brady did not grow old. He just walked away. And his legend will never die.