Tom Brady is leaving the Patriots. That's an unbelievable sentence to type out. For how much the world has changed since the turn of the century, Brady and the New England Patriots have been one of the few constants. No matter who the president is, or what state the economy is in, or what disease poses a threat to society as we know it, Brady would be in Patriot white and he'd be in the playoffs as the very personification of inevitability.
Until he isn't.
For someone like me, a 24-year-old who grew up in the Boston area, life without Brady is literally unimaginable (unless you're one of those people who claim to have vivid memories before the age of four, in which case you're probably lying anyway). By the time I was nine, he had won three Super Bowls. By the time I was 12, he had put together the greatest statistical campaign by any quarterback in NFL history to date. I watched him win three championships, lose two, and win three more. I lived and died with each pass attempt, the best player on my favorite team in my favorite sport.
I wrote countless essays throughout the years about how Tom Brady was my hero. His story is the underdog story to end all underdog stories. I reveled in the spite and hatred spewed his way when the narrative eventually turned and he became so good it was easier to root against him than for him. Brady was our guy, the embodiment of the blue-collar, work-harder-than-everyone-else spirit that New England loves to embrace as the bedrock of the region, no matter how true it is anymore. For myself and millions of others, football was Tom Brady, and Tom Brady was football.
Yet football is never just football, just as sports are never just sports. The past week has hammered home really how much we all rely on sports as an outlet, an escape from our real-world problems, however brief it may be. The NFL, as the king of American sports, is the most prominent way for us all to connect on a common topic and band together in an attempt to avoid thinking about reality for a little while. As the face of the best franchise in football for two full decades, Brady become synonymous with that escape in Boston. He progressed from hometown favorite to beloved superstar to folk hero to a god in the eyes of a generation of sports fans.
Which brings us to today, this fateful day that saw that a god look around at what he had built and decide it was time to leave of his own volition. It wasn't like Brett Favre in Green Bay, who retired before he ended up playing again. It wasn't like Peyton Manning, whose departure was written on the walls after he missed an entire year due to a neck injury. To cross sports, it wasn't like Derek Jeter, who had the storybook ending send-off, finishing his last season with the team he's been with his entire career on a walk-off single. It wasn't like Michael Jordan, who went the same way as Favre. Someone of Brady's stature and tenure doesn't just up and leave in today's game. Until he does. Until he did.
There will be a sect of Patriots fans who immediately declare their allegiance to Belichick and downplay Brady's importance to the team's success over the years. Those fans are doing it wrong. When the greatest quarterback in history decides to leave, you can't be bitter that it happened. He's given all of us far too many good memories to look back upon to let that happen.
Every sports fan remembers the first player they became enamored with, the one that got them into the game in the first place. Answers come in all shapes and sizes; sometimes it's a guy on the end of the bench who played five snaps in his career, other times it's the team's superstar. Mine just so happened to be the greatest football player ever. I feel quite lucky for that. Not only has Brady given me most of my greatest sports memories, celebrating with friends and family alike, he set me on a path that led to this post-- a place where I have a platform to try and put into words what a Herculean figure like Brady means to me.
Now, the future begins. The Patriots will pivot and try to find a long-term successor. Brady will embark upon his own unique journey of playing in a different building with different coaches in a different system for the first time since Bill Clinton was president. The rest of us have a few months to accept that we'll be seeing Brady in a different professional uniform for the first time in our lives. For those like me, who have come to rely on him as one of the few constants in life, it will be hard.
Does this hurt? You bet it does. Do I expect any of you to feel bad for the members of Pats nation who will sleepwalk through the rest of this week, heartbroken? No, I do not. Everyone, not just Patriots fans, knew at some level that all good things come to an end. This just isn't the end that anyone in New England envisioned. For that reason, it hurts far more than I thought it would.
Tom Brady will never again don a Patriots uniform, and that makes me sad. It will be a long time before football Sunday will feel like it has for all of my life. But he's given us all far more than he's taking away with this decision. He came in as a complete unknown. He leaves as the best quarterback to grace the field. I and millions of others were lucky enough to walk with him on this journey-- not side-by-side, but as close as sports fans like to imagine. For that, I am grateful.