This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's May 13, 15th Anniversary issue, Mag 15. Subscribe today!
TOM BRADY doesn't have a Tom Brady Room in his Back Bay apartment. It's more of a Tom Brady Passage, wider than a hallway but thinner than a room, an "awkward space," he says as he enters it on a March morning. The shelves are packed with photos and trophies, mementos and tokens, all surrounding a flat-screen TV, and when you first walk in, you think, That's it? Brady could easily fill a room many times this size.
But there's a purpose in here, as subtle as its modesty, and to understand it, you have to understand this about Brady: When he wants something to be a reflection of himself, he labors over it. For instance, in high school, college and even in the NFL, Brady always washed his own car. Nobody could do it better. Nobody sweated every detail the way he did. And now, because he no longer washes his car -- "My wife would kill me for wasting water," he says -- spaces like this represent a part of him. In fact, Brady seems to have designed this passage for those who spend the most time in it, hoping they'll someday understand and appreciate everything that occurred in between the Michigan helmet on one side and the Patriots helmet on the other.
"The kids," he says.
BRADY HAS had a throwing coach since he was 15. For most of his life, that coach was Tom Martinez, whose picture hangs in the passage in Brady's apartment, a sketched portrait of a smiling older man with heavy eyebrows, dark eyes and a weathered face. Martinez was the coach at the College of San Mateo in California, and Brady first attended Martinez's football camp the summer before his freshman year of high school at local Serra High. Brady's father, Tom Sr., often tells a story about how Martinez coached Brady by empowering him. Brady was so anxious the night before his first start as a sophomore that he told his dad, "I forgot how to throw." They visited Martinez, who walked Brady to the field and said, "Just throw." And that's what Brady did, for three straight minutes. No magic, no whispering, just throwing until doubt seeped away. "A couple moments of reassurance," Tom Sr. says.
Two decades later, of course, Brady is a future Hall of Famer and entering the final act of his career. He says that his "first 13 years prepared me mentally and physically for my last seven." He has won and lost Super Bowls. He has been loved and reviled; he has won MVP awards and has watched -- after his knee injury in 2008 -- football move on without him. Most of all, he has kept it together. He has never self-destructed or posed for a mug shot or twisted himself in lies. Brady is a study in discipline and consistency -- he plays and wins -- in the face of the most extreme professional and personal life expansion of any athlete of his era. If the first stage of his career was defined by miracles and the second stage was somewhat diminished by them, in the third stage he's trying to summon magic again.
And so in February, Brady stood in the gym in his house in the Los Angeles hills with his new throwing coach, Tom House, the former major league pitcher whom Brady hired last year after Martinez died of a heart attack. Weeks after losing to the Ravens in the AFC championship game, Brady wanted to try something new. Maybe it would help, maybe it wouldn't. The point was to try. House prepared to put him through a beginner's version of the slice of torture he had designed for pitchers called the Fogel Drill: stepping and shuffling as fast as possible while making simulated throws for 30 seconds. Pitchers who've trained with House do four sets; House wanted Brady to try one. House set his timer, and Brady was off, shuffling and stepping, throwing right and left, and after 30 seconds, the color had drained from his face and he felt as if he might pass ?out. Hunched over, Brady looked at House and said, "How long will it take before I can do what the pitchers do?"
OF COURSE, Brady's kids don't care about helmets. They care only that this space gets as dark as a tunnel -- all the better for movies. But whenever Brady enters, he gravitates toward the pictures. Here he is in Africa, with the ONE campaign. Here he is with the Entourage cast, from his cameo years ago. Here is one with Joe Montana, his football idol, and as he points to it, he casually nods, still in awe, still in disbelief, still impressed, even though he'll be 36 when the season starts and has eclipsed his hero in almost every measure except championships. "Pretty cool," Brady says.
His voice is scratchy. His nose is stuffed. He has one of those parental colds that has lingered for weeks. Brady is a young father -- to sons Jack and Benjamin, ages 5 and 3, and 5-month-old daughter Vivian -- and an aging quarterback. But he says, "I feel like I'm 25," and he looks it too. Few wrinkles or grays. Slimmer, more sculpted than he was a decade ago. But the years show in subtle ways. Brady needs sleep more than he used to. His diet is stricter. He rarely drinks. He used to love to hit the bars after wins. Now he says he wants to go home, see his kids and crash. "You couldn't pay me to go out after a game."
That's right: Brady, once the vessel of quarterback glamour not seen since Joe Namath, is now a homebody. Brady, the consummate teammate, now considers himself "more coach than player." He advises the younger Patriots not to party too hard, and they earnestly nod as they quietly disregard him, the way he once disregarded those who offered him similar advice. At the same time, Brady tries to relate to them. Brady asked the teenage son of a buddy what music he likes so he'd know what the rookies would be listening to. "Gucci Mane? ASAP Rocky -- something like that?" Brady says. "I gotta download some music."
He's not much hipper at home. "You've Got a Friend in Me" from Toy Story is constantly stuck in his head. If he happens to zone out while thinking about football or pecking on his BlackBerry, his wife snaps him back to reality: "Is this a Tommy day or a family day?" He can't get a kiss from his kids unless he asks. When they say no, Brady replies, "No kisses for Daddy." Voilà -- he'll get a kiss. "Reverse psychology," he likes to say.
But if he's late returning calls because he's playing with his kids, he doesn't care. If he misses a night out with the guys to watch Toy Story -- again -- that's okay. Two challenges constantly circle in his head, both beyond his control: how to win another Super Bowl and how to raise balanced kids in an unbalanced celebrity world. When Brady remembers playing with other neighborhood kids in the street, he considers that his children will be raised in a gated house in the Los Angeles hills. Brady grew up overlooked; his kids are photographed even when Brady's parents take them to the playground. Brady grew up roaming the Candlestick Park bleachers; his kids sit in a luxury suite. Brady is neither whining nor seeking pity when he says, "How do you get your kids to understand that this is not the way the rest of the world is?"
THE TOM BRADY Passage, really, is a shrine to toppling things he can't control. And what Brady doesn't point out is as revealing as what he does. For instance, he breezes right by two mirrored and angular items: his Super Bowl MVP trophies. He easily could have won a third, maybe even a fourth or fifth, if the ball had bounced differently. "Could we win the Super Bowl every year?" Brady asks. "Of course -- and that's the goal. But the reality is based on injuries and different margins for error. In certain games, you have to be perfect, and if you're less than perfect, you're gonna get beat."
Brady has always amassed responsibility not only as a means of control but as a path to perfection. He wields as much power at the line of scrimmage as any quarterback ever. He often blames himself for dropped passes -- for throwing the ball to an unreliable target. He has restructured his contract when asked. He has been one of the most leaned-upon athletes of his generation, and the results have been brilliant -- 11 division titles, seven AFC championship games, three Super Bowl wins, two Super Bowl MVPs, two winning streaks of at least 18 games and numerous records. Yet his increased mastery of his craft has not yielded the same results as his early years did. In fact, it has yielded moments -- the slight misfire to Wes Welker that likely would have iced the Super Bowl two seasons ago or the costly botched clock management against the Ravens -- from which "I've learned that it's hard to close it out," he says. "In 2001 it was miraculous for us to win. In 2007 it was miraculous for the Giants to win. But no one remembers that. They remember who got the trophy."
What was hard then is harder now. It's strange to see Brady -- a fierce bottom-liner -- say that it's "nice to always be in the hunt," that "if you keep knocking on the door, you're going to win it." Painful losses have hardened a cocky guy who once privately predicted midway through the 2003 season that the Patriots wouldn't lose again. It's a game of odds, luck plays a role and he wasn't always perfect during the Patriots' championship run. He can control only his own play, yet as a quarterback: "You're the one out there. What happens reflects on you."
Once, receiver Donte' Stallworth didn't run hard on a route and Brady's pass was intercepted. On the sideline, Stallworth told Brady, "My bad." Brady didn't reply. He just looked Stallworth in the eye. And stared. And stared. And stared, until Stallworth felt worse than if Brady had yelled at him. Then Brady turned to look at the ground. "He's not an a -- hole," Stallworth says now. "But he's a perfectionist."
THE TOM BRADY Passage has a Tom Brady Book. It's large and silver, with the Michigan logo and Brady's name inscribed on the cover. One of Brady's mentors, Brad Canale, made it for him, a scrapbook of his college years, a narrative of slights and growth that Brady thinks about now as a parent rather than as a quarterback. That he made the leap from an "immature" kid, as he says, to a "mature" man is not only at the heart of why he worries about overprotecting his kids but also at the heart of the biggest sports mystery of the past 15 years: How did every scout, coach and GM manage to miss him? Even Brady's parents, when asked over dinner in San Mateo for a moment that, looking back, served as a predictor of his football immortality, draw blanks. "I think he would have been a great baseball player," says his mom, Galynn. "He was a catcher with a wonderful swing."
"I'm not convinced," Tom Sr. says. "He's elusive behind center, but in baseball, he could leg a triple into a single better than anybody."
"He's faster than you think," Galynn says, flashing a mother's defensive glare.
Whatever special sense Brady has used to channel nerves into a Hall of Fame career "didn't come from his mother," Tom Sr. says, "and it didn't come from me." But his dad ?drove him to football camps for colleges that didn't recruit him and prodded his son to go big -- Brady's penchant for going big is as pronounced as his work ethic -- and mail a highlight tape to Michigan. And it was his dad who, when Brady was buried on the Wolverines' depth chart, secretly hoped that his son would transfer to Cal. Brady could start sooner, and father and son could rekindle their Sunday ritual: golf, often at the old par-3 Bay Meadows Racetrack, a course in San Mateo.
But Tom Sr. knew his son would be a better man if he made his own decision. And he realizes now that if Brady had transferred to Cal -- if he'd taken the easy way -- he wouldn't be in the NFL. The father didn't give any advice. What followed, of course, is lore only in retrospect: Brady walked into the office of Greg Harden, the director of athletic counseling at Michigan, and said, "I need help." Brady spent Friday nights before games in Harden's office, learning to control the anger he felt about being a backup, then about splitting time with Drew Henson. He graduated with an unbreakable self-belief. And one day this winter, during a round of golf, Brady told his dad, "I couldn't be where I am now without experiencing those things."
THE PERFECTIONIST remembers the throw when he no longer had to be perfect. Season opener 2007, against the Jets at the Meadowlands. First game with Randy Moss, first pass to Moss. Brady was hit as he released, and he figured he had missed, high and wide. Buried on the ground, Brady listened for the crowd's response. He heard a massive groan. Moss had caught it, by god; he had jumped and snared it, and Brady thought, Holy s -- , that was nice!
So it went in 2007, "a magical season," Brady says, "until the last drive of the Super Bowl." And it was a transformational year. It was the first year that Brady erupted statistically. The year that his pristine reputation was briefly tainted, first by a public breakup, then by Spygate. The year that he began dating Gisele Bundchen and his personal life became a global obsession. The year he became a father. And the year that he nearly pulled off a perfect season. How Brady held it together has always been a mystery -- how the son who loved his dad so much that he invited him to his 21st birthday party dealt with not being around his firstborn; how a grinder felt about being labeled the chief benefactor of cheating; how in the crucible of unrelenting scrutiny he not only withstood every team's best shot each week but threw 50 touchdown passes and only eight interceptions.
"I wasn't thinking about it," Brady says now.
Instead, he simply used the things that had carried him throughout his life. Though former Patriots center Dan Koppen says that "we just wanted to say f -- you to everyone" about Spygate, Brady just smiled through news conferences, then threw himself into his work. When he wasn't at work, he threw himself into parenthood. Jack had been born in August and was being raised in Los Angeles by his mother, Bridget Moynahan, Brady's former girlfriend. Brady had learned shortly after they broke up that she was pregnant. "I didn't envision myself as a parent who wouldn't be with this son all the time," he says. He often asked coach Bill Belichick for permission to fly to LA after games and return to Massachusetts just in time for their weekly Tuesday meeting.
As Brady's life became more complicated, football became easier. On Friday afternoons, Belichick allowed the first-team offense to face off against the first-team defense. The defenders, recognizing the plays, would usually stop the offense. One Friday, after the defense had won again, Belichick pulled the starters. Brady begged for another chance. Belichick relented. In the huddle, Brady said to Moss, "Go to the end zone. Let's get this s -- t."
Moss ran deep, and Brady hit him for a touchdown. Brady jogged to the defensive backs. The Patriots had an inside joke about celebrating touchdowns in practice in a way that would draw fines during games. Brady raised his arms and pretended to fire bullets.
Then he slashed his neck.
He dropped to his knees and, as his teammates busted up, pretended to lob grenades.
Everyone laughed, but as Brady learned, even perfection fell subject to luck -- no more or less, it turns out, than the Tuck Rule. After the first Super Bowl loss to the Giants, the moment he silently replayed was not David Tyree's catch but rather his first throw of the game -- a screen pass off two fakes. Brady faked a handoff, then a reverse. But as soon as he turned, he had two Giants in his face, and he couldn't see running back Laurence Maroney, wide open with 60 yards in front of him. Brady threw low, incomplete. Maybe, Brady thought, if he had hit that pass, the game wouldn't have come down to a lucky catch. Maybe ...
He didn't sleep that night. Soon after, he was off to see his son.
"HERE'S ME and Mr. Kraft," Brady says, pointing to a picture on a high shelf. The relationship between Brady and the Patriots owner is unique, not only because Brady helped restore Kraft's reputation as much as he did Belichick's. No, what makes their relationship uncommon is how they help each other, like teammates. Kraft does Brady a solid if he needs it, like when he lent Brady his plane in 2007 so Brady could see Jack's birth in LA; Brady restructures his contract to help the team.
Of course, Brady also redid his contract as an exercise in control. He had hoped that Welker would re-sign for 2013, not only because he loves Welker personally -- in his passage, Brady has a picture of the two of them after a workout. Welker "allowed me to do the best I can. If someone's taking away 20 percent of my mental energy each day, I can't be at my best, because I'm worrying about whether they'll show up prepared." But after Welker signed with the Broncos, Brady held one-on-one throwing sessions with his replacement, Danny Amendola, an offseason workout before offseason workouts began, trying to spike variables before an opponent exploits them, one route at a time.
In his apartment, Brady is asked whether he ever experiences doubt. "Not often," he says. "When I came to the Patriots, I hadn't even made the team, and I called my agent and said, 'I'm gonna buy Ty Law's condo.' He's like, 'I think you should make the team first.' I'm like, 'Don't worry about that.'?" Brady has always defined each play in terms of his limits, but he no longer defines himself as a spurned sixth-rounder. He is motivated by the fear of not fulfilling his own expectations. Consider his goals, and not just the overarching one of winning the Super Bowl. Consider the specific goal of limiting his interceptions to fewer than 10, which he has accomplished in three of his past five full seasons. Last year, for the first time in his career, "a skinny, weak kid coming out of college" didn't lose a fumble.
A few months ago, Brady watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary about an 85-year-old who loves to cook and wakes up each day trying to improve at doing so. "It smacked me in the face as a reaffirmation," Brady says. "Just be in the moment. What's better than what you're doing? Nothing." He knows, as his dad says, that as soon as Belichick gets "a quarterback who is better for a dollar less, he'll be gone." He won't allow himself to be outworked or overpriced. He won't allow himself to feel doubt. He will always test the limits of what he can control, because it's the only way of controlling what he loves to do.
BRADY GRABS a photo, shot in Brazil, off the shelf. "My wedding," he says. In it, he and his wife are dressed fancy, surrounded by family, and though you expect to see a picture of extravagance, the picture looks real and normal, once you get past the fact that the two happiest faces are on two of the most famous people in America. Brady's marriage did more than give him a partner who is in many ways his reflection: a type A personality at the top of her profession, whose own story -- being spotted at a McDonald's by a talent agent -- is as improbable as his own. No, Brady's marriage launched him into the Jay-Z-Beyonce, Pitt-Jolie "power couple" stratosphere, lopping the uncontrollable specter of celebrity onto the uncontrollable enterprise of fatherhood, ensuring that, as he says, "my parenting will be different than how I was parented."
Brady struggled during the first few years of his career with his overnight fame. Now he can't remember life any other way. He instinctively walks with his head down. Only goes to the movies with his wife on Monday afternoons. Chooses restaurants based on the proximity of their exits. Arrives late to Patriots fan functions because he wants his teammates to be appreciated. He feigns indifference to the soft artillery of camera clicks as he does to a stadium's cheers and boos, the twin soundtracks of his life, but feels claustrophobic in public. "You're your own secret service agent," he says. "So even if no one is paying attention, you're still paying attention to them."
He rebels against that feeling of claustrophobia in small ways. Standing on his roof deck overlooking the Charles River, his favorite space in the apartment, he points to a playground nearby where he takes his kids, paparazzi be damned. "I loved my experience growing up, playing in the street with other kids. But my kids don't have that opportunity because of their mom and dad. I'm going to have to find ways around that."
LET'S FACE IT: Football is pretty random. Parenthood is pretty random. We like to pretend otherwise, but it's true. Brady has never pretended, but damned if he won't strive to conquer them both. Brady's genius lies in his striving -- Lloyd Carr, his coach at Michigan, always said that nobody relished the struggle as much as Brady -- and it allows him to grow not only as a quarterback but also, as his dad says, into "a mature man who can balance all of his responsibilities." He strives even as his responsibilities extend beyond reading the defense, even as he tries to transcend the stereotypes of a celebrity parent and an older quarterback the way he transcended the stereotype of a younger one, no longer playing within his limits but redefining them with each pass and passing year.
But years of coming up just short have worn on Brady, the frustration seeping out like a slow leak. He's more "ornery" than he used to be, more prone to flashing anger on the sideline. He doesn't sleep the night after the season ends. His emails are terse: "Bad day at the office." But when his kids wake up eager to play, regardless of who wins a football game, he forces himself to put on a happy face. "It's impossible," he says, "but I try."
The day after the Patriots lost to the Ravens, Brady received this text from Kurt Warner: Being the best doesn't mean you always win. It just means you win more than anybody else. It touched Brady not because Warner called him the best. No, it meant a lot because in a bottom-line profession someone recognized the virtue in striving, even if it's a consolation prize.
BRADY HAS TO LEAVE. He's headed to Gillette Stadium for the day's workout. He's always on the move, but he tries to bring life with him. Sometimes, Brady will email his parents directions to the hangar of a private plane that will fly them to wherever he is on a given day. As Brady says: "The experiences are different now. It's hard to go back."
One Sunday this winter, Brady's parents were playing golf in San Mateo when they bumped into a friend who was on his weekly game with his son. The ritual was a reminder that the weekly one between Tom Sr. and his son no longer exists. Sadness washed over Tom Sr. Then a different feeling overwhelmed him: pride. His son happened to be in ?Yellowstone, vacationing with his kids. Two weeks later, Brady took his dad golfing in Georgia. They played at all of these exclusive resorts, and Brady loved seeing his old man beam. Then Brady's mind drifted, and he envisioned the joy of playing golf with his kids. He returned to hitting balls, not knowing where they would land.