[Americans] have a pagan cult of health, of skill, of strength; they temper and refine the precious instrument of will in muscle; and obliged, by their insatiable appetite for dominance, to cultivate all human activities with obsessive energy, they build an athlete’s torso in which to shelter the heart of free man.

-José Enrique Rodo, Ariel (1900)


Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

-Paul’s First Letter to Corinth (Cor. 9:24-27)

Mark Leibovich, in his aptly named Sunday New York Times article “Tom Brady Cannot Stop,” skillfully diagnoses the intensity that lies behind Brady’s ‘aw-shucks’ Golden Boy persona. Who is Brady? Is it Brady of the supermodel wife, UGG’s spokesman, the glamorous lifestyle, the American sex symbol? Or is it Brady the 6th round draft pick, the one who speaks humbly in press conferences about his rise from perennial back-up to three time Super Bowl MVP? Leibovich’s portrayal suggests that both images miss the mark. He points to a Brady obsessed with success and career longevity. He portrays an insatiable fanatic for self-improvement and preservation, an all consuming desire to win, an intractable will to tenaciously hold on to his spot of dominance against nay saying pundits, blitzing linebackers, and against the ravages of time.

brady1Leibovich describes Brady as discussing his, “…need to win in notably desperate terms. When I met him in New York, he used the word “grieving” to characterize the period that follows postseason losses. He described losing as a “quality-of-life issue” for him after the Miami game at the beginning of the season.” Brady, along with trainer, glorified masseuse, and personal guru Alex Geurrero (for whom Brady is both acolyte and self described “evangelist”) repeat the same mantra over and over. They say the key to success is that “We work on staying physically fit, emotionally stable and spiritually sound.”

How does one stay spiritually sound? Apparently not through any specific, traditional religious practices as Leibovich describes spending time with Brady after his 2004 Super Bowl win saying:

He marched me back into the house, through the kitchen and past a shelf that displayed a large glass menorah. “We’re not Jewish, Brady said when I asked him about this. “But I think we’re into everything. . . . I don’t know what I believe. I think there’s a belief system, I’m just not sure what it is.” After Brady won his third Super Bowl in 2005, he seemed to betray a wistful sense of anticlimax in an interview with Steve Kroft on “60 Minutes.” “Maybe a lot of people would say, ‘Hey, man, this is what it is, I’ve reached my goal,’ ” he told Kroft. “Me, I think, God, it’s got to be more than this…I read this quote back to Brady, nearly 10 years and zero Super Bowl victories later, and he laughed at his naïveté. “I got a litany of Bibles sent to me after that,” Brady told me. “When I think back on that, what a narrow perspective I had. I’m 27. I don’t know [expletive]. Not that I know [expletive] at 37.

Brady brings monk-like discipline and to his quest to stay physically fit, emotionally stable and spiritually sound. The idolatry of success, self-improvement, and nutrition all seem to go hand-in-hand in Brady’s pursuit of football immortality. Leibovich describes the purity of Brady’s diet after each specially prescribed workout Brady completes (in this case not while in training camp but on a family trip to the Bahamas during the offseason) saying:

After his vacation workouts, Brady joined his family for a late breakfast that — for him — consisted mainly of a protein shake that was also high in electrolytes and included greens like kale and collards. (Brady also likes to add blueberries to his concoctions, but some other berries are off limits because they are thought to promote inflammation.) I asked Guerrero at one point if Brady is ever allowed to eat a cheeseburger. “Yes, we have treats,” he said. “We make them.” Like what? “Usually raw desserts, like raw macaroons.” Ice cream made from avocado is another favorite, Guerrero said. “Sometimes we’ll go over to Tom and Gisele’s house for dinner,” Brady’s father, also named Tom, told me. “And then I’ll say afterward, ‘Where are we going for dinner?’

Brady wants to defy the conventional wisdom of a league in which the average player’s time in the professional ranks is a little over three years. He wants to exceed even the breaking point for past QB’s (Elway, Favre, and perhaps rival Peyton Manning) who neared the end of their careers as their 30’s waned. Brady wants to play well into his 40’s and at his current elite level. Leibovich writes about how this season turned out for Brady’s contemporaries:

Wes Welker would lose. His Broncos went out early, to the Indianapolis Colts. I looked up at a photo of Welker, who has caught the most passes in Patriots history. He was a prize Guerrero disciple, standing with him and Brady. They were smiling, the TB12 trio [TB12 is Brady and Guerrero’s gym/spa/nutrition/lifestyle store] looking happy. Now Welker is 33, with too many concussions to count. Will he know when to walk away? What will even be left of Welker in 10 years?

Peyton Manning would lose. He looked old, faring poorly against the Colts while reportedly playing with a torn thigh muscle. Was his time up?

Brady and Manning have been compared and competing forever. And you know Brady takes some satisfaction in being healthier, at this moment at least, and letting Manning deal with the retirement vigils. Brady has games left to prepare for and narratives to mock. A few days later, someone asked him at a news conference what it would mean to win a Super Bowl “at this stage” of his career. “’This stage’?” Brady shot back, taunting. “What does that mean? What stage is that?”


Brady tore his ACL and MCL after being sacked by the Kansas City Chiefs, ending his 2008 season. So far that has been the only major injury of Brady’s career.

But all this talk leaves the elephant in the room, the dramatic irony on which the whole piece hinges, that despite all the denial (whether it be denial of unhealthy foods to Brady’s body, or the denial of Patriots owner Robert Kraft to speculate on the future of Brady’s contract in a few years, or Brady’s refusal to discuss life after football) that Brady’s career will one day come to an end. But for Brady there is only self-denial and pressing relentlessly forward to fill the void:

I asked Brady if he worried that too much of his life was wrapped up in football. This seemed an odd question to ask of, well, a football player. But Brady’s investment in the game has been so total for so long, I couldn’t help wondering whether his age-defying quest was driven by some fear of how futile it might be to find satisfaction in anything else.

Brady ducked my question, except to confirm its premise: that football is pretty much everything to him. No real hobbies. “I’m not a musician, not an artist,” he said. “What am I going to do, go scuba diving?” Yet he comes off as anything but a bonehead football player. He will have to find something one day.

“Maybe not,” Brady said with a laugh.

I tried a different tack. Does Brady worry about confronting a void? No shortage of former players have lamented that nothing after football measures up to its exhilaration and camaraderie. This turned Brady serious. You need a purpose when you wake up every morning, he said. “When I don’t have the purpose of football, I know that’s going to be a really hard thing for me,” he said.

It seems that only Brady’s father, who spent several years in Catholic seminary before deciding to leave and start a family, is willing to acknowledge the obvious. After Leibovich meets with Patriots owner Robert Kraft and gives him few answers, Leibovich instead turns to Brady’s father and asks about the eventual cessation of the quarterback’s career:

I put the “ending badly” question to Brady’s actual father. Unburdened by diplomacy or loyalty to anyone but his son, the original Tom Brady did not hesitate. “It will end badly,” he said. “It does end badly. And I know that because I know what Tommy wants to do. He wants to play till he’s 70.” He noted the drafting of Garoppolo and said the Patriots smartly didn’t want to be “caught with their pants down,” as the Colts were when Peyton Manning was injured a few years ago. “It’s a cold business,” the senior Brady said. “And for as much as you want it to be familial, it isn’t.

In the classic 1971 essay about his football career, “Kill ‘Em, Crush ‘Em, Eat ‘Em Raw!” former Canadian professional football player and later philosophy professor John McMurtry says:

By the end of my football career, I had learned that physical injury — giving it and taking it — is the real currency of the sport. And that in the final analysis the “winner” is the man who can hit to kill even if only half his limbs are working. In brief, a warrior game with a warrior ethos into which (like almost everyone else I played with) my original boyish enthusiasm had been relentlessly taunted and conditioned.

I think that part of what we love so much about Brady is that we don’t always see the screaming trash talker on the field, nor his unyielding intensity nor the war-like pattern of aggression described in McMurtry’s piece. Instead in Brady we see his perpetual boyishness, soft spoken in press conferences, the kid who won the life-lottery and went from bench warmer to marrying Gisele. We get just enough scintillating violence on the field but without the brutal toll described by McMurtry or in movies like Oliver Stone’s 1999 film Any Given Sunday, in which players are regularly sent back into the fray after some smelling salts or their quick fix of morphine and cortisone shots. While more regular fans might look to Seattle’s hard-hitting ‘Legion of Boom’ (Richard Sherman referred to the abilities of safety Kam Chancellor who “damages people’s souls”) or the “Bountygate” controversy (where New Orleans coaches gave bonuses to players who injured opponents) the more casual fan may prefer Brady’s seemingly effortless poise, his acumen under pressure not to hit and hurt but skillfully throw beautifully precise passes. Though we respect the defensive players that add the thrill to America’s favorite blood-sport, it is the Tom Brady brand and his “quality-of-life” that many of us really envy.

When asked about the now infamous deflating of footballs in the AFC Championship Game (“Deflategate”) Brady replied with nervous laughter that, “This isn’t ISIS,” “you know, no one’s dying.” And while yes, thankfully, no one is dying and Brady hopefully has a long and prosperous life ahead of him, there is the inescapable question of mortality; of all the distractions and pursuits we fill our daily lives with to avoid reckoning with the finite nature of our existence. No amount of kale protein shakes or sports massages can prevent the inevitable. But with another Super Bowl MVP under his belt and no end in sight, it sure is fun to watch Tom Brady try.