As it turns out, Plato was smarter than most football coaches, maybe even smarter than Bill Belichick, with whom he at least shared an attitude toward neckties in the workplace. Anyway, back in the day, there were all these athletes running around, and jumping around, and wrestling around, and Plato looked out on all of them-Platonically, perhaps, but who knows?-and realized that every performance is an act of generosity, because of all the solitary effort it takes to make that performance possible. The generosity that begins in the rough draft blossoms in the novel. The generosity that begins in the rehearsal space blossoms on the stage. The generosity that begins on the practice field blossoms in the stadium. ¬∂ Plato saw something else too. "The mere athlete," he wrote, "becomes too much of a savage." There's generosity in putting yourself through ceaseless preparation, but there must be an end product, an act of public sharing, or all the preparation is sterile. Plato did not anticipate the National Football League, but what he wrote about athletes is more conspicuously true in football than it is in any other sport. Even the best quarterback-even, say, Tom Brady, a quarterback who rose from the Mel Kiper-ish netherworld of the sixth round of the draft to lead his team to three Super Bowl championships in four years-gets to actually play only once a week. The rest of the time is repetition, a Baltimore Catechism with sweat and collisions. The rest is off-season workouts, and voluntary minicamps that aren't voluntary at all, and hours and hours of meetings. Belichick, who's coached Brady through those three Super Bowls, talks about how much he enjoyed going to prep school lacrosse practice because he got to, you know, play lacrosse. Nobody ever said that about football practice.
Thus is the life of any great quarterback. What makes Brady different is how vividly you can see not only the results of that work every Sunday, but also his innate ability to carry the logic of practice to the conclusion of the game. "I love seeing us get better," Brady says, "and I don't think you get better in games. The improvements come in practice." His high school teammates recall a practice dropback drill called the Five Dots, wherein the quarterback matches his steps precisely to marks on the ground, much in the way Arthur Murray once taught the clumsy how to waltz. Brady marked out a Five Dots course in his backyard and worked on it every day before school.
Even then he knew that preparation and rehearsal, the grinding work of constructing football excellence, pays off in the public performance. Sooner or later, to be complete in what you do and who you are, you have to leave the silence and walk toward the cheers. "I love it so," Brady says. "Just running out there in front of 70,000 people...." And then his voice trails off, as though he's given explanation enough.
YOU WALK toward a huge stadium in Michigan that rises from the earth like a city long-buried and recently excavated. You walk toward lights that illuminate a bend in a river in Jacksonville, and those that shine over a mechanical wonder in the industrial savanna outside Houston. You walk toward a domed stadium in a city now drowned, a place that most recently appeared on television as the vestibule to a graveyard.
But you also walk to a place like this one, tucked into the ridges and hillsides south of Boston, looming above a nondescript piece of highway. And you arrive in games like this one, in which the New England Patriots, now nine months into the defense of their third world championship, play the New Orleans Saints, now two months into their first season in San Antonio. The Saints are 2-7. The Patriots, riddled with injuries, are a ragged 5-4. The match is such an obvious mutt that at least one New England television station is carrying another NFL game. The defending champions are playing an orphan game against an orphan team.
On his first drive of the game Tom Brady takes the Patriots 98 yards in 17 plays. He converts three third downs and a fourth down. On a third-and-10 he throws a deep out to tight end Ben Watson, deftly dropping the ball over Watson's inside shoulder, just past the fingertips of safety Dwight Smith. The touchdown comes after a play-action fake to fullback Patrick Pass, when Brady drills a pass to Deion Branch in the back of the end zone. There is great dedication in the solitary work it takes to produce this kind of lethal efficiency. But without the risk of the performance, without the willingness to share all that work through public display, the generosity would be desiccated and pointless.
The game hardly lives up to its first five minutes. The Patriots build a 24-7 lead, but their defense is ragged enough in pursuit of Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks that New England doesn't salt the game away, 24-17, until Eugene Wilson intercepts Brooks in the end zone on the last play of the game.
"I think both teams were playing hard," Brady says later. "They have a very physical defensive line. Those guys were playing hard all day. And it is a good group of linebackers."
His generosity is not just in the ritual graciousness with which he talks about the Saints, but in the way he brought his talent to bear against them, the way he took everything he'd honed and polished in solitude and put it on display in an orphan game against an orphan team. The generosity lies in the way he gave them his best and cut them to ribbons. Joe Montana would understand. Plato would have thrown him a parade. Or at least handed him an urn.
THESE ARE the kinds of things you must endure when you are SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's Sportsman of the Year, the 52nd time the award has been given, a line stretching all the way back to Roger Bannister. You've already done 60 Minutes and Saturday Night Live, and here you are, being photographed in the crepuscular light of the Gillette Stadium press box, and there is also a local film crew on hand. A tiny stylist is fussing with your hair, and someone else is handling your wardrobe. You are being filmed while you are being photographed, but at least nobody has brought a goat for you to hold. "I'm telling you," Brady says to the assembled entourage, "there must have been a thousand goats there."
He is talking about the photo shoot that kicked off the 2005 season for him. Apparently under the impression that Brady had a couple of films debuting at Sundance this winter, GQ magazine ran a series of glossy photographs. One of them inexplicably had the quarterback carrying a goat, which is not something that ever happened to Dr. Bannister, who was not noted for his ability to juggle livestock. The overall effect was like seeing Orlando Bloom in the role of Mr. Green Jeans.
The goat photo was the subject of some hilarity at practice the day after the magazine hit the stands. Center Dan Koppen, one of Brady's best friends, his backgammon rival, and an enormously deft lineman, and offensive tackle Matt Light each wore one of the photos on his back so that, when they lined up at scrimmage, Brady was confronted by the damning evidence as he called signals. Practice broke up for a moment. Brady laughed as hard as his teammates did. What else could he do? If he were them, he'd have been doing some mocking too. There is always a price to be paid for holding a goat.
"All I wanted was the camaraderie, to share some memories with so many other guys," Brady says. "I mean, if you choose to alienate yourself or put yourself apart, you know, play tennis. Play golf."
He has defined himself, always, as part of a team, and that's carried over into this year, when his celebrity caught up with his achievement. He re-signed for considerably less money than the market might've borne so the Patriots would have maneuvering room under the salary cap. When SI's Peter King asked him about it last February, Brady said, "Is it going to make me feel any better to make an extra million? That million might be more important to the team." This isn't sports-talk-radio posturing. That's not the audience at which Brady aimed it. He was talking here to the other people in the New England locker room, none of whom will be making $60 million over the next six years, as he will.
Moreover, it was Brady who insisted that his offensive linemen be his costars in a national credit card commercial, in which the linemen sit with Brady at dinner, in full uniform, and explain to him that they are the "metaphors" for the various features of the credit card. Most critics agree that guard Russ Hochstein steals the show in the role of Fraud Protection.
"The reason for all of this [attention] is the way we've been playing," he says. "I didn't win this [Sportsman] award being Tom Brady the person. I won it because of the way we play football. There have been some great individual rewards, but there's no greater reward than winning the Super Bowl. I'm very proud of that. I look at how far we've come in five years, and it's not because I'm this great player. But I've taken advantage of the opportunities I've had. I've had so much good fortune along the way."
Brady's stardom is unique in Boston, which has never seen an athletic celebrity like this. Ted Williams hated so much about the place that he hardly counted as one of the city's own. Bill Russell never caught on for a number of reasons, quite a few of them involving race. Bobby Orr was a local star, but he played hockey, which, as has become apparent, might as well be played on Neptune. Larry Bird spent much of his time in Boston in seclusion, and much of the rest of the time in southern Indiana, which is the same thing.
But Brady has gone out on the town. At the same time, he's tried to navigate through his personal fame using the polestar of his competitive career-his love of being a teammate. For example, the podium was a big problem for him. Due to the unprecedented media crush that has resulted from his success and that of the team, the Patriots' p.r. staff planted Brady behind a podium in the Gillette Stadium media room for his weekly press conferences.
He hated it. He fidgeted. He grabbed the podium so tightly that it seemed as though his fingers would go right through the wood. Every Wednesday, Tom Brady-NFL superstar and national celebrity-stood behind that podium and looked as comfortable as a reluctant mob witness testifying his way to a new life as a greengrocer in Flagstaff, Ariz. He does the sessions at his locker now. "Some people are comfortable behind the podium, but I don't need to be the showstopper, the entertainer. I'd much rather people assume I'm one of the guys."
Brady becomes a teammate on whatever team he happens to be on. When he hosted Saturday Night Live in September, he threw himself into the preparations as enthusiastically as he once threw himself into the Five Dots drill in his backyard. His natural curiosity found new things to study. "He was very interested in the process [of putting the show together]," says Lorne Michaels, the creator and executive producer of SNL. "I found him open, thoughtful, and he certainly was game for anything. He came to play, as they say."
He will be as generous with his fame as he can be, as generous as he is with the ball on Sunday. He won't take every nickel he's due. He'll make sure wide receiver Deion Branch gets some face time on 60 Minutes. He will put the grunts in his commercials. He will make Russ Hochstein a star. For their part, his teammates will protect him from his own ego, and from those forces outside himself that presume to fashion who he is to their own purposes. "I'm not a Boy Scout," he says. "I'm still maturing, and I make plenty of mistakes. Too many times, people paint a picture of me as a guy who always has a big smile on his face, and who's happy-go-lucky and never has a bad day, and that's not me. I'm [like] every other guy."
His teammates will help keep him humble, and will help keep the rest of the world honest. This ability to engage others in a common enterprise is what makes political consultants look at Tom Brady and feel a warm glow deep in their godless souls.
Paradoxically, the Patriots have come to depend on Brady more this season than ever before. The defense is far weaker than it was a year ago, particularly in the secondary. And the offense has been hit with a staggering number of injuries. Since a win over Oakland in the opener, New England has lost for substantial periods of time two of its top three running backs, two of its top three wide receivers and its starting tight end. In addition, four of the five metaphors up front have been lost, including Koppen, whose season ended when he separated his shoulder against Miami on Nov. 13.
As a result, with both his running game and his line decimated, Brady is putting up historic passing numbers. As of the first week in December, he has 264 completions for 3,301 yards and 18 touchdowns. He's having the kind of season that Peyton Manning used to have with the Colts, the kind of season that was never enough to get Indianapolis to the Super Bowl, the kind of season that was never enough to beat Tom Brady.
And when he has a bad day, as he did on Nov. 27, when his four interceptions contributed mightily to an ugly loss at Kansas City, there is not much to the New England Patriots at all.
"Oh, man," Brady sighed the next day. "That was a killer. We didn't play the way we're capable of playing. It's not fun when you throw four picks. It's like getting kicked in the stomach, and it doesn't go away for three days. Losing a game like that, you're heartbroken, tearing up on the plane ride back. You let yourself down. You let your teammates down. You let a whole lot of people down. It's not something you get over easily."
He is having an MVP season, but his team is struggling. You get the feeling that he likely doesn't have his own vote.
MIKE RILEY knew, but nobody ever listened. There he was, USC's offensive coordinator, dragging himself north from Los Angeles to San Mateo to watch a skinny kid who could throw the deep out with guts and precision and who seemed to think one step ahead of everyone else on the field. Riley couldn't get anyone to listen. USC coach John Robinson had two quarterbacks and didn't need another one. The kid went east to Ann Arbor to play for Michigan.
Five years later, in the spring of 2000, Riley's coaching the San Diego Chargers and he tries to get general manager Bobby Beathard interested in the same player, who led Michigan back from 14 points down twice to beat Alabama 35-34 in the Orange Bowl. Beathard was no more interested than Robinson had been.
A year after that, Riley stands on the San Diego sideline and watches Brady, in his second start as a professional, bring New England back from 10 points behind with less than eight minutes to go and beat the Chargers in overtime, sending the San Diego season into a spiral and sending New England on to its improbable Super Bowl win over the St. Louis Rams. Mike Riley, Cassandra with a whistle, caught up with Brady at midfield.
"We kind of laughed about it," says Riley, now Oregon State's coach. "We found our history together kind of funny."
By now the story of Brady's apprenticeship is well-worn. At Michigan, first there were Scott Dreisbach and Brian Griese, and then there was Drew Henson, a two-sport star who stepped in line ahead of Brady when, by all rights, the quarterback job should have been his. Michigan coach Lloyd Carr decided to split the job between Brady and Henson. "I don't think either one of them was happy with it," Carr recalls. "Tom, as a captain and a fifth-year senior, clearly, it was tougher on him."
This was a point at which Brady could have gone nuclear and taken the team down with him. He was being denied a job he had every right to believe he'd earned. "There's no question," says Mike DeBord, Michigan's recruiting coordinator, "he could've blown up the team." Instead, he hunkered down and eventually won the starting job back from Henson.
When the Patriots took him in the sixth round of the 2000 draft, there was another Drew in his way. New England had committed to Drew Bledsoe for the long term, but Brady's ability to spread the ball around, to move in the pocket and to move the chains pushed him up the depth chart until New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis sheared a blood vessel in Bledsoe's chest with an explosive hit in the second game of the season, and Brady took over the job he has never given up.
Perhaps the iconic moment of that season came at the very end of it, after the Patriots' Super Bowl win over the heavily favored the Rams. Brady, transported by what the team had done, at what he had done, grabbed Bledsoe in a ferocious embrace, but Bledsoe's face was such a poignant mask of rueful perplexity that the two men seemed to be touching each other from different emotional dimensions. There was an arrival and a departure contained in that moment. Brady quickly turned away from the awkward embrace and put both hands on his head and smiled, his happiness reaching out to all the dark and distant corners of the Superdome, enveloping all his teammates, even the one who had to be left behind.
ADAM VINATIERI is not one of the metaphors, but no player has benefited more from Tom Brady's generosity, nor has anyone-other than Brady himself-played a bigger role in Brady's success. It was Vinatieri's kicks that provided the winning margin in all three Super Bowls. And it is Brady's command of the final moments of a game that may one day enable Vinatieri to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Just this season, Vinatieri has won games in the waning moments against both Pittsburgh and Atlanta after Brady moved the offense to get him into position. There has not been a relationship so mutually beneficial to a kicker and a quarterback since the last time George Blanda practiced alone.
These two men are defined-together-by their first two Super Bowls. On both occasions Brady led a drive that gave Vinatieri a chance to win the game with a field goal, thereby making it possible for Vinatieri to build a reputation as the greatest clutch kicker in the history of the NFL. Brady's résumé, of course, would be considerably less gaudy if Vinatieri had shanked those kicks. That reciprocity is where true generosity flowers. Those moments were forged in the grind of practice, when everyone goes off and plays only pieces of the game. All those deep out-patterns, thrown over and over again after practice on Wednesday so that they will be able to keep the clock alive on a cold Sunday. The fake scoreboard running down the way the real one will, one day, in Pittsburgh or Atlanta, in Indianapolis or Foxborough, when the night begins to fall and the kicking team jogs onto the field one last time.
"He always gives us a shot," Vinatieri says.
Great careers are formed by such moments, and such intimate intertwinings of teammates and identities. The arc of Brady's career was shaped by his own hands, but also by offensive tackles and weakside linebackers, and a placekicker too.
The very best among us, like Brady, instinctively see the Platonic arc of it, and where it must lead. He has always known that solitary practice is only worth it if it leads to something that can be shared, with teammates, first, and then with the world, on the biggest stages, in the loudest arenas. "The perfect game's got to be for the highest stakes," Brady says, "and it's got to come down to the end. You don't remember the ones you win 35-12. You remember the ones you win 38-35, the dogfights. Those are the ones that are memorable. Who wants everything to come easily?"
Plato knew that the generosity of athletics can take you off the goat paths and onto a higher road. But only if you are willing to leave the solitude and walk toward the crowd. Leave the silence and walk toward the cheers. Leave the shadows and walk toward the brightest lights you can see.
And bring some metaphors along, just to be on the safe side.
Charles P. Pierce's book about Tom Brady will be published next fall by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.