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FIVE WILL GET YOU ZEN

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Tom Brady IN AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW, THE SUPER BOWL LI MVP EXPLAINS HOW FIVE SUPER BOWL TROPHIES HAVE LEFT HIM FEELING IMPERVIOUS TO STRESS, AGE, THE COMMISSIONER....

TOM BRADY is a tough nut. Except for three hours on 16 or so fall and winter days, you don't see him sweat—literally or figuratively. At a podium in front of reporters, he has perfected the art of saying precious little. Even in the face of a four-game suspension last season, handed down by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in the Deflategate controversy, Brady verbally veered whenever the subject came up. Time and again he had the chance to plant little seeds of vengeance. He didn't do it, ever.

He must be pissed off. He must want to kill Goodell. Watch him stick it to the commissioner when the Patriots win the Super Bowl.

That's what America thought. And maybe, deep down, that's exactly the way Brady feels.

Or maybe Brady's a different guy.

EXACTLY A WEEK after Super Bowl LI, I traveled to the Brady family's Montana hideaway to talk about the Patriots' historic comeback from 25 points down in a 34--28 victory against the Falcons. Brady met me in a camouflage jacket and ski pants, with a big smile. It stayed there for much of the two hours we spent talking. We sat in what he called a cabin but I'd say would pass for a Four Seasons--style luxury retreat: rustic on the outside, seemingly appointed by a Beverly Hills designer on the inside, windows in every room looking out on majestic Big Sky scenery. It was a gorgeous midwinter day, with a mountain over his left shoulder that looked as if it were painted.

Particularly notable to me: Brady was open and forthcoming. This was not press-conference Brady or radio-show Brady. He wanted to talk—about the Super Bowl, the dramatic touchdown-field-goal-touchdown-touchdown-touchdown finish for the Patriots, and about what makes him tick.

I found what he said so compelling because it flew in the face of what the public and the media felt he must be thinking. And who knows? Deep down, if the veneer gets stripped away three decades from now, maybe he'll spew some venom about the events of the past two years, when Goodell and the NFL convicted him without overwhelming evidence of a scheme to remove air from footballs to make them easier to grip and throw. Maybe. But I'm not so sure. As New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said after the Super Bowl, Brady hasn't brought up his suspension around the team, and, from what McDaniels could tell, he hasn't even privately had a bitter moment since he walked back into the Patriots' locker room in October.

"I guess the point is," Brady began, "when you subject yourself to a lot of criticism, what I've learned from myself is, I don't want to give my power away to other people by letting my own emotions be subjected to what their thoughts or opinions are. So if someone calls me something, that's their problem. It's not my problem. I'm not going to give away my power. You can call me an a------ and I am going to smile at you probably. I'm not going to say, 'No, you're an a------.' Because that person is controlling me with what their thoughts and actions are. How can you go through life, now at this point, 17 years [in the NFL], being affected all the time with what someone says?"

But, I said, the difference here was this wasn't someone calling you something. This was someone taking away what you love, for a quarter of the season.

"Well, what's the best way to fight that?" Brady said. "There's only one fight I can win, and that is how well I play.... Why let anything get in the way of that? You start giving your power away to other people, it's a tough life. I am a very positive person. I'd say I am very much an introvert, more like my mom than my dad. If it is up to me, it would just be dinner with my family and let's go to bed.... Other people's attitudes towards me aren't necessarily my attitudes. So why don't I just compartmentalize?

"Not giving away my power to anybody has been something that I've had to learn, and I've learned it the hard way."

If that comes across as a little self-helpish, a little too Tony Robbins, think of it like this: What would help Brady beat the Ravens in a big Monday-night game in December? Spending time on his drive home three nights before the game envisioning the best routes to throw to beat Jimmy Smith and Eric Weddle, or envisioning what he might say to Goodell if the Patriots end up in the Super Bowl and win it, and Brady is the MVP, and Goodell hands him the MVP trophy the day after the game?

It can't be easy to compartmentalize like that. But during our conversation, when we talked football or Deflategate or the future or his mental or physical fitness, one word came to mind: Zen. There was a placidity to Brady. When I brought up his lost game jersey ("stolen" is more like it; his game-worn number 12 was apparently pilfered from his equipment bag in the postgame locker room in Houston), which he apparently wanted to give to his cancer-stricken mother, he had the same even look on his face. Not pained, not angry. He said, "I wanted to keep that jersey, but somebody got to it. It is what it is. It's a jersey."

That's the kind of don't-sweat-the-small-stuff mentality Brady hopes he can maintain for a few more years. He told me he wants to play "until my mid-40s. Other than playing football, the other thing I love to do is prepare to play football."

He has no doubt he can, as crazy as it sounds. "I have the answers to the test now," he said. "You can't surprise me on defense. I've seen it all."

Mentally, that's Brady at 39.

PHYSICALLY, what's Brady at 39?

The next time he takes the field, he'll be 40. (His birthday is Aug. 3.) He took a physical battering in the Super Bowl—five sacks, nine significant knockdowns or hits, including one on the game-tying drive by Falcons tackle Grady Jarrett that knocked Brady woozy. Remarkably, seven days after the game and a football season of hard knocks, he said he felt 100%, with no pain.

He attributes his physical condition to the regimen—diet, exercise, stretching—he says saved his football life. Since 2009 the Patriots have played 145 games, and Brady has started all but four of those—the ones he spent on suspension in 2016. The way he's feeling now, he hopes he can play six more seasons. That sounds crazy, and maybe it is. But try telling that to Brady after a year in which he threw 35 touchdown passes and just five interceptions.

Late in our session together we walked outside the cabin to look at the Montana majesty. We talked about fitness. "Feel my arm," he said.

He held his right arm out and flexed. The forearms of most football players, including most quarterbacks, are rock hard. Brady's was not. His was pliable. That's the way he wants it. He doesn't want his muscles to be solid; he wants them to be flexible and pliant, but strong.

"Strength is very important to [my] job," Brady said. "But how much strength do you need? You only need the strength to withstand the hits and throw the ball and make your movements of being a quarterback. You need conditioning because you need to be able to do that over a period of time, certainly a season. You need muscle pliability—long, soft muscles—in order to be durable.

"If you're a receiver and you have a great game, say you have eight catches. And you play eight games a season, and you're hurt the other eight. Eight catches times eight games is 64. That's a below-average season for any receiver. If you play 16 games with an average of eight catches, you're an All-Pro. The difference is durability.

"How do you work on durability? That's what I've figured out. I know how to be durable. It's hard for me to get hurt, knock on wood. Anything can happen in football, but I want to put myself in a position to be able to withstand the car crash before I get in the car crash. I don't want to go in there and say, 'Oh God, I know this muscle is really tight.... Let's see if it can hold up to someone falling on me who is 300 pounds.' Then someone lands on you and a rotator cuff tears. I could have told you that was probably going to happen. It's going to be really hard for me to have a muscle injury, based on the health of my muscle tissue and the way I try to take care of it. Your muscle and your body allow you to play this great sport."

He talked about pro football's obsession with building strength. When you get really strong, what do you do? Lift more weights. Get even stronger. That's not Brady's thing. What he'd like, most notably, is to play for several more years, to prove to the next generation, and the generation after that, that there's another way.

"I can be an ambassador to play this great sport of football, a contact sport, but [I can also teach] how to take care of yourself so you don't feel like you're 60 years old when you're in your mid-30s," Brady said. "It's about making the right choices. It's not more effort. Everyone puts in effort. Everyone wants to do the right thing. They just don't know what it is. How sad is it to see Tiger Woods withdraw from a golf tournament? You're watching the greatest golfer I've ever seen not be able to play a sport at an age, to me, that's hard to imagine. It's kind of sad."

JOHN ELWAY was retired at 39. Joe Montana at 39, retired. Dan Marino at 39, retired. Brett Favre had his last great year, for the Vikings, at 40. Warren Moon was pretty decent for Seattle at 41, in his last good season. George Blanda was a part-time savior for the Raiders at 43, in 1970.

But there are no comparables for a player at this advanced an age playing multiple years at such a high level.

Montana, the man Brady is most often compared with in history, had his best three seasons in succession at 31, 32 and 33, from 1987 through '89. The Niners won two Super Bowls in those three years, and they went 35--9 in games Montana started, including playoffs. He threw 94 touchdowns and 33 interceptions in those three seasons.

In Brady's most recent three seasons, at 37, 38 and 39, the Patriots won two Super Bowls. They went 42--10 in games Brady started, including playoffs. Brady's touchdown-to-interception differential: 117 to 27. It's absolutely crazy to think that—maybe—Brady in his late 30s was as good as Montana ever was.

No one knows how long Brady has left in pro football. "I know next season's not my last year," he said. But what is? 2019, at 42? 2022, at 45? Whatever the case, it's clear that he's not going to worry too much about the future. You see it in his face on a breathtaking Montana afternoon. He's not worried about anything.

"There's only one fight I can win, and that is how well I play," says Brady. "WHY LET ANYTHING GET IN THE WAY OF THAT?"

The M|M|Q|B

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