Such has been the sustained success of Tom Brady that as writers, we’re running out of new things to say about him. At the age of 41 he’s been, seen and done it all. He’s been evergreen in a way that players just aren’t supposed to be when they enter their 40s.
Most prime athletes begin to feel the fade start as they reach their mid to late 30s. Brady is a man who has battled professional highs and lows, critical opinion and, seemingly, Father Time himself. Here’s one more stat in a career that’s been full of exceptional figures; when all the figures for the season just gone are totaled up, they’ll show that Brady had yet another 4,000-yard campaign.
With the Super Bowl looming large in his immediate future, the question of retirement must have crossed Brady’s mind at least once, even if he won’t publicly admit it. There is nothing left to achieve for him within the sport. Victory on Sunday would give him an unprecedented sixth Super Bowl ring, taking him one clear of Charles Haley. The accolade would surely cement him as the greatest of all time in the minds of the very few people who haven’t already reached that conclusion. The same question has also crossed the minds of some journalists, who’ve put the suggestion to him. All have received the same response.
Brady is adamant that, win or lose, Super Bowl LIII will not be his swansong. According to the great man himself, he’s not even considering it. That’s his own prerogative, but it does lead to another question. If not now, when?
If the Patriots win on Sunday (a game which even the most confident bookmakers are finding too close to call), then Brady stands alone at the precipice of the sport, with more Super Bowl appearances and more wins than anybody else. There would be nothing left to do and no further achievement to reach for. The very best he could possibly hope for is more of the same, and if he fails next season, then he’ll be accused of being in decline.
If the Patriots lose, then Brady would be well within his rights to say he swung and he missed, and he’s happy with his lot as he walks away into the sunset. To press on in search of that sixth win – especially with no success – could quickly descend into a sad spectacle as a man of 42, 43 or even 44 years of age desperately battles to cling on to past glories. Nobody; not even his keenest detractors; would be happy to see a man as great as Tom Brady leaping about on the pitch like an angry ape, as if he were the star of the famous Mad Mad Monkey Slot, part of the game but unable to influence it anymore. He’s got too much dignity for that. Even the monkey in the slot game is likely to pay off in the long term, so long as you keep putting money in and playing for the win. There’s no guarantee that a man in his mid-40s would be able to pay off in the same way, regardless of what he puts in or how determined he is.
Even now, if the Patriots were to lose, he’ll face suggestions that he’s already pushed it too far. He’s been at his sparkling best for the majority of this season, but in interviews, he still carries the tone of a man who’s haunted by last year’s crushing loss to the Eagles. We’re left to wonder if walking away after the Eagles game was the original plan, and persisting this season was an attempt to right that wrong. If he were to fail again, there’s the legitimate prospect of continuing in that vein with ever-diminishing returns.
It’s not as if Brady has to look very far for an example of what happens when you push on for too long. His long-time rival Peyton Manning tried to hang in there far longer than he should have, and in the end, he was well below his old standards during his final couple of years. Everybody knew it, but most importantly Manning knew it, and given the chance again he’d probably have walked away earlier.
He also has his life outside of football to think about. It’s no secret that his wife Gisele would be much happier if he retired sooner rather than later. She, as any wife would, worries about the potential of injury, and the effect that all these years of football will ultimately have on her husband. Brady, who has stayed miraculously fit for almost his entire career, has an almost robotic ability to shake off injury; but that doesn’t negate the effect of the mileage on his body. Despite the fact he can make us all believe otherwise, he’s human, and all the impacts will catch up on him eventually. Brady and Gisele are among the wealthiest celebrity couples in the world. They could stop working today and never have to worry about money again as long as they live.
For Brady though, it isn’t about money and probably never has been. It’s been about sporting success, and maintaining his position at the pinnacle of the game for as long as possible. He should rightly be commended for that, and his ability to hold back the years is something we’ve never really seen before, and may never see again. In the end, though, he has a decision to make.
Not even Tom Brady can hold back the clock forever. Not even Tom Brady can expect to be still playing professional football at fifty years old. He knows that no matter how disciplined his training and diet regime is, he’ll eventually reach a point where his body just won’t comply with his will any longer. Inevitably, and probably before too long, his performances will begin to drop off. That leaves him with two choices.
His first option is to do what he’s seemingly determined to do; keep playing until he physically can’t do it any longer. That means that one day, we’ll all see him slow down and begin to struggle under the harsh light of public and critical opinion. He’ll have fans and the media telling him he’s past his best, he’s had his day, and it’s time to let it go. For all he’s achieved, he’ll be remembered as a man who played for too long.
The second option, is to do what Gisele wants, and what even some of his keenest admirers quietly wish for too. Go to the Super Bowl, win it, claim his place in history and walk away. Never fade and never falter. He can retire at 41 and be remembered as the man who played into his 40s and never lost a step.
Will his desire to be football’s Peter Pan be his ultimate undoing, or could he really have another two or three years at this level left in him? Only he knows for sure. All we can do is stand back and watch as Tom Brady rages against the dying of the light.