Is there a grimmer men’s afternoon than 45-year-old Tom Brady screaming at teammates born in the 1990s, as their team trails a clearly inferior opponent? It makes Paul Pierce’s relationship with poker nights seem healthy.
Brady losing his temper is not a new phenomenon by any means, but this instance in Sunday’s game against the Steelers has a funny little aftertaste to it when factoring in everything else going on in his life. He could’ve retired after a respectable second season with the Buccaneers, and actually did for about 40 days, but he just wanted to keep being a quarterback so badly, even if it meant endangering his marriage. It was clear that his decision to unretire led to “a lot of tension,” as People described it.
Brady then took an extended absence in the preseason to deal with “some personal things,” according to Bucs head coach Todd Bowles. He returned to the team and looked like he’d been through a lot of shit. By the beginning of October, both he and supermodel Gisele Bundchen had hired divorce lawyers. She hasn’t attended her husband’s games this season, and instead is being monitored for any cryptic comments she leaves on self-help Instagram posts. Brady was by himself when he attended Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s wedding this past Friday. Two days later, he had to pump up teammates decades younger than him so that they could try to rally against the worst team in the AFC North. That’s not an exaggeration: Luke Goedeke, Robert Hainsey, and Tristan Wirfs are all at least 20 years junior to Brady. Judging by the audio picked up by the Fox broadcast, he was very disappointed in how they were playing and knew they could do better. Exactly what a father at his wits’ end would say.
Papa’s pep talk did not work. Mitch Trubisky and the Steelers held on for a 20-18 win, their second of the season. While the Bucs’ 3-3 record might be worrying in a different division, it’s still good enough for first place in the NFC South. But this isn’t really about Tampa’s Super Bowl hopes. More fascinating is this subtext that now pops up for each game: what Brady is risking and sacrificing by continuing to play football, and what football is providing him in return.
Does it mean that much to achieve yet another divisional title or win another MVP award? Is it worth jeopardizing a marriage in order to try and beat the Carolina Panthers twice in one season? What is earned by beating the Carolina Panthers, even just once? And on the flip side, does this mean every loss hurts more when factoring in the cost? Why is Brady so afraid of no longer having football? For that matter, what will he have?
Pro athletes are different by nature, because they have to be. They have to convince themselves they can still win in situations when fans are turning off the game. They embrace a kind of intentional stupidity—I guess that’s what confidence is—to serve as their motivation. Tom Brady has followed this path his entire career, and it’s rewarded him immensely. He could walk away from football tomorrow, in the middle of the season, and still be considered the greatest quarterback in NFL history. That argument ended when he went to the Bucs and they won a Super Bowl. There aren’t any remaining debates to be had. He has won all the awards. He has demonstrated unreal longevity. He holds practically every meaningful record at his position. There is no unfinished business. He did it. He beat the game. When Brady finds the fire to yell at his teammates as they trail by four to a shitty AFC team, what is he trying to prove, and who is he trying to prove it to? No, seriously—what drives him?