How I learned to love the inevitability of Tom Brady
Have you ever met someone who struck you, at first, as a little overbearing, a little loud, a little questionable? Someone you wouldn't have pegged as a friend, but who, over time—through sheer persistence of personality and a preternatural ability for just being around—eventually endeared themselves, to the point that you started tolerating and even liking that person, and found yourself defending him to new people who shared your same initial reaction?
I don't know if Tom Brady is the perfect football player analog for that social phenomenon (unlike the annoying friend, his qualities are unmistakable from the start), but that's how it felt yesterday when I watched him lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the Super Bowl. In his first year out of New England, at age 43 and with a brand new coach and system, on a team that went 7-9 the year before, the accomplishment is frankly unbelievable. Watching it unfold, I felt a strange and novel emotion emerge. I realized, to my horror, that I was rooting for him. It took 20 years, but Tom Brady finally grew on me.
Yes, sure, being away from New England and the joyless miserable dominance of Belichick and the Patriots made a big difference. But for me, Brady was always their standard bearer, and there were a few reasons aside from football to dislike him. Watching him lose twice to Eli Manning will probably always be the highlight of my sports-watching life. It never occurred to me, never, that I could arrive at a point where he broke down my defenses and earned both my appreciation and my support.
That's what happened on Sunday, though, when the Bucs beat the Packers at Lambeau Field and Brady solidified his place—my opinion only—as the greatest winner ever to play the sport. And it wasn't even that great a game! He threw three picks, and his final numbers weren't even as good as Aaron Rodgers, but none of that obscures the fact that this guy just led a new team to the Super Bowl at an age where he should be...oh, five years or so past his ability to be of use to any team. As a back-up.
How, at long last, could I not respect that? There's an omnipresence to Brady, an inevitability, that you can't deny. But once you accept it—I warn you that this is the horrifying part—you have to also like it. That's an unavoidable part of the process, and it's what I had to undergo yesterday while I pulled for a team from one of the planet's worst cities to defeat football's most historic franchise at its most famous venue. I can't help it—Brady has broken me down, and though I still firmly believe that Mahomes and the Chiefs are going to tear his team limb from limb in two weeks, another part knows that any time this guy steps on a field, he's got a very good chance to win. I can't resist the Brady allure anymore; he's too inevitable even for the most resilient haters.
Sports Town of the Year, Still, Bafflingly: Tampa Bay
I wrote about the Tampanaissance last September, as the Lightning were about to win the Stanley Cup, the Rays were about to make (and lose) the World Series, and the Bucs were...at least interesting. Here's what I wrote about them at the time:
"The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, previously known for winning the world's most boring Super Bowl with the world's worst Super Bowl-winning quarterback and holding the worst franchise record of any active NFL team, are now home to Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and Leonard Fournette, and are arguably one of the three most fun teams in the NFL. We don't know if they're any good yet, but they beat the Panthers!"
Well, now they're in the damn Super Bowl, which means that Tampa has had a team in three of four championships since the pandemic began (when you add in the Miami Heat, the state of Florida is four-for-four), a frankly ridiculous stretch for a city that absolutely, positively does not deserve it. I mean, this is a place that hasn't had a true "home game" for its baseball team when the Yankees and Red Sox come to town in decades. And while attendance for the Lightning is surprisingly good, I can't imagine most Tampa residents could even spell the word "hockey" 20 years ago.
But here we are! The franchises are good, and the city is thriving. Tampa = Titletown is not a formulation I thought I would be typing, but if Brady and the Bucs can pull off another upset in two weeks, we'll be forced to chant it like a mantra. Clearly, 2021 is already very weird.