The first thing I feel every morning is pain.
It starts with the lower back, but as I slowly shake off the night of sleep and pull myself together, other spots of pain emerge. Both knees, of course. Then both shoulders, each of which has a torn labrum that needs surgical intervention. Some day I’ll get that done.
I bring this up not to seek any sympathy. After all, why should you, dear reader, feel that? I get paid to watch and write about sports from the comfort of my couch, and it is a pretty nice gig to be honest.
But the pain comes from over a decade of playing quarterback. Yes, I peaked at the Division 3 level in college, and have often declared that I was the worst quarterback in all of college football for a particular three-year stretch — did you know that Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt could be a negative number? — but that experience has left me with a workable basis of knowledge about the game, and a good deal of pain alongside that.
But I was never hit by Aaron Donald.
Nor Khalil Mack, or Von Miller, or any of the fearsome pass rushers in the NFL today.
Tom Brady has.
See, I bring up my mornings to highlight this fact. Brady is seven months younger than me, nearly to the day.
And he chose to go back to facing the Donalds, Macks and Millers of the world.
Why go back to that, as a 45-year-old man who could literally be doing anything else in the world? Why subject yourself to that?
Let’s run through some of the options.
Tom Brady returned out of spite
This is the theory that gained a little steam over the summer.
After all, Brady has worked hard to hone and cultivate his image, his story, over the years. Since leaving the New England Patriots and joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he has shown more of his personality on social media and elsewhere. When Brady won Super Bowls in New England, he looked to be having a good time in the aftermath, but when he won his ring with the Buccaneers there he was, tossing Lombardis and staggering off the boat.
One of the other moves that Brady made as his time in New England drew to a close was to start a film production company. Titled “199 Productions,” the company is scheduled to release its first feature film after Brady steps away from the game for good. But with these resources at his disposal, one would think that he wanted to tell the story of riding off into the sunset in his own way.
So when word leaked out of his retirement plans earlier this summer, he went along.
Then returned to the game to undercut them.
At least, that was the idea many had when Brady came back over a month after announcing his retirement. Does this theory have legs? Maybe, but there are other, more plausible, reasons for Brady coming back to the game so quickly.
A rhythm to the routine
Football players are creatures of habit.
I remember years ago, as a young Pop Warner player, reading one of John Madden’s books. I cannot recall if it was “One Knee Equals Two Feet” or “Hey, Wait a Minute! (I Wrote a Book),” but I do remember a story from the legendary coach and commentator. He talked about traveling with a football team, and how you have to keep the players appraised of every single delay or change to the schedule. Unexpected delays or tweaks to schedules throw players off, as they are creatures of habit and routine.
There is a rhythm to the routine.
For Brady, he has lived that rhythm for decades. Then, it was gone.
Lots of players talk about the adjustment to post-football life. How you suddenly have more free time on your hands, time that is not soaked up with studying film, working out, meetings, media requests, practices and more. That rhythm of life that you have lived for years is suddenly no more, and it can be an adjustment.
Perhaps Brady was not ready to make that adjustment. To move on from the rhythm of his past three decades playing the sport he loved.
First loves are hard to let go
“Football, as far as I’m concerned, is his first love.”
That quote from Brady comes from someone who might be an expert on the subject.
It comes from his wife, Gisele Bündchen.
Bündchen provided that quote in a previous documentary about her husband, titled Tom vs. Time. She went on to elaborate about Brady, saying: “I think it’s his main love, really, quite frankly. It’s true!”
First loves are hard to let go.
The game has its ways of burrowing into your heart, and never leaving you. It begins at an early age. Putting on the pads for the first time and feeling like the heroes you watch on television. The first time your team wins a game and you see the effort of practice pay off.
The first time your team loses, and you take days to get over the pain.
Then you get older and the stakes seem a bit higher, but the passion grows.
Working out with your friends all summer long with dreams of Friday nights under the lights. That first hit on a humid August morning as double sessions begin. The nervous energy in a locker room before taking the field for your first high school game.
The first time you hear a crowd roar because of you.
The first time a college coach tells you the next level is waiting.
The first football Saturday on campus, as you walk to the athletic facility as the crowds start to swell and build around the stadium. The first time you take the field with your new teammates. The first time you set on a college field and experience just how much faster the game is, how much better everyone is than they were on Friday nights.
The first time you feel like you are good enough to play at that level.
The first time you stop by a college tailgate after the game and fans are there to see you.
The first time your name is in the school paper.
The game breaks your heart. It causes you mental anguish and physical pain. But those moments that make you fall in love with it always seem within reach.
Even when you are forced to leave it behind.
I often joke with former teammates about playing one more time. One of my favorite football movies is the “Best of Times,” a comedy with Kurt Russell and Robin Williams about a group of former high school players coming together to replay the big game decades later. At some level, I think every former player feels that dream of returning to their first love, rather than leaving it fully in the past.
Brady was not forced to leave it behind. His first love was still there, waiting for him.
First loves are hard to let go.
Tom Brady returned to chase one more ring
While all of those reasons might have played a part in Brady’s return, the correct answer is likely the easiest one.
He wanted to win one more ring.
Since his time at Michigan, Brady has been driven by the need to prove people wrong. After nearly transferring after his redshirt freshman year, he told coach Lloyd Carr that he was going to stay with the Wolverines, and prove he was a great quarterback.
After sliding to pick 199 in the NFL draft, Brady wanted to prove to the world he was the best quarterback in that draft class. He wanted to prove to his new boss, Patriots owner Robert Kraft, that he was the “best decision” the franchise ever made.
Even after winning the job, and his first Super Bowl, and those beyond the first one, he took the field every day with a singular goal: To prove to the Patriots that he was their best option at quarterback. Even after the titles, and the MVP awards, and the fact that New England built two different dynasties during his time in Foxborough.
Then, when the questions began to swirl about his playing days winding down, as talk formed of “cliffs” and “noodle arms” and more, Brady had a new goal. Of proving to everyone who doubted him that he could continue playing at a high level.
Last year was yet another season of Brady playing at a high level. Despite Tampa Bay losing in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, it was some of the best football the veteran quarterback had played over his entire career. In that loss, it looked like Brady was completing yet another legendary comeback. Over last season, Brady threw for a career-high 5,316 yards and 43 touchdowns, with the touchdowns the second-best mark over his illustrious career. He placed second in MVP voting, better than his first season in Tampa Bay.
He was still really, really good.
Win a Super Bowl at 45? Now that had never been done before as a quarterback.
Being the first? Well, that would really prove everyone wrong.