Many threads weave together the tapestry of tonight’s showdown between the Texans and the Patriots. Bill O’Brien against mentor Bill Belichick. A pair of 2-0 AFC teams vying for early season conference supremacy. The first major road test for Brock Osweiler with his new team. And, oh by the way, the precarious quarterback situation in which New England finds itself with Jimmy Garoppolo likely on the shelf.
It’s the last one that commands the most attention, though. The truth dances in plain view for all to see. Only one tale begs to to be told this week, and that narrative has nothing to do with who will be under center for the Patriots... and everything to do with who won’t.
It’s inescapable. Though I’m sure that Fuhrer Goodell wishes it weren’t so, once again the predominant story for a nationally televised primetime game is the absence of Tom Brady. It’s only when one pushes away the rhetoric and posturing, however, that the reality sets in—the truth that this game, along with the season thus far, has been left with a gaping, Brady-sized wound in its chest.
Forget Deflategate. The Park Avenue brass would have you take it as gospel, but in reality it’s little more than noise when held against the persona of arguably the greatest NFL quarterback to ever don shoulder pads. All the talk of tarnished legacies and clandestine deeds fades into the background when Brady takes the field. The voices of those who would devalue his accomplishments to fit their distorted narratives become mute for sixty minutes, as Brady relentlessly works, every single game, to prove his mettle and stick it to everyone who has ever slighted him, passed him over, or called him a cheater.
This past weekend, however, we got to see a much different side of the man.
For a long time, Michigan was a sore spot for Tom Brady. In the open, he pledged unwavering support for his alma mater. Those close to Brady, however, tell of his apprehension at even the mere mention of his time there. Memories of those days are inhabited by restless ghosts... Drew Henson at his heels; weekly calls for his benching; a coaching staff that, at best, held him in lukewarm regard.
In many respects, The Big House is the backdrop of both Brady’s Yorktown and his Waterloo. Acting as an honorary Wolverine captain last Saturday, raw emotion was evident within a man who typically sports one of the best poker faces in professional sports. It was a rare moment in which we were able, albeit briefly, to see into his soul.
This was not the stoic, debonair Tom Brady most have come to know over the past 15 years. If for only a fleeting moment, those with the right kind of eyes could see the core of a man who, above all things, loves the game of football. For all his calculated remarks and ra-ra cliches, within Tom Brady still beats the heart of a boy who just wants to get out on the field and play. No pomp and circumstance. No reporters grilling him about PSI, en banc appeals, suspensions, or talk of his legacy. For that brief instant, the forgotten spectre of a still wet-behind-the-ears college quarterback came once again to life within the Maze and Blue embrace that had been long since overdue him. Within that fraction of time and space existed a man who, for perhaps the first time in many years, finally felt at home—at peace.
In this, the naked truth is at last brought into the light. Tom Brady needs football. More importantly, football needs Tom Brady—especially now.
Which brings us back to tonight. Brady’s absence has left a palpable void in the league. In a season that has been marred by concussion protocols (or lack of them) and afflicted with big-name injuries, surprisingly little talk about the on-field product has permeated the collective sports consciousness. When considering that it has been a Brady-less beginning to the season, it very quickly becomes clear why the game itself has taken a backseat in the broader discussion.
That’s because Tom Brady has been the very paragon of keeping the focus on football for the past 15 years. Throughout that span of time, every snide question, backhanded compliment, and accusation of wrongdoing thrown his way has been met with very simple retorts. I’m just working to get better. I’m focused on helping my team. I’m preparing for next week. For all his nonsensical ballyhoo about Brady tarnishing the integrity of the game, Roger Goodell is now reaping the terrible whirlwind of a season that, so far, lacks integrity without him. Tonight’s game will only serve to magnify that inconvenient truth.
Amidst all the talk surrounding Brady’s legacy, this inexorable fact remains—there will eventually come a day when every non-Patriot fan will realize the greatness they have taken for granted all these years. They will begrudgingly be forced to admit that he’s not only a legendary quarterback, but one of the very best people to ever don an NFL uniform. Even in the darkest moments of his career, he has carried himself with poise and dignity. He consistently deflects praise to others. He takes pride not just in his abilities, but in the shared success of his team.
He keeps the conversation focused on the game.
That’s why the league needs him. Badly. Quickly. Utterly.
He’s a man whose life-blood is throwing a football. It’s his very heartbeat. The NFL is desperate to put that purity of spirit and gamesmanship out front right now, but ironically has banished the very face of it by their own hand, if only for a while longer.
So in all honestly, it won’t matter who’s taking snaps for either team tonight. For the NFL, it only matters that it won’t be Tom Brady—the Michigan pariah, draft afterthought, 4-time Super Bowl champion, Goodellian political exile who, in point of fact, embodies everything that is good and right about pro football.