Examining the growing gulf between Tom Brady and his Boston fans
DO YOU REMEMBER TOM BRADY BACK when he was just a football player? You know, back when it never would have occurred to him to have a personal logo, let alone wear hats covered in it. Before Gisele, before the bangs, before the stream of photos and videos became a TMZ flood. Patriots president Jonathan Kraft offers a tale to help jog our memories.
It was the first night of Brady's rookie minicamp, just days after the 2000 draft, and the quarterback -- last on the depth chart and no lock to make the team -- was walking out of old Foxboro Stadium, pizza box in hand, to catch the shuttle back to his motel. On his way to the bus, he ran into Bob Kraft, the Patriots owner and Jonathan's father. Brady started to introduce himself, but Kraft interrupted, saying he knew who the kid was, the team's sixth-round pick out of Michigan. Unshaken, Brady looked his new boss in the eye and said, "I just want you to know, I'm the best decision your franchise has ever made." When the elder Kraft later relayed the story to his son, he added, "There was something about the way he said it and the way he looked that I believed him."
The only thing missing from the anecdote is Brady's asking some hater how he liked 'dem apples. Otherwise, it's straight out of Good Will Hunting. Of course, in just two quick years the kid made good by winning the Super Bowl. In that iconic shot of him with his hands clasped over his head on the Superdome victory dais, the look on his face is so shell-shocked, so genuine, you get the sense he couldn't quite believe what had just happened or what he'd just done. His humility felt real, and it carried over to several aw-shucks performances on the champions circuit.
Cementing his man-of-the-people cred, Brady lived in a condo in bluecollar Quincy his first few seasons in the league. At the time, it seemed fitting for a guy who in those early days wasn't regarded as a gifted quarterback. "He is not Sonny Jurgensen or Dan Marino or Kurt Warner," the Boston Globe's Bob Ryan wrote after the Patriots' 2002 snow-bowl victory over Oakland. "He is one part pigskin surgeon, one part pigskin shop foreman and one part pigskin efficiency expert." Back then, Ryan, who's been covering sports for the Globe for 43 years, was right on: During the Patriots' 2001 playoff run, Brady threw exactly one touchdown pass -- and it needed a booth review. On his charmed Super Bowl-winning drive, he survived by throwing short stuff over the middle.
Few star athletes have ever fit the narrative of a city better than Brady did Boston back in those early years. The chip-on-their-shoulder lifers from Southie and other neighborhoods could marvel at Brady's rags-to-riches story. Meanwhile, the Boston intellectual class (it is the Athens of America, you know) could proudly point to how their quarterback used brain over brawn. Two Bostons, unified by one QB.
But that's not how longtime locals -- including me -- think of Tom Brady anymore. These days, he's more paragon of perfection than human. Walled off by his high-flying lifestyle, he simply floats above the hoi polloi. And makes ads for Uggs. Strange as it is to say, while Brady is certainly appreciated here in Boston, he is no longer truly loved.
Boston fans embrace their teams wholeheartedly and want to be embraced back. We're a little bit psycho that way. The 2003-07 Red Sox were so adored, in part because they reveled in the two-way relationship. How many other teams ever had players run out of the ballpark while still in their uniforms and cleats to celebrate with fans? Red Sox "idiots" Kevin Millar, Derek Lowe, Gabe Kapler and others did it. Millar was also known to hop over bars to serve drinks.
"I don't think anyone could imagine having a beer with Tom Brady," says Dick Johnson, curator of the New England Sports Museum. "There's a distance there."
Indeed, Brady seems to spend most of his free time elsewhere, including New York. He's even been caught wearing -- horror of horrors -- a Yankees hat. Between that and his gallivanting to Costa Rica, Brazil and California, you've got to wonder: Who does this guy think he is? Have you seen the shot of him riding a scooter? It's like our petty judgments mean nothing to him. All of this serves to keep Boston fans at a distance; we want to hug him, but all we get is air. Or, as Johnson puts it, "He's a brother from a different planet." The rest of the country may see him as the ultimate symbol of Boston's decade of dominance, but these days Tom Brady is no Bostonian.
Boston is a city founded on the twin pillars of shame and guilt, says Suffolk University historian Robert Allison. Our Puritan forebears lived their lives knowing that no matter what they did, it would never be enough for their wrathful god. The Catholics and Jews who arrived later lived knowing that no matter what they did, it would never be enough for their mothers. It's no surprise then that the locals carry both a residual "sense of sinfulness" and of "not quite measuring up," says Allison. As a result, we're deeply suspicious of anyone who seems perfect. You know, like Brady. "We like people who have flaws," Allison says. "Because we have flaws."
Boston also remains a provincial city. In the 19th century, when New York snatched Boston's title as the commercial center of America, people here developed a decided chip on their shoulders (cads from that city to the south like to call it a complex). If Boston could not be a business capital, then, by God, the city would be an intellectual and cultural hub. There's a famous story from that time of a Boston woman being asked why she doesn't travel. Her response: "I'm already here."
With such high self-regard, Boston has always prized loyalty to the tried and true -- reinforced by our resistance to stylish fads. It's not for nothing that GQ just named us the worst-dressed city in America. In that light, let's consider the great Yankees cap controversy of 2007. It was bad enough that Brady was caught wearing an interlocking "NY" on his head. But what made it worse was that he was wearing it as a fashion statement. He's from the Bay Area and isn't even a Yankees fan!
Yet there he was, walking the streets of Manhattan in what appeared to be a New EraFifty 59 flat-brim (slightly curved, but still), the type that's become fashionable pretty much everywhere in America & except Boston. Here, you see people wearing only curved-brim cotton caps (and they work very hard on those curves). They're less stylish, but tradition demands that you wear your Red Sox hat until it falls apart. In fact, how faded your hat is tells other diehards how devout and long-standing a fan you are. (For instance, my hat has turned from navy to a disgusting and unnatural shade of gray.) Time plus loyalty, multiplied by tradition, equals status in Boston.
But it goes beyond fashion: No sports star in Boston history has ever become so much bigger than the city. "He's the first global superstar we've had in Boston," says curator Johnson. "If he appears in Paris or Rio with Gisele, he's in the society or gossip page of an international newspaper." When he decided to skip workouts in Foxboro to spend more time at his California digs a few years ago, it caused a mini media storm. "Even though we're the greatest sports city in the world, our heroes tend to be, I wouldn't say provincial, but they're ours," says Johnson.
What's worse is that even when Brady is here, he's not. This is his 12th year with the Patriots, and yet we hardly know him. "It's like he walks around in an invisible glass shield," says Ryan. "You'll see reports of him dining with Gisele somewhere, but you don't ever hear about any encounters. He never says or does a wrong thing that would have anybody think ill of him."
That stands in direct contrast to someone like Paul Pierce. Who can forget when the Celtics forward was stabbed during a fight in a Boston club in 2000? These days, though, he blogs for Boston.com, sponsors a prominent child-health initiative and talks sincerely about what it means to him to be a Celtic. It's a hard thing to convince someone from outside Boston that a black guy from Inglewood, Calif., has become more a part of the city than our lily-white quarterback, but it's the truth. We've had our ups and downs with Pierce and come out on top.
Brady, on the other hand, has never allowed us to see his flaws, so the triumphs feel different. As Ryan points out, his only blemish is the messy way his relationship ended with actress Bridget Moynahan, the mother of his first child. But Brady even managed to play that off smoothly. As Ryan says, "He just is Teflon."
Of course, you may think I'm crazy. Jonathan Kraft certainly did. "With all due respect," he began (that's never a good sign), "both in the stadium and when I'm with him outside of the stadium, I'm not sure I've ever seen another Boston athlete who gets that type of adoration."
But adulation isn't love. Consider this: What if Tom Brady weren't a winner? Say he was a very good quarterback who'd never hoisted the Lombardi trophy. Would Boston fans still put up with all those exotic extracurriculars? "He would have been run out of town," Allison opines.
Perhaps it's instructive to look at a Boston athlete who, for all his personal success, never won a title here. For 21 years, Ray Bourque was one of the greatest players in Bruins history, and despite hailing from Quebec, he thoroughly enmeshed himself into Boston. "I always thought I'd go back to Montreal and settle," he says. "Once I had kids, I knew we weren't going anywhere. Boston is home." Bruins fans loved Bourque so much that when he finally did hoist the Stanley Cup -- as a member of the Colorado Avalanche in 2001 -- they threw him a parade. "Ray became part of the family," says Cleon Daskalakis, Bourque's manager. "But Tom became bigger than New England."
It's a hard point to argue. Even now, a decade after he retired, Bourque can tick off a list of Boston spots where he's a regular, from his local pizza place to the dry cleaners. He says he enjoys the "nice little chats" and "can't remember a bad experience with a fan."
Admittedly, it's unfair to Brady to suggest that he doesn't run errands or talk to his dry cleaner like everyone else. But the point is that it's nearly impossible to imagine him in the rest of Boston's mundane world. That's not to say fans here would trade the last decade of football dominance -- just that it's a little awkward. He's not family. "If I saw him somewhere, I'd look, but I'd almost go the other way," says Johnson. "He's already given enough to me as a fan. I don't need to intrude. Just hands off. He's special."
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ESPN The Magazine: October 3, 2011