Another pro football season is about to begin, Tom Brady will again be taking snaps for the New England Patriots, and there’s chatter galore about how much longer that can last. He turned 40 on Aug. 3. In quarterback years, he’s a fossil.
But isn’t he also above the laws of nature? His performance in the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory over the Atlanta Falcons early this year suggested as much, and his every painstakingly plotted hour is part of a campaign not just to cheat Father Time but to cackle at him.
I’ve read and heard scads about Brady’s all-organic, caffeine-free, anti-inflammatory dietary regimen; his techniques for enhanced muscle pliability; and his injury-preventing, youth-preserving “body coach,” who’s apparently some Ponce de León of the pectorals. Thanks to this sorcery, Brady maintains the strength of arm to throw downfield and the sturdiness of leg to sidestep a blitz.
But what about Brady from the neck up? Even if he has the brawn to press on, what are the risks to his brain?
In a May appearance on “CBS This Morning,” his wife, Gisele Bündchen, either sent a message to her husband through the television camera or made a slip, telling the world something that Brady certainly hasn’t. “He has concussions pretty much every year,” she said. “We don’t talk about it, but he does have concussions.”
She even claimed that he’d suffered one last season. If that’s true, neither he nor the Patriots disclosed it.
Bündchen’s comments received only a fraction of the attention they deserved, as Malcolm Gladwell, who has written extensively about head trauma in football, noted on a podcast in June. “Why isn’t there a stronger drumbeat for him to retire?” Gladwell asked, adding, “I do not want to see Tom Brady at 55 drooling into a cup.”
Alarmist? I doubt that the recently retired college football analyst Ed Cunningham would see it that way. In The New York Times last week, Cunningham, 48, told my colleague John Branch that he had quit his high-profile TV job because he could no longer sanction such a dangerous sport. “I just don’t think the game is safe for the brain,” he said.
His frequent on-air partner, Mike Patrick, concurred, telling Branch that football “can turn 40-, 50-year-old men into walking vegetables.”
Over recent years, more enthusiasts, former players and scientists have been speaking out about the long-term wages of blow after blow and concussion upon concussion. A major study published in July suggested that the longer someone stays with football, the more likely he is to show signs of degenerative brain disease later. In that context, Brady’s stamina isn’t just an admirable testament to his will. It’s a chilling token of his risk.
There’s a dark irony here, because his brain is probably the most crucial element of his record-breaking feats. What makes a truly great quarterback – or, for that matter, a truly great running back or cornerback – is mental keenness layered atop muscle and agility.
My team is the Denver Broncos. Its star is the linebacker Von Miller. He has a fleet step and a fierce grip. But what most separates him from his peers is his talent for assessing the configuration of the players lined up opposite him, divining the soft spot and strategizing – in mere seconds – how to snake or shimmy through it. That’s intellectual.
Brady’s preparation involves more than the avocado ice cream and soft-tissue massages that have become the stuff of incessantly rehashed myth. When a season finishes, he goes back and twice watches video of every play that he was involved in, to diagnose what went right or wrong.
He has studied the Patriots’ offensive schemes well enough so that if the wide receiver he intends to throw to isn’t free, he can, in an instant, turn his gaze and his arm toward another waiting target. That’s what Peyton Manning and so many of the sport’s other legendary quarterbacks were also expert at. And that, too, is intellectual.
It’s funny, and sad, that for all the reverence we accord athletes, we objectify them, casting them as hunks and hulks. We do that in spades with football players. Maybe that makes it easier to treat them as disposable. Maybe that’s why Patriots fans worry more about how Brady will perform in Thursday night’s season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs than about what kind of father he’ll be to his children a decade from now, or about how intact his memories of his own glory will be.
There isn’t a stronger drumbeat for him to retire mostly because he gives so many spectators so much pleasure – and seems to be having a blast himself. But there also isn’t a stronger drumbeat because in the same way that he and Bündchen don’t talk about his brain, the rest of us barely give it a thought.