The metamorphosis of Tom Brady has taken place on the surface and beneath it, and it is still ongoing now. Brady has gone from a sixth-round draft pick to arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time, from a game manager to an elite passer, from just one of the guys to the neatly-pressed cover boy, the GQB who comfortably stands in the fashion world and then effortlessly slides back into the pocket.
Along the way, one thing has remained constant for the incomparable quarterback of the New England Patriots.
His desire to win.
"He started winning playoff games the first year he really got a chance to participate in them," Patriots coach Bill Belichick told reporters last Sunday after the Patriots defeated the Houston Texans to advance to this Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens. "Tom is a great competitor. He had a great week of preparation, as he always does for every game, but especially the playoff games. He’s our leader and we all follow him. ...There’s no quarterback I’d rather have than Tom Brady."
There's no quarterback I'd rather have than Tom Brady. How many times has Belichick said this now? Excluding the 2008 season in which Brady suffered a season-ending injury in the first quarter of their first game, the Patriots now have been to the AFC title game a remarkable seven times in Brady's 11 years as a starter. That is a completion percentage of 63.6. With a win against the Ravens on Sunday at Gillette Stadium, Brady will become the first quarterback in history to play in six Super Bowls, the kind of achievement that says a great deal about Brady's ability and even more about his never-ending pursuit for excellence.
The latter, of course, is what ultimately separates the greatest of the greats. Particularly in the modern world of sports marketing and multimillion dollar contracts, winning has become almost secondary. From Anna Kournikova and Michelle Wie to Alex Rodriguez and even LeBron James, there has often been a lot more energy invested in branding than winning, which certainly speaks to our culture as much as it does to each individual athlete.
But Brady? Brady won his first Super Bowl at the age of 24. He won another two years later, then another the year after that. And while the seven full seasons since have failed to produce a championship, Brady now has taken the Patriots back to the AFC title game for the fourth time in the last seven years, a period during which his competitiveness has waned little, if at all.
Peyton Manning, by contrast, has been to just three AFC Championship Games in his career. Manning will never have to answer the question as to why he didn't win a championship, but he should have to answer as to why he has not won more. Ditto for the supremely talented A-Rod. And while that may be some reflection on the ability of athletes like Manning and Rodriguez to perform under pressure, it may also be some commentary on their real desire to make a journey each has already made.
None of that makes Manning or Rodriguez different. Quite the contrary. It makes them normal. Few things are as rewarding as they are the very first time, because the thrill is often in the chase.
All of this brings us back to Brady, whose first championship was more extraordinary than most. Short of a 19-0 season, nothing can ever replicate the euphoria that accompanied the Patriots win over the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. And yet, Brady keeps returning to this point with all the energy of a first-timer, which speaks to his desire, discipline, professionalism and sheer competitiveness.
When any player gets to this stage, getting up for the game is easy. But players like Brady find ways to stay focused for the November games against Buffalo, too, and we are as likely to see an eruption on the field or sidelines in those games as we are now.
None of this means Brady is perfect. (He's not.) But as many athletes age, life inevitably and invariably gets in the way. Relationships. Marriage. Children. Those complexities steal from our energy and focus, and the large majority of us have little choice but to adjust our standards, modify our expectations, simply set the bar lower.
What we learn is that winning isn't as important as we thought it was, a process we often write off as "maturing."
In the case of Brady, maybe he simply has not grown up yet. Or maybe he just does a far better job of managing those pressures, be they on the football field or at home. As quarterback of the Patriots, Brady's greatest assets always have been his smarts and his focus, not necessarily in that order. Quarterbacks are targeted from all sides, all the time, and Brady always has been more adept than most at processing the information, keeping his eyes fixed on the target, never losing sight of the objective.
On Sunday, he takes the field with a historic sixth Super Bowl appearance at stake.
He will do then what he has unfailingly sought to do.
He will try to win.
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