Someday, your grandchildren, if you have them, will ask you what it was like to watch Tom Brady—the greatest quarterback ever, by a rather wide margin—play. That you lived in the time of Brady, who is reportedly retiring, will seem remarkable to them, in the same way it seemed remarkable to me that my grandfather was old enough to grow up watching Babe Ruth. (Brady has yet to confirm the report, although that may have more to do with a desire to break the news himself.) Brady did things in the NFL, like Ruth, that will not seem possible to future generations. The kids will want to know.
If you are being honest, you will tell them the truth, which will be, “well, grandchild, we drew penises on photos of him and posted them to the Internet, flipped him off every time he showed up on our screens and never missed an opportunity to call him a cheating asshole and a fascist.” But you won’t be honest. You will tell them he was the best quarterback you ever saw and everybody loved him. You have, whether you realize it or not, already started doing it.
In many ways, athlete retirements are like celebrity deaths: most of the hard edges are sanded off until only the parts we liked remain. We want to think about the good stuff. And it generally stays that way. After all: We’ve already buried the dead. Alex Rodriguez was the most despised player in baseball for essentially the last 15 years of his career; within three years of retiring, he was the lead broadcaster on ESPN’s signature “Sunday Night Baseball” broadcast and going to the Oscars with J-Lo. Charles Barkley was one of the NBA’s great villains—a charismatic, electric one, but a villain nevertheless—before becoming one of the league’s signature personalities in retirement. (Allen Iverson is revered now, justifiably, but forever under attack when he was active.) Kobe Bryant, Dan Marino, John McEnroe, Randy Moss … they were all often considered Public Enemy No. 1 when they were still playing, but once they hung ‘em up, we remembered the joy they gave us, not the rage.
Brady might have taken more shit than any of them. Though the MAGA hat in his locker probably made him look like more of a Trump loyalist than he really was—he never did attend any of the Patriots’ celebrations at the Trump White House, though Robert Kraft, the team owner who put the hat in his locker, never missed one—that was just one of many Brady controversies. Deflategate was the biggest one, but there was also Spygate and the Tuck Rule and the weird mouth kisses with his son and his super shady personal trainer and his questionable vitamin “supplements.”. By the end of his career, even after he’d won his seventh Super Bowl, most sports fans—just about everybody not from Tampa or New England—were jeering just at the mention of his name. Aaron Rodgers thought there was schadenfreude after his loss last week? Brady has been going through that for more than 20 years.
Adding to all of this was the fact that Brady was impossible. After 22 seasons, at the age of 44, he still threw for the most yards (5,316) in the NFL this year, the highest total of his career, and also had the most completions and most touchdowns; had he returned next year, the Buccaneers would have been one of the favorites to win the 2023 Super Bowl. (Now they won’t even be expected to make the playoffs.) No one else from Brady’s draft class was still playing his year; in the NFC, he was in fact older than all the coaches. The game of football has shifted away from the famously immobile Brady’s style of play, and yet he was still dominating it to the very end. He once said he wanted to play until he was 50—something no one, not even a kicker, has ever done—and few doubted that he could. He was infuriating in many ways to so many people, but he was also the best. Only one other player, the linebacker Bill Haley, has as many as five Super Bowl rings, and no quarterback has more than four.
In the future, we will not care about Deflategate, or the MAGA hat, or any of it. Brady will show up on an NFL broadcast and he will be revered; when he is elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it will be one of the most watched ceremonies ever. Brady was the very opposite of beloved when he played. But everyone will all play it like he was revered the whole time. Your grandkids will wonder why in the world so many people would treat the best football player of all time, while he was playing, like he was a monster. Soon, if not already, we will pretend we never did.
Will Leitch is a contributing editor at New York Magazine, co-host of “The Long Game With LZ and Leitch” podcast, a writer for MLB and Medium and the founder of Deadspin. Subscribe to his free weekly newsletter and buy his novel “How Lucky,” out from Harper Books now.