We saw him laugh this Super Bowl week and we saw him cry. The closer Tom Brady has drawn to superhuman achievement, the more human he became to us.
The closer he has drawn to football immortality, the more he appeared to embrace his mortality.
On the cusp of becoming the first quarterback in history to win five Super Bowl titles, never has he been more compelling.
Brady never has been the braggart, never been the bumptious boor. Yet in his humility and good nature, neither has he opened the vault to his emotions. If you cut the Patriots quarterback, he did not bleed. If you pressed him, he smiled and deferred.
He usually has spoken in the moment and as if he needed to hurry off to a meeting with Bill Belichick. Reflection rarely was in the cards. We have known more about the unique diet that fills his stomach than the deeper feelings that fill his heart.
And then a 7-year-old boy named Joseph Duarte, who had won a contest to be a Super Bowl reporter, asked Tom Brady a question Monday night at Minute Maid Park.
Who's your hero?
The rules for this Super Bowl week changed right there.
"That's a great question," Brady said. "I think my dad is my hero because he's someone I looked up to every day and, ah my dad."
Brady, to the astonishment of hundreds of reporters, started to choke up.
The thought of his son accepting the Lombardi Trophy from commissioner Roger Goodell at NGR Stadium did not thrill Tom Brady Sr. Still upset with all the ramifications of Deflategate, he told a San Francisco television station recently that anyone "that has Roger Goodell's ethics doesn't belong on any stage that Tom Brady is on."
"He went on a witch hunt and went in way over his head and had to lie his way out in numerous ways," Brady Sr. said.
He said it is a different story when charges of cheating and deceit are leveled against your son or daughter. He said he'd rather take the arrows to his heart than have his kids absorb them. And while many of us have different views of what happened with those deflated footballs, every parent can identify with Mr. Brady's paternal instincts. The sentiment seemed to touch his son's heart, even if he didn't want to publicly subscribe to his father's harsh, harsh words.
"I'd say my dad represents his feelings," he said. "He's a dad, and I'm a dad, and, ah "
Brady began to tear up again. Later he talked about how his father had always supported him, came home at night after work to hit him grounders and fly balls. How he loved to go to 49ers games with dad and mom and throw the football in the parking lot outside Candlestick Park.
This was a Brady we had rarely seen and, it turns out, we only knew half of the story. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Brady's mom, Galynn, has been ill for 18 months. His dad has been to only one game this season, his mom none. They are expected to be at NRG Stadium Sunday.
"It's just been a tough year," Brady said. "Every family goes through different things and my family's always been a great support system for my entire life.
"I'm hoping my mom can make the game."
Sending out an Instagram photo Saturday night of his dad and him kissing Galynn at NRG Stadium, Brady made it clear his mom would be at the game.
We see the handsome face and the pinpoint passes and the remarkable poise in the pocket. We see the mansion and his supermodel wife. And we project a perfect life on him. It isn't fair, of course, for no life is perfect.
As we listen to Brady speak for at least three hours over four days, listen to him talk about his mom and dad, talk about how Gisele is the one who does everything for the kids, from 6 a.m to 6 p.m., every day for six months, reminisce about buddies from the past, talk movingly about how Robert Kraft is a second father to him We see him laugh. We see him cry. We see Tom Brady.
Yes, he has been to the Super Bowl seven times. Yes, he and Bill Belichick have formed the ultimate coach-player combination. Everyone from Troy Aikman to Jim Harbaugh is calling Brady the greatest quarterback in the history of football. And he is. Yet this week, the guy who has seemed like none of us has seemed like all of us. We came to watch for something as singular as revenge over Deflategate and instead we got a much fuller picture of a man.
From getting a chance to play at 23, through four Super Bowl titles, through seven Super Bowl appearances, through marriage and children, Brady called it a growing level of perspective. One that slapped him in the face after he missed the entire 2008 season with an injury, returned in 2009 and thought to himself, "Damn, I love this game."
"This is not a sacrifice, because I love to do it," Brady said. "There are a lot of other things that I don't get a chance to do, that when I am done playing I will get a chance to do.
"When you get to this point, walking off the practice field today, there are two quarterbacks in the world that are practicing today preparing for this game. Myself and Matt [Ryan] should feel very privileged to be able to do that. There are a lot of guys that don't have the chance and I think you do feel very humbled when you're walking off the field to say, 'Wow, we had an opportunity to go out and practice and prepare for a game that's so meaningful to all of us that we'll remember for the rest of our lives.' I feel blessed."
Even in the way he spoke of Belichick, he was more expansive. Brady talked about how Belichick has committed his life to coaching and how he has committed his life to playing. He talked about how there's no rah-rah b.s. with Belichick and how it works out between them because he's bad at taking compliments and Belichick is good at not giving many out. He said he loves the way Belichick continually challenges his team, how he likes to say, "I hope my expectation for you guys isn't more than your expectation for yourself.'"
"We're just lucky to have a confluence of situations where we wind up with the greatest coach in the history of the game and the greatest quarterback in the history of the game, keeping them together and keeping a great team around them," owner Robert Kraft said. "At least for however long the Good Lord lets me breathe, I hope they're playing and coaching."
Does vengeance play a role in this Super Bowl? It has to at some level. When you are forced to sit out a quarter of the season because of improperly inflated footballs, there has to be some lingering resentment toward the NFL. You read what Brady's father said. And while Brady said, "I'm focused on the game," Kraft said, "I think it will also be a great statement to people who are pursuing their dreams that sometimes you get treated unfairly or things don't go your way. You just hang in there."
Humans are complex. Humans harbor resentment, at least for a time. And if anything this week, Tom Brady has shown us how human he is. In the fascinating days leading up to Super Bowl LI, a game when Brady can make history, the most fascinating development was not that one side can scream about payback over footballs. It was that all sides can identify with what Tom Brady is going through with his family.
"I know where my family kind of sits at games," Brady said. "I scout that out when I have all my tickets and when I go out pregame and kind of look around I kind of know where they're going to be and I try to make some eye contact and let them know I'm looking at them.
"Yeah, this will be as special as it's ever been."
Predictions: Patriots 35, Falcons 31. Brady MVP. Goodell will try to make it seem like Deflategate never happened. Lady Gaga will make some kind of halftime political statement.
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