Three and a half years later, he lives on the walls and in the whispers.
What was it like playing with Tom Brady?
What was he like?
Only eight Patriots players know those answers now. This week, from Matthew Slater to David Andrews, those eight told reporters what they’ve been telling young, inquiring teammates ever since Brady left in March 2020. Their answers overlapped, of course, as they have for years.
How fiery, yet personable Brady was. How he knew everyone’s name. How he greeted new teammates within hours or days of their arrivals, already armed with tidbits about their personal life or college and pro careers.
How Brady connected; himself to a locker room, a team to itself and belief into becoming for 20 years.
Brady’s connection to the modern Patriots, however, has begun to wane. Like all legends, he inevitably slips from man to memory with the passage of time. Inside the building, Brady’s influence carries only through stories and pictures.
On Wednesday, star running back Rhamondre Stevenson estimated he passed at least five photos of Brady plastered on the halls of the facility en route to his midday press conference. In that press conference, Stevenson described Brady like a casual fan, not a Patriots star connected to his franchise’s past.
He tritely called him the GOAT.
On Friday, when asked how Brady does or does not live on through his team, Bill Belichick didn’t speak to the future Hall of Famer on his own. In fact, Belichick grouped him with a host of franchise legends .
“We recognize those players. We talk about them. That’s part of becoming a Patriot, coming to the team,” Belichick said. “So, I can go all the way back to (Ron) Burton, Gino Cappelletti, Babe Parelli, back there to the more recent guys in the 80s — (Russ) Francis, (John) Hannah, Mike Haynes and (Raymond) Clayborn, guys like that, and then obviously all of the great players that we’ve had here.
“(Tedy) Bruschi, (Rodney) Harrison, (Willie) McGinest, Troy Brown, (Jerod) Mayo, just keep right on going. So yeah, we recognize all of them. Tom is at the top of the list.”
Which is why Brady’s return Sunday feels so timely.
The Patriots are 25-26 since Brady left. The hallmarks of Belichick-coached teams — sound, smart and cool under pressure — seemed to depart with him in 2020. The Pats have crumbled down the stretch of their last four seasons, failing to play their best football after Thanksgiving — another hallmark — and seemingly lost their self-paved Patriot Way.
So if the Patriots don’t identify with their greatest legend, or the pillars of Belichick’s program, who are they?
Will they rediscover that identity this season? Will they forge a new one? And could that begin Sunday when Brady returns?
Though whether Brady makes a speech at halftime or his number is retired, or even if he runs out of the tunnel to the same song, “Public Service Announcement,” which introduced him before every home game, he won’t help the Patriots score points against Philadelphia. He’s retired, and for good this time.
But Brady’s return will serve as a reminder of what was, and what can be possible. Because together, Brady and Belichick achieved more than six Super Bowl wins.
They redefined excellence in their sport. They built and lived within a football fantasy, one fans shared in and saw themselves and imagined what it might be like to shatter limits in their own lives. To defy age, pressure, odds, even rules.
At a minimum, for the fans who bought tickets and watch from home what that feels like, Brady will remind them of that feeling. And, perhaps for those on the sideline.
Several players who never crossed paths with Brady in Foxboro, like defensive back Jalen Mills, told the Herald they don’t feel his specific presence in the building at all. He’s more or less a ghost. They see the pictures, of course, but as a symbol of a promise of the past; one they’ve failed to live out in his absence.
“I think when you think about the Patriots, and the hard work being paid off at the end of the week or end of the year, you do think of a guy like Tom Brady,” Mills said. “Being a sixth-round pick, and coming from the bottom and being who he is now, we call him the greatest to play the game. It wasn’t like things were handed to him. That’s kind of how we go about our work here.”
Mills continued: “It’s one day at a time, one week at a time, one game at a time. And the hard work it’ll show at the end of the week. I think that’s why we do get that image of him throughout the building here and there, and this is my opinion, to remind you the hard work will pay off if you do it right.”
Except, for three years, it hasn’t.
The Patriots continue to chase the bar Brady set, but it’s the shadow of the bar that’s come to define them. Brady left, won and grew his legend. Meanwhile, the Patriots wandered the NFL wilderness in that shadow with other mediocre franchises that lived in darkness for as long as Brady called New England home.
Fortunately on Sunday, there will be no shadow. Brady’s light should burn away any comparison, any lingering animosity, any pain born from his split with the franchise. It will be a reunion that inspires the type of rare joy he once fostered in his teammates and a region for almost two decades.
Brady will be back. He will be home. And his successor will be under a heightened pressure to play like he’s always dreamed of: just like Tom Brady did.
Mac Jones made himself partly in Brady’s image; an underdog who carried Brady’s infamous combine photo with him as a high school recruit and imitated his passing mechanics down to how he contorted his off-hand. Jones continues to study Brady and mold himself in the legend’s image to this day, something he admitted as recently as Thursday.
“Whenever (Brady) maybe didn’t have a great play, the next play was always really good. I feel like that’s a marquee for a really good quarterback, so (I) definitely learned that from him,” Jones said. “But, he didn’t make a lot of bad plays. He made a lot of good plays, so I try to apply that to my game, too.”
But how far can walls and whispers carry someone? Are stories sufficient? What if they’re not stories, but the stuff of legend?
Jones and the Patriots, in their most critical season yet of the post-Brady era, are about to find out.
Patriots tight end Hunter Henry was one of six captains elected Friday. He is the team’s the only first-time captain, joining Jones, David Andrews, Deatrich Wise, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Matthew Slater.
Henry, 28, is in his third year with the Patriots.
“This place has challenged me in a lot of ways,” he began. “I feel like when I first got here, I might have been a little uncomfortable in a way, and I think it pushed me to kind of get out of my comfort zone in a lot of ways. And there’s a lot of ways it’s helped me as a player, it’s helped me as a person.
“I mean, I’ve had two kids here in Boston and New England, so this place will always have a special special place for me to start my family so both on and off the field. I’ve grown a ton.”
Slater featured in new book
Slater is at the center of a new book: “53rd Man: Fighting to Make It in the NFL” by Connecticut author John Vampatella.
In the book, Slater spoke at length about his journey from the fringe of the roster to a long-standing veteran. He offered new insights, including conversations with family, teammates and coaches. An ex-Patriots wide receiver, Austin Carr, also revealed how he lived through the ups and downs of his first training camp in New England before briefly sticking in New Orleans.
From the book description: “John Vampatella shares stories from across the league of those men whose NFL journeys have taken numerous twists and turns, all in an effort to play the game they love at the highest level. The experiences of three men in particular — Geremy Davis, Matthew Slater, and Austin Carr — reveal behind-the-scenes details of what life is really like in the NFL, working day in and day out in the shadows of the superstars.
“Their stories uncover the anxiety and excitement of the draft, the challenge to get through camp and make an NFL team, and what it takes to survive and thrive in the league.”
The book is available for purchase on Amazon.
Quote of the Week
“Well, there’s six of them that come to mind.” — Belichick on his favorite memories of Brady during a Monday interview on WEEI