One of the most remarkable things about athletes is their capacious memory for games they’ve played in. When I interviewed Shaquille O’Neal once for this magazine, I brought up a random, forgettable Orlando Magic game I saw in Minneapolis in the mid-’90s. His face lit up: “Oh, we lost that game, bro, Penny played terrible,” he said. “That Wolves team sucked.” When I got home and looked up the box score of the game, my jaw dropped: He had all the details exactly right. Penny had played badly. That Wolves team did suck. And they did lose, bro. Shaquille O’Neal played 1,423 games in his NBA career, and he was able to recall, off the top of his head, a pointless contest from February 1995. One way to look at this would be to say that an athlete never forgets. Another would be to say that an athlete never lets go.
I thought of Shaq Sunday night, when Tom Brady announced on Twitter that, never mind, he would be returning for his 23rd season after all, less than six weeks after “retiring” from the NFL. As the best player in NFL history, Brady is also naturally one of its fiercest ever competitors. Did we really think that he was going to let his final game be a devastating, last-second loss to the Rams, in which he heroically steered his team back to the brink of victory, then came up short? Did we really think he was going to go make movies? Did you see his SNL hosting gig? He was terrible!
Brady’s legendary drive to succeed was never going to allow him to stay retired. He had dropped several hints in the past month-plus that his decision was subject to change, from failing to officially notify the Buccaneers that he was gone (the Bucs hadn’t bothered to replace him yet) to hedging in interviews about whether he was really, truly done.
Some star players hang on far too long and erode into a lesser version of themselves by the end; such was the case with Willie Mays, Patrick Ewing, and (even though no one likes to admit it) Michael Jordan. Heck, this applies to Shaq, who, I remind you, finished his career with the Celtics. But Brady’s refusal to quit actually makes sense from a football standpoint. He was second in MVP voting last year and, incredibly, threw for more yards (5,316) than in any other season of his career. Largely because of him, the Buccaneers will now be favorites to win their division. Brady may finally deteriorate down the line, if he continues to play into 2023 and 2024 — or even until the age 50, as he has threatened to in the past. But right now, he’s 44 and still one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He’s arguably still in his prime. And he’s supposed to walk away? To go talk about football on television? No thanks.
Like every athlete, Brady will spend the rest of his post-retirement life recounting what he did on the playing field in specific, tortured, exhaustive detail. Who can blame him for staving that day off a little longer? Every game you play is one you can never get back again, no matter how hard you try. You’d hang on as long as you could, too.
Eventually, this will probably end poorly for Brady, even if he is triumphant first. Maybe he wins a Super Bowl this year, or next year (which he could conceivably do with a team other than the Buccaneers, in case you were looking for sports-radio fodder for next spring), but eventually his body is going to break down. He is not a robot, no matter how he may eat like one. Considering that he plays a violent, dangerous sport, that breakdown could be ugly; he has already said he has suffered “multiple” concussions throughout his career, and a few more may not persuade him to walk away. But for an athlete who isn’t ready to say good-bye, particularly one as combative and skilled and obsessed with winning and his legacy as Brady, no ending could be uglier than one that happens too early. Athletes always talk about “leaving it all on the field.” Brady may end up doing that, deep into his 40s and maybe his 50s, in the most literal sense. I have no doubt he, and nearly every player who has come before or after him, would have it no other way.