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The middle of winter brings that annual ritual of aging football players contemplating their futures. Around this time last year, Tom Brady announced that he was retiring so that he could spend more time with his family. Then, 40 days later, he announced that he’d changed his mind and was, in fact, returning to the field, a decision that apparently contributed to his divorce from Gisele Bündchen in October.
With that, any ambiguity about Brady’s driving value disappeared. It’s now so clear what he always elevated above all else: greatness.
For an athlete who obsessively pursues such heights, the decision of when to call it quits is fraught: Would you rather go out on top, or go out knowing you have nothing left to give?
On first glance, the former might seem the more appealing option. Who wasn’t disappointed when Michael Jordan decided to return from retirement after initially ending his career in the most fairy-tale way possible, with 1998’s game-winning shot that secured his third straight NBA championship? Who didn’t shed a tear when Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway, after years of heartbreaking defeats, departed the gridiron for the last time on the heels of a dominant Super Bowl performance in 1999? As fans, many of us would prefer to remember our sporting heroes at their best, without having to deal with the uncomfortable memories of their ugly decline.
Last season, Brady had the chance to go out as a hero. In the semifinals of the playoffs, he orchestrated a nearly miraculous comeback that fell just short against the eventual Super Bowl champions, the Los Angeles Rams. If he never played another snap after that, he would have left us with an iconic finale fitting for the greatest quarterback of all time.
But that’s the hard part about going out on top. Brady had just proven his talent remained elite. How could he pass up an opportunity to push it further — to see how much longer he could remain at the pinnacle? How could he not try to win one more Super Bowl to test the true bounds of his excellence?
He did return, and it didn’t go well. His Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a debacle of a season, losing more games than they won, before getting eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in an embarrassing blowout defeat to the Dallas Cowboys. Brady didn’t look horrible but he did look old, stiff, angry, grasping for magic he couldn’t quite conjure.
Surely, he can’t bear to go out like that. How can he pass up an opportunity to pursue the dream ending he probably believes he’s still good enough to attain? To end his career with the sort of iconic finale he could have had last year?
For now, it seems, he remains undecided. Asked on a radio show earlier this week what his plans were, Brady responded, “If I knew what I was gonna fucking do, I would’ve already fucking done it.” ●