By Jason Keidel
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While the sports world metabolizes the hammer Roger Goodell swung at Tom Brady, it’s hard to give this any context.
Never before has a heretofore adored player been so punished, so humbled, and so humiliated.
What makes this story so special is its crossover appeal. This is more than a mere football player hurled to the gallows. It’s Tom Brady, superhero married to supermodel, the high-cheekbone avatar of the NFL, the emblem and exemplar of playing the right way.
Brady’s narrative resonated on so many levels. Before he became the George Clooney of football, he was a lanky backup at Michigan who had to grind his way to get under center.
The Patriots took the now-renowned flyer on him — which is what a sixth-round pick really is — with the 199th selection in the draft. And then he legendarily asserted to owner Bob Kraft that it was the best business move he’s ever made. Quite a declaration for someone with a dearth of dominant games on his bio.
Brady climbed every rung, from practice squad to the high orbit of sports, celebrity, and Super Bowls. He morphed from Drew Bledsoe’s unimpressive backup to the shadow of Joe Montana atop the sport’s Mt. Rushmore.
He was one of the few who seemed to have it all yet was also seemed accessible, an impossible hybrid of icon and proletarian. Nothing was handed to him. He still cried when pondering his slow, late boom, the faith his father had in him, and despite his swollen Q and QB ratings, he still played the game with a rookie’s fervor. Despite his success, his Liberace set of Super Bowl rings, he approached his craft like someone one throw from losing his job.
Brady was, as much as anyone, a man on whom the NFL could hang its logo, clip like a button to his lapel. Brady wasn’t just a great player, he was a good man. The NFL never had to worry about a proclivity for Page 6, a dubious, late-night snapshots at a strip club, a knife-wielding entourage, or ending up in a place that allows just one phone call, which generally goes to an attorney.
No, Brady was different, because he was special. He was the exception to every physical and metaphysical rule we applied to legends. He wasn’t born with John Elway’s arm, Dan Marino’s release or Mike Vick’s speed. He wasn’t especially blessed by the deity’s wand with overwhelming athletic prowess, family pedigree, or a singular football moment that granted him unique access, like Doug Flutie’s magical moment against Miami.
Brady’s charm was his charm, his instant NFL success never tainting his childlike glee, or his hard-hat ethos. Even those of us who aren’t from Boston or born Patriots fans were allowed a secret admiration for Brady and what he stood for. He allowed us to think that we, too, could make it in our given endeavors with just the right cocktail of talent and temerity. And Brady showed us we could do it without stomping over the rules, and sans steroids.
But it turns out Brady did cross the line, literally, taking a giant eraser to the rules and a knife to our football hearts. The NFL believes he did deflate those footballs — something like 11 out of 12 of them — or was “at least generally aware” of the actions of his peons.
For those who say he didn’t need to, that the Pats drubbed the Colts and would have no matter the air pressure of the pigskin… then why did he?
If you argue that some of his worst games were with his best balls, then why did he?
If you argue that he won three rings without the help of the ball boy and thus he didn’t need to, then why did he?
If you argue he won his fourth ring with inflated footballs, thus proving he didn’t need to cheat…. then why did he?
Why did he cheat?
The football adage says if you’re not cheating you’re not trying. But that applies to smaller matters, to smaller men. It applies to the practice squad player pining for his moment in the Sunday sun, not to a prince like Tom Brady, who was less player and more monolith, the shine on the NFL shield. Gods don’t cheat.
The more jaded fans, more mummified in his jerseys and sweaters, refused to see the rather obvious truth. You doctor a football for the quarterback. The Kool-Aid drinkers would have us think otherwise, which is like saying Gaylord Perry doctored the baseball for his catcher.
We’re hearing the wide palate of adjectives, the needle swinging from “just” to “harsh.” Frankly, it feels just about right, and it finally feels righteous.
And kudos to Roger Goodell, who finally used his power and pulpit for some good. The reviled NFL Commissioner took a giant leap toward restoring some faith in the process, and his position. For too long we’ve seen him as a bully who selectively punished players, with no regard for rules or etiquette or public perception. He was little more than the 33rd owner, a corrupt cop who only cares about the kickbacks he got from people he was supposed to be policing. For a day, at least, Goodell looks like a good guy.
And shame on Tom Brady. He was the embodiment of the American Dream, proof positive that regular people could become regal, without breaking the rules, the laws, or breaking bad. He took the template QB number, a normal No. 12, and proved he was a most abnormal player and person.
But, for the first time in a long time, Tom Brady is looking terribly average and horribly awkward. Many boys looking for a hero, and many men who thought they found one, will find that rather deflating.
Follow Jason on Twitter @JasonKeidel.