MVP quarterback of the three-time Super Bowl winners New England Patriots, Tom Brady is someone who understands the icon business.
Brady's fire still burns inside
When there are 20 more people waiting to ask you questions than you have teammates waiting for you to throw passes on your first official day back at practice, you understand something unusual is going on. Such was the case when the best quarterback in the National Football League returned to the field for a public workout for the first time since his knee was splintered in September. Tom Brady, as always seems to be the case, knew what was coming.
MVP quarterback of the three-time Super Bowl winners New England Patriots, husband of super model Giselle Bundchen, father of the young son of actress Bridget Moynihan, idol of every American football fan in New England and many more around the world, Tom Brady is someone who understands the icon business. So as he ambled across the practice field towards nearly 100 waiting reporters, cameramen and photographers he wore a rueful smile. Not because anything was about to happen that he would not be able to handle but because it all still seems a little silly, even though his life in the eye of an endless media storm has only intensified since he married the Brazilian underwear model who not only makes twice as much - nearly US$30 million (Dh110m) last year - as he does but has her picture taken twice as often.
"I've been looking forward to this, guys,'' Brady says, a small, somewhat forced grin on his face. He hadn't of course. In the nine months since he fell awkwardly on his left knee in the first quarter of the first game of last season, resulting in a torn ACL and MCL that required reconstructive surgery and two more surgical procedures to clean up a staph infection that set back his rehabilitation process for a time last winter, Brady had married Bundchen twice (in LA and then Costa Rica), did or did not have his security people shoot the windows of some freelance photographers Jeep while they were trying to photograph the event, did or did not suffer serious surgical complications following the infection which could have led to a second knee reconstruction and did or did not lose interest in life as a professional athlete.
He also did or did not get his new wife pregnant, a story that seems to resurface breathlessly every few months with no baby in sight. To most all of this Brady laughs but it is not a belly laugh. It is a snort with a crooked smile. "I'm amused a lot,'' he says when asked if he was amused by the rampant speculation about the condition of his knee and his life. "I'm an optimistic person. There's been great things happening in my life for a long time. This year was no different in different areas of success with marriage and with children.
"It's a great part of my life and so is work. I'm excited about all those things coming together. I think I'm a happier person when I'm working.'' He may be, but just the use of the word "children'', when at this point he has only one, soon led to wild speculation that perhaps he and Bundchen were expecting their first child. They may be, but if they are he is remaining silent when asked about it. "No, no,'' Brady says when asked if he and Giselle were about to add to the Brady bunch.
"One is enough. I've got dogs. That's all I need.'' That may be all he needs at home but the Patriots clearly need him to return to the field and to the level of play that made him the best quarterback in the NFL for eight years. Four times he has led his team to the Super Bowl during that time, winning three and being upset by the New York Giants in the fourth after going 18-0 that season until New York beat them in the game's final minute by assaulting Brady with all-out blitzes much of the game.
He was poised for another run at making NFL history when he returned in autumn only to shockingly find his season over less than 10 minutes after it had begun. Faced with the first serious injury of his career, Brady, one of the game's smartest quarterbacks, now was forced to make adjustments of a kind he had never had to deal with before. To face serious injury in professional sports is to face your own mortality. American professional football, the players union claims, has a 100 per cent injury rate, meaning everyone goes down at some point. Players know and accept this, yet when it first happens the shock can be as debilitating as the injury.
Brady suffered with that, realising as they carted him off for the season that the game would go on without him. It was something he knew but the harshness of it was difficult to ignore at first, even though that is how it ends for everyone - you go home and the games go on without you. "I think you wake up the next day and you're kind of like 'was that a dream?' '' Brady says. "That's not really like how I thought it was going to go. I had never been injured. But that passes with me pretty quick. I don't dwell on it. I just kind of go, 'That sucks, OK, now what do we have to do?'.
"Right after, you're hurting a little bit but then you're focusing on the things you have to do to get better. I think it went pretty fast in a lot of ways - the rehab process, getting back here. It goes fast because there's something else to focus on and you're always trying to make improvements just like we do on the practice field but in a different way so you can get back out here with this goal in mind.
"It's challenging when you're not playing. You can't help your teammates in the role you've always helped them in. "The reality in this sport is you never really know. Any day could be your last in football. You come out and it's a very physical game so I think you're just grateful for having a chance to compete and practice and be on the team, having a great job. I don't think about the end too often. Hopefully this is relatively the early part of my career.
"I think we all have goals we set for ourselves and how long you want to play. Fortunately, for a quarterback you can play a long time because you don't get hit very often. I hope I have the opportunity to play for a long time. When you sit on the sidelines for an entire year you realise how much you love it. Not that you needed that to happen to be grateful to play but you experience things in a much different way, in a way I've never experienced as an athlete.
"I love being out there. I love participating and being around the guys. When you're in it every day it's a grind. You get up, go to work and there's quite a routine. I didn't have that routine last year so there's other things you see. "Some of those things when you're in the marathon of a season it's just getting through that next day and getting through the game. You start bitching about the little things. So when I was sitting out last year you hear all the guys in November and December, when everyone's starting to get worn down, complaining and I'm 'C'mon guys. Push through it. Win the game'. I really saw it from a different perspective in that sense so hopefully there's no bitching from me this year.''
If he is healthy there will be no complaining from his teammates. Brady returns to a team armed with offensive firepower. A year ago, led by a now departed back-up quarterback named Matt Cassell who had not started a football game in seven years, the Patriots went 11-5, missing the play-offs on a technicality. As good as that record was it wasn't good enough, and every loss seemed to conjure up thoughts of "What if Brady was here?".
It was a precipitous fall from the undefeated regular season of a year earlier in which Brady led the Patriots to more points than any team in NFL history (589) and to that 18-0 record. "This is a hard game. It's one of those things that if you're not doing it every day, and you're competing at this level, you always think it's going to get easier as you get older and you're going to complete more balls. That's not the way it works," Brady says.
"You've got to come out every day and put the work in. You can't take anything for granted. You can't think because you completed it last year a certain way, that's how it's going to be this year." Brady is now throwing and practising. But until he faces and survives the body-threatening contact that comes with life as a professional quarterback, questions will persist. Already having been the victim of an unusual staph infection that set back his early rehabilitation, Brady knows anything can happen between now and September.
He is focusing on nothing but football and family, worrying little about the future and ignoring the pain of the past. "You know, I really don't think about it [the injury last season],'' he says. "There's nothing you can do. You've got to find ways to move on. Like I said, I'm grateful to be out here. To have the chance to play is something I've wanted to do my entire life and I've had the opportunity to do it for nine years and I'm at it again for a 10th. I can't wait. I want to get back to doing what I love to do.''
American football has always been Brady's obsession. But after the injury some have wondered if the glamourous lifestyle of his wife has taken the edge off his competitive zeal. Throughout much of his year away from the game, Brady was photographed with her in one European capital or South American beach after another. Fashion shows over here, movie premieres over there, new mansion in Brentwood, a fancy LA suburb, big apartment in Manhattan.
Who could blame him if after all he had accomplished the gruelling life of an NFL quarterback looked less glamorous - and far less inviting - than it once seemed? Brady laughs at that suggestion. "I'm a believer that talk is real cheap but I'm some one that likes to put the work in,'' he says. "I know it looks glamorous at times. What I enjoy most is playing football and being with my family. Those are kind of the things that I do. I'm excited to go out there and compete.
"Any time I have a chance to compete I love that. Whether it's on the practice field or on the game field, which is, unfortunately, still a few months away for us, I'll always enjoy that. "I've been playing football for a long time. You don't have to re-learn how to do anything you just have to go back out and try to be sharp. There's still a lot of rust. It takes a lot of reps and a lot of throwing. We probably have 50 training camp practices and I'm looking forward to all of them because I haven't had the opportunity to do that in quite a while.
"Here I'm one of the guys and I enjoy that. Once I had a little bit more privacy back in the past but that's OK. I learn to manage it and still find a way to enjoy myself. Certainly here I always have fun because I really enjoy the things I'm doing. So this is a great place. "I think part of surgery and rehab is you have setbacks and you just have to deal with them. It doesn't always go how you plan it. Life doesn't go how you plan it. It's a matter of dealing with it and understanding what you have to do to get back on the right track.''
Brady continues to work each day to get back on track, a track that will lead him back to running the Patriots' offence and this season to Europe, where New England will play a regular-season game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in London. Brady is nearly as anxious about that game as he is about the season opener against Buffalo in three months. "I'm looking forward to that,'' Brady says of playing at Wembley Stadium.
"The day it was announced I was excited. I'd much rather play in London than in Tampa's stadium. "It'll be fun to play in a different place. I know the NFL works hard expanding into different countries all around the world, getting more fans. I think the players understand that. We're willing to do that. We love the game. We want other people to love the game, too.'' Many do, but it seems even after the first major injury of his career and his long Year of Living Glamourously, few love it more than Tom Brady.