"It started seven, eight months ago, right? All for this moment," the greatest quarterback of all time told his teammates prior to the biggest game of their lives. "It's about honor. It's about respect. We win this game, you're honored."
While this chapter of the greatest football story ever told started back in March of 2014, the moment has lasted a devastating ten years of time.
Can you believe it yet? Can you still feel it? That unmistakable loosening of a decade-old anchor that's been sitting on your shoulders, in your stomach, suffocating your throat. Years of tension and loss and emotional investment dispersed at the end of the most Super of days, a cathartic release.
This story starts back in 2005, immediately after Tom Brady and Bill Belichick secured the title of dynasty and football seemed easy and reliable. There was no reason why the Patriots couldn't continue their unreasonable string of success.
2006 presented the first challenge, as Tom Brady and the Patriots were a Reche Caldwell drop away from attaining their fourth Super Bowl berth against the Chicago Bears; but as it was written, Caldwell dropped the football and Peyton Manning and the Colts engineered an 18-point comeback, handing the Patriots their first gut punch of the Brady and Belichick era.
2007 was 18-1. 2008 was the torn ACL. 2009 was the Ravens blowout at home. 2010 was the Jets loss at home. 2011 was the Giants 2.0. 2012 was another home defeat by the Ravens. 2013 was another loss to Peyton, this time on the Broncos.
The story of Tom Brady is laced with the worst kind of football grief- the knowledge that greatness is right at your fingertips, but with the lingering inability to ever attain it. Some teams struggle through seasons without hope; it's another feeling entirely to have that hoped snatched away and pulled down in gravity defying fashion.
Brady is known for living a charmed football existence, with the Tuck Rule and the Snow Game, Drew Bledsoe coming off the bench in the AFC Championship game, the impossible final drive against the Rams in the Super Bowl, Adam Vinatieri and the defense stifling Peyton Manning, another impossible final drive against the Panthers in the Super Bowl, another defensive masterpiece against Peyton, and Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb forgetting about the clock in a third Super Bowl.
There's Troy Brown forcing a fumble off Marlon McCree, after McCree snagged the game winning interception early in the 2006 playoffs. There's obtaining and resurrecting players like Randy Moss and Wes Welker, and elevating the game to heights never before seen. There's Billy Cundiff pulling the kick wide in the 2011 AFC Championship game. There were little impossibilities that were made possible purely so the story of Tom Brady could continue.
He was lucky. He was great. He spent a decade trying to get back to the heights that seemed so simple and easy to achieve at the turn of the century.
Brady and the Patriots started this latest chapter when Darrelle Revis signed a contract in March. When Pat Chung and Brandon Browner and Brandon LaFell signed their contracts. When Julian Edelman and Vince Wilfork came to terms to remain Patriots. When the Patriots drafted Bryan Stork in the 4th round. When Malcolm Butler received his invitation to rookie camp.
These are the characters of greatest importance in the fairy tale, as this has been the tightest-knit locker room since Tedy Bruschi and the old guard rode off into the sunset. This is the undeniable and unforgiving autumn of Tom Brady's illustrious career, and the end will eventually come, no matter the fire with which Brady fights.
The season did not go as planned. The rival Broncos jumped out to an early season head start as their high priced free agent acquisitions earned them the Preseason Super Bowl title, or at least the upper hand in the AFC. The Patriots opted to ship away respected captain Logan Mankins in exchange for a 4th round pick and a back-up tight end.
Brady grew a Mankins-esque beard in protest.
The offensive line was in tatters and the rest of the offense didn't matter at that point. Browner was under suspension and Revis looked mortal. This wasn't the season the fans had it mind- but the team remained true to one another and continued to fight.
The Chiefs game was rock bottom for the season. The Patriots lost just one meaningful game after that point, and it was a nail biter to the Packers in Green Bay. The offensive line found its form. The defense became elite. The team overcame key injuries to Stevan Ridley and Jerod Mayo. They obtained key players like Akeem Ayers, Jonathan Casillas, Alan Branch, and LeGarrette Blount.
The Patriots didn't go all in during the off-season because they knew the season was a marathon, not a sprint. Players develop. Injuries happen. Stars fall and others turn into supernovas. The entire Patriots roster exploded.
When New England locked up the #1 seed in the AFC, along with the best overall roster in the conference, there was no celebration; that wasn't the goal. In the words of Belichick, the team was on to next week and the past didn't matter. The players took the season one game, one drive, one play at a time and they believed in each other.
They believed in each other when they twice fell behind against the Ravens, only to claw back both times. They believed in each other when the ludicrous allegations of DeflateGate surfaced after completely demolishing the Colts. They believed in each other when they finally made it to the Super Bowl, for a third time, against the Seattle Seahawks and their vaunted Legion of Boom secondary.
Still, the weight of a decade of shortfalls prevented anyone from becoming too excited about the prospects of falling short one more time. You could see it on Tom Brady's face when he threw both of his interceptions. It was the face of defeat, the wrinkled forehead and a look to the heavens. 'Why me?,' it looks like Brady says. 'Not again...' It was the look of Brady in every single playoff loss in his career. He walks to the sidelines, he sits on the bench, and he looks like he wants absolutely nothing to do with football.
But something was different in this game. Brady showed a broken spirit- even the Seahawks Richard Sherman picked up on it- but then he recollected himself on the sidelines. He wasn't passive; he was ever the aggressor, rallying the troops to go, just one more time! Let's have a championship drive right here!
Brady ascended to a higher level of ability this postseason. He grew as a quarterback in his 37th year and his ability to instill a drive into the entire team was buoyed by the loyalty and indomitable spirit of his teammates. Julian Edelman could not be denied. Rob Gronkowski achieved greatness. Danny Amendola fought through every last insult hurled his way over the past season.
Something happened when the Patriots uncorked their playbook against the Baltimore Ravens. The same spell book that cast a double pass from Edelman to Amendola, and instructed the shorthanded offensive line plays, must have conjured up something within Brady.
He was different. His fourth quarter against the Seahawks secondary was one of the greatest quarters of quarterbacking that anyone will ever witness, yet it was almost not enough. The heartbreak from Jermaine Kearse's incredible catch in the waning minutes of the game was enough to tighten the anchor around the Patriots' neck.
But then Malcolm Butler produced the most important and valuable singular play in the history of football. It (unreasonably) changed narratives, and offered Brady the same charmed existence that everyone saw when he was new, when he was young, when everything was easy.
This latest Super Bowl victory wouldn't have been as meaningful if Brady's Sisyphean climb back to top hadn't been laced with Giants and Titans and Bernard Pollard. The game wouldn't have provided the same lasting impact if not for the impossible catch by Kearse once again sinking the hearts of a franchise.
The latest chapter in Brady's story brought the hero back to heights from where he never should have left. Who knows how many words are left to write about his illustrious career, but his entire career has led to this exact moment. He played for the honor, he played for the respect.
Brady finally achieved the glory that had been eluding him for so long and he can now focus on his favorite ring: the next one. He may be old, but he's still hungry to prove that his charmed existence can last forever. Autumn will soon follow.