Maybe he really is different, wired in such a way that the usual worries of middle age – or, in sporting terms, old age – will simply never affect him. Maybe Tom Brady really is immune to all of that, and he’ll happily launch tight spirals until he starts getting AARP literature in the mail.
Perhaps his guardian angels will protect him better than a five-man front of Anthony Munoz, John Hanna, Jim Otto, Bruce Matthews and Forrest Gregg.
But before you just assume Brady can be Brady forever — since we really don’t have any evidence to the contrary — maybe it’s time to ask a different question.
Instead of: Why shouldn’t he play forever?
Perhaps we should ask: why should he?
What’s left to prove? What’s left to win? And look: we’re not just talking about him risking the embarrassment of being another great athlete who stayed at the party an hour too long. Willie Mays battling the sun, Michael Jordan with sore knees, Wayne Gretzky adjusting to life as another star, rather than a god: it was all hard to watch and, you can imagine, even harder to be.
But there was a difference.
There wasn’t the weekly risk of serious, permanent damage lurking on the other end of a blitz, or a stampede, or just a misstep. Football is different. Contact sports are different. It would have been nice for Jordan to come out after breaking Byron Russell’s ankles in Salt Lake City, winning the ’98 NBA title. His comeback as a wizard was disappointing. It wasn’t sad.
Muhammad Ali, it was sad.
There have been half a dozen times Ali could have stayed away from boxing with his legend and his senses at least reasonably intact. He walked away a bunch. He kept walking. Maybe he was already on his way to Parkinson’s disease when he stepped into the ring with Larry Holmes, or that terrible last fight with Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas.
But we will never know. What we do know is that his last retirement was at least one retirement too late. Same with Sugar Ray Leonard, who could never stay away and paid a punitive surcharge for it. So was one of the hundred glorious names in boxing scattered through time, badass who could never match the dose of life in the gym until it was solved for them. .
Look, in the end, a weakened Peyton Manning could barely put a ball back, let alone throw one with any semblance of accuracy. His final moment came amid a shower of Super Bowl confetti, but he will forever be known as having been carried there by his Broncos teammates, not the other way around. And listen to the hesitant cadence of Brett Favre; you have to wonder if those last two years with the Jets and Vikings were really worth it.
Or you can just review “Concussion”.
Again: maybe Brady is invulnerable to all of this. You can understand why someone still playing at MVP level might be reluctant to skip Sunday afternoon for good. You can understand how addictive goat life is. You can certainly appreciate the paycheck involved in such a trade, along with the adulation and camaraderie with teammates that no athlete will ever be able to replicate, whether the final game is in CYO or the NFL.
But those who wonder how Brady’s non-retirement might affect his legacy are missing the point. For one, it’s already secure, like Mays was regardless of Oakland’s solar field, like Jordan was when he was playing closer to the ground than the edge, like Ali was after the Rumble. in the Jungle, or the Thrilla in Manila.
It is his knees that will be in danger. And his shoulder. And his skull. Life in the NFL always means existing one shot away from the hospital. And it’s a shorter journey at 45 than at 25. With longer consequences.