For those of you old enough to remember board games, one of the more prominent from my childhood was the Game of Life, a board game where players spun their way through life’s milestones, like marriage and kids and jobs, and tried to get to retirement as quickly as possible with the most disposable cash. Tom Brady does not seem to understand that game.
By all accounts, the 44-year-old Hall-of-Fame quarterback has played it just right, amassing heroic amounts of money over 22 years in the NFL, along with seven Super Bowl titles, three MVPs, and pretty much every other accolade known to football. He played about five years longer than anyone would have imagined and beat the average NFL tenure by almost two decades. On a personal front, he’s married to an independently wealthy supermodel and has three school aged kids. If this were the board Game of Life, Tom Brady would have won hands down.
And that’s what we all thought happened, just over a month ago when Brady announced his retirement and plans to spend more time with family. That lasted for all of 40 days until last Sunday, when he announced that he’s decided to come back and play another year for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the same team that came one play away from Brady’s 11th Super Bowl appearance. After literally weeks of introspection, Brady said his place is still on the field, not in the stands. Clearly, heaven can wait. Apparently, all that time with your kids that you can never get back, well, Tom can do without. I like to think of this as the Urban Meyer plan, the former Florida former Ohio State former Jacksonville Jaguars coach who often used family as an excuse for leaving a job before almost immediately taking another.
To be clear, I don’t begrudge Brady for deciding to play on. Players should be allowed to play as long as their bodies and will allow, which for him seems to be forever. Fans don’t have the authority to write the ending for their favorite, or for many their least favorite athlete. It is fair to critique Brady for creating his own dramatic scenario to grab even more oxygen out of the room. This breaking news stole the spotlight from the much anticipated NIT selection show Sunday night. It’s also fair to ask players and coaches not to talk about how much they care about family when only minutes later they do something that indicates the opposite. But even at that, you can be a pretty dedicated father while still holding a tough job. I’d just rather you don’t create a mythology that’s very easily deconstructed.
What’s potentially unique about Tom Brady’s unretirement, perhaps unlike the countless other athletes who’ve gone to the other side, is that Brady isn’t just coming back to play football. He’s coming back to break barriers we all assumed steel clad. The saying goes that father time is undefeated. In this case, it’s pretty close. Now it’s entirely possible that Brady comes back and finally surrenders to the inevitable, unable to meet the physical demands of the moment. But that’s what we all thought last year. And the one before. So even if you don’t appreciate Tom Brady’s theatrics, it’s at least worth admiring the science.
In the end, retiring from sports is unlike most any other profession for three reasons. First, it happens so remarkably young, even for Tom Brady, that you have decades of afterlife to figure out. So it makes sense to stretch it out. Second, unless you have a secondary talent in managing hedge funds, you’ll likely never early anywhere close to that much money again in your whole life. So even if Tom Brady doesn’t need the money, it’s tough to say no to an extra $50 million. And finally, I know that a lot of us like our jobs. But I also know that with generational wealth, you might step away. That’s not necessarily the case with pro athletes. I don’t buy the cliché that they’d play for free. But I do believe they will never again feel the same rush that they do on game day. So saying goodbye to that might actually be the hardest part – especially for someone like Tom Brady who’s not only on the field, but is basically its epicenter.
That is why I get Brady’s reversal, even if it gets under my skin. And even if this life is nothing like the board game.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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