FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A fresh pair of socks. As a young quarterback at Michigan, that is all Tom Brady wanted out of life. He was talking about the future one night with his teammate, Aaron Shea, dreaming like college boys do, when he asked Shea what he would want if he made it big in the NFL.
"A Dodge Viper and a house in Hawaii," Shea said. "How about you?"
"Me?" Brady responded. "I'd like to wear a pair of socks every day, and at the end of the day throw them away and put new socks on."
So many people have been criticized and ridiculed over the years for missing on Brady, from his college coach Lloyd Carr to all the NFL executives and scouts who passed on him in the 2000 draft, and yet the quarterback had no idea where his life was headed, either. Yes, as a 199th overall pick, Brady famously told Robert Kraft, New England Patriots' owner, that he was the best decision Kraft's franchise ever made. But before that draft, Brady also told Shea he worried about flunking out of the NFL and ending up in the insurance business.
All these years later, even with an injured throwing hand, Brady turned out to be the most reliable insurance policy the NFL has ever seen. He won his record fifth Super Bowl title last February by leading a record comeback after being down 28-3 to Atlanta. On Sunday, he earned his eighth trip to the biggest game in American sports with a fourth-quarter comeback against Jacksonville in a 24-20 victory that was no less improbable and, given the circumstances (fighting through double-figure stitches in his money hand), no less impactful on his ever-expanding legacy.
The recent palace intrigue actually threw a brighter spotlight on his greatness, too. Before this AFC Championship Game, in a sit-down interview with the NFL Network, Kraft said he believed he could keep this Patriots machine rolling for some seasons to come ... with a little finesse work in the human relations department. "There's a lot of strong-minded people," the owner said, "but when you have something good going, everybody's got to get their egos checked in and try to hold it together."
Of course, those would be the same egos ESPN's Seth Wickersham wrote about to some outcry, the egos belonging to Brady, Bill Belichick and Kraft himself. But here's the most forgotten component of the tension that was starting to wear on the NFL's most ferocious three-headed dragon: Brady's sustained brilliance is the only reason that tension existed. Still playing at an MVP level at age 40, Brady became the first Patriot to outkick Belichick's coverage.
The coach had it all set up for his 2014 draft pick, Jimmy Garoppolo, to take over when Brady declined. This question wasn't part of draft-room discussions: What if Brady never declines? Belichick had established a system that rattled off championships and title game appearances at a dizzying pace, discarding a parade of decorated players a year early -- rather than a year late -- along the way, and nobody was durable enough to beat that system.
Nobody except Brady, an ageless player who happens to play what has become an ageless position. The Patriot Way software didn't account for a Benjamin Button-like figure to take the ball and never give it back. That's why Belichick traded a young star he didn't want to trade and why the franchise that forever leads the league in self-examination started pointing more fingers than the usual bottom-feeders in the AFC East.
You want your silver lining to the dark clouds that surfaced this year, Patriots fans? Here it is: Brady caused those nasty organizational fissures by doing to his 2017 opponents what he did to the Jaguars, throwing the two touchdown passes in the final nine minutes to send the Patriots to a Super Bowl LII matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles. Once upon a time, Brady watched the San Francisco 49ers trade away his boyhood idol, Joe Montana, to make room for Steve Young.
Brady made the Patriots trade Steve Young instead.
Belichick kept the right quarterback, by the way, and how could anyone doubt that after Brady threw for 138 yards and those two scores in the fourth quarter alone? The Jaguars had physically controlled the Patriots for much of this game. The underdogs had dominated the line of scrimmage and knocked out Rob Gronkowski with a shot to the head. Blake Bortles, of all people, had outplayed Brady, whose bloody run-in with Rex Burkhead's helmet in Wednesday's practice seemed a most unworthy end to a defending champ's year.
"My season can't end on a handoff in practice," Brady told himself afterward. "I didn't come this far to end on a handoff."
He wasn't sure he would play until a promising Friday turned into an encouraging Saturday, and by Sunday night a victorious Brady was wearing another gray AFC Championship T-shirt and publicly thanking the doctors, trainers and Alex Guerrero, the fitness guru and life coach Belichick demoted to second string. Perhaps that little plug for "Alex" was Brady's second victory of the night.
"Tom did a great job, and he's a tough guy. We all know that, all right?" Belichick said. "But we're not talking about open-heart surgery here."
No, and we're not talking about Curt Schilling's ankle in the 2004 postseason or Michael Jordan's flu in the 1997 NBA Finals, either. But still, it isn't easy throwing a football against a lethal defense with a hand that only a few days ago looked like something out of a low-budget zombie film.
"I've never had anything like it," Brady said. "Well, I've had a couple of crazy injuries, but this was pretty crazy."
The quarterback didn't want to say the injury or hand-wrapping impacted his performance for fear of sounding like an in-his-prime Tiger Woods winning a golf tournament with what he then-identified as his C-game. And truth be told, Brady might not have been the best Patriot on the field. Danny Amendola made a special catch on his second touchdown, the game winner, and spent the afternoon playing all-around football the way Jim Thorpe played it. With the Patriots down 20-10, Amendola's 21-yard catch on third-and-18 only saved the season.
"If you look up 'good football player' in the dictionary," Belichick said, "his picture is right there beside it." If the NFL's greatest all-time coach says that about you, you might as well quit on the spot.
Except the Patriots never quit. They just make second-half adjustments, make you play the entire field and the entire clock, and wait for you to break. With 55 seconds to go in the first half and two timeouts to work with from his own 25, Bortles took a knee, and then another, to bleed out the clock. No chance Brady takes a knee there. None.
In the end, Brady made the Jaguars pay for their mistakes, just like he made the Falcons pay for theirs in Super Bowl LI. Up in the press box, the Jacksonville executive and former New York Giants coach who had denied Brady two more rings and a 19-0 season, Tom Coughlin, was chomping his gum and cursing the fates as his face turned redder by the possession. Brady held up yet another Lamar Hunt Trophy in his injured hand in the postgame ceremony, and the fans once again chanted his name.
Thirteen years after he beat the Eagles to win his third title in four years, Brady has a chance to do it all over again. What would he have thought as a sixth-round rookie if someone told him this staggering run was in the stars?
"I would have thought you were crazy to think that, or I was crazy to think that," Brady said. "I guess it's my life, so I'm living it and it feels very natural and normal because I wake up every day and I feel very much the same as I did when I walked in here 18 years ago."
Maybe not quite the same. Before Brady's latest AFC Championship Game conquest, a man stood outside the adjacent fitness center the quarterback runs with Guerrero, TB12, and hawked TB12 shirts, hats and scarves. Not bad for a clueless college kid who dreamed of making enough NFL money to wear a new pair of socks every day of his charmed life.
Brady built his empire the hard way and still plans to carry his career into his mid-to-late 40s. If his durability created tension in the building, you know what? Every NFL franchise would kill to be so lucky.