Tom Brady has, by any sane measure, a preposterously tough job. On 16 Sundays a year, many of them frostbitten and snow-blighted, several monstrously large men attempt to crush him, stomp him, rub him into the grass, upwards of 60 times in an hour. But eluding or surviving that onslaught (hardly a given, as the 2008 season showed) is the merest of Brady's duties. For him, that's just showing up at the office, parking his coffee on the desk. No, he's got to close the deal, to win, every time, or else face another assault wave: the second-guessing and fist-pounding and bellyaching from a million-plus blowhards—sports-radio callers, ESPN commentators, paunchy saloon savants, you, me—spouting coulda-woulda-shoulda analysis from every beery corner of this vast republic. So it's tough, Tom Brady's job.Nevertheless: Tom Brady thinks his new wife, Gisele Bündchen, has the tougher job. Exiting a four-hour fashion shoot at the Pier 59 Studio, in Manhattan's Chelsea Piers complex, Brady says, "That's harder than playing for 85,000 people."
Stop there. For real? Well, few would know better than the Patriots star: he of the molten stare in the Stetson ads, he who flirted last year with becoming the new face and bulge of Calvin Klein's underwear ad campaign (but who eventually declined), he who can be seen hobnobbing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's annual Costume Institute Gala, that beehive of fashionistas, with Gisele on his arm. With his cleft-chinned, lantern-jawed, comic-book-hero face and dandyish flair for style, Brady is no stranger to the modeling life, to the tinsel of high fashion. Sure, Peyton Manning gets his picture snapped once in a while, but God forbid anyone ask him to flash his bedroom eyes. No, Tom Brady owns this particular overlap of football and fashion, of athletics and aesthetics (or co-owns it, anyway, with David Beckham). So we trust him. He knows.
Unless he's just kissing a little a$s. His wife's, to be specific. He's already admitted that he's not the top dog in the Brady-Bündchen household—that honor goes to Vida, the Yorkie that Brady sometimes pedals around Boston, Toto-style, in a bicycle basket, or walks around downtown New York, dutifully scooping up its dainty turds. So maybe that comment is just a squirt of grease in the marital gears: Of course your job is tougher, honey. Let me do the dishes. It's a thought, anyway.
And since we're spinning silky theories, here's one more: Maybe Tom Brady has forgotten, amid all those white-hot flashbulbs, just how tough his job is. It's been a while, after all, since he's done it—since September of last year, when his left knee's ACL was mangled by a low hit by the Kansas City Chiefs' Bernard Pollard in the Patriots' season opener. In that forced meantime—during which the Patriots, on the heels of an almost-perfect season, went 11-5 and didn't even make the playoffs—Brady hunkered down and got to work rehabbing his injury and, once off his crutches, married Gisele, whom he'd been dating since late 2006. They traveled to Vancouver, where they fed pigeons downtown and hit the tourist attractions, and to a resort in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where they lounged poolside. Pats fans and pundits (see blowhards, above) began worrying: Has Tom Brady . . . gone soft? "I can't take it anymore," the Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy wrote earlier this year. "Aliens have overtaken Tom Brady's body. He's not the guy we thought we knew." This after Brady was photographed eating out of Gisele's hand in Mexico. "Think there's any photographic evidence of Johnny Unitas being spoon-fed?" Shaughnessy ranted. "Think of Tom Cruise jumping up and down on Oprah's couch. Think of Mike Dukakis in the tank. This was worse." Well, memo to the Shaughnessys of the world: Tom Brady just said modeling is harder than pro football.
"Yeah, she gives me all the food on her plate because she doesn't eat it," Brady is saying. Dressed in jeans, a black-and-white-checked shirt under a black crewneck sweater, and black suede loafers, the 31-year-old quarterback is sitting on the balcony of Pier 59 Studio's café, beneath a crisp, early-summer New York City sky. As to modeling versus football, Brady explains, "When I'm out on the football field, I have so much confidence in what I'm doing. With this," he says, meaning the modeling, "I don't know what I'm doing. I'm at the whim of the photographer and the crew." When I note that he has a decent coach in the household, he says, "Yeah, I should probably ask for some help. She does tell me to have fun, and to approach it in the third person, almost like acting. She makes it look so easy."
New York, thrumming several stories below, has become familiar terrain for Brady, who mostly divides his time between Boston (during the season) and Los Angeles (during the off-season), but who has an apartment here for the frequent times when Gisele is in the city for work. And by here we mean Manhattan—downtown in the West Village, to be precise—not the ultra-gated New Jersey enclaves where most of the city's pro athletes live. "You blend in very easily here," he explains. "You can kind of disappear here, and that's a good thing. There aren't too many places where I've found that's the case lately."
Understatement: another of Brady's skills. Because once you've won three Super Bowls, endured a very public breakup and a surprise pregnancy that was tabloid grist for months, and married the planet's most famous supermodel, there is no disappearing. Your new wife feeds you a morsel of food while you're on vacation, for example. This is duly recorded by a paparazzo with a super-zoom lens, then used as headline-worthy evidence of crippling softness—some kind of testicular rot threatening the city of Boston's municipal nut sack. "It's entertaining," Brady says of the charge, his shrug, though not his mouth, saying whatever. "You know, it's very—I don't take myself very seriously. I'm not a person who defends myself very often. I kind of let my actions speak for me. So when people criticize me, and they should—that's what you do as an athlete. You go out there, and that's what happens. You deal with it and laugh with it and hope they sell a lot of newspapers. Because there's going to be the next article the next day, and the next article the next day."
Indeed. The proof of that is in your hands. But we won't stop reading—and writing—about Tom Brady until his life becomes, well, boring. And that moment isn't coming soon. On the field, he's still the day's lead sports story: the underrated, overlooked kid from San Mateo, California, picked 199th in the NFL's 2000 draft (an early scouting report, which ranks right up there with Jim Cramer's exhortations to buy Bear Stearns stock among the media's greatest forecasting gaffes, devalued Brady for his "poor build" and said he lacked both "mobility" and a "really strong arm"), who went on to break a slew of NFL records and lead the closest thing to an NFL dynasty since Joe Montana's San Francisco 49ers. And now there's the injury, the comeback, the crush of expectations. He'd still be the Big Story if he looked like Shrek and was married to, say, that timid, mousy-haired woman in the accounting department whose name you can never remember.
But he doesn't, and he's not—which is why off the field he's bigger still. Even his Saturday-afternoon fashion choices come under scrutiny. "Is that a man purse he's romping with, or a feedbag for a horse?" asked the Boston Herald earlier this year. "Maybe my creativity comes out a little when I dress," Brady says of his style. "I'm not a very creative person, you know? I'm not really an art person. I'm not a great reader or writer or artist or musician. Hopefully I encourage my teammates, a little bit, to get their wives or girlfriends excited when they walk through the door."
When the sporting press gathered for the Patriots' first formal minicamp practice, in late May, the questions veered swiftly away from the status of Brady's ACL to the status of Gisele's uterus—from orthopedics to gynecology. Was Gisele pregnant? they asked. (Brady denied it, in much the same way the couple denied they were engaged in the months before their wedding. But the tabloids, citing sources close to Gisele, are adamant: She's pregnant. When I ask Brady about it privately about a month after the press conference, he explains, "It's just not something we discuss with anybody. It'll be obvious when it happens.") It's worth noting that no other player had to field questions about his marriage or relationship status. Even the sportswriters feel obligated to probe the tender spots, the domestic minutiae. Somewhere along the way, Tom Brady morphed from Quarterback to Celebrity, from Sports Illustrated subject to Us Weekly subject, from the topic du jour at barbershops to the topic du jour at beauty salons.
"This isn't what you think about," he says of the fame. "You love playing, and, you know, it's pretty cool when you're younger and you go up to a bar in Boston and they let you in because you're the quarterback and it's like, hey, bring all your friends in. That was great."
Suffice it to say that Tom Brady's days of easeful barhopping are long gone. "Every time I step out," he says, "I know there's probably somebody watching, with a camera phone or something. And it doesn't feel good." Troubling case in point: Brady's wedding to Gisele in April, in Mal Pais, Costa Rica. (Their second wedding, for the record; they officially married in February, in Santa Monica.) Two paparazzi claimed that armed members of the couple's security detail opened fire on them as they were fleeing, and they offered photos of their car's shattered rear window as proof. (Brady disputed the allegation, saying the "security guys" weren't armed.) But shots or no shots, the die is cast. Like a buck roaming the woods, ears overattuned to the sound of a rifle click, Brady always has his guard up. "I'm glad they didn't have those camera phones seven or eight years ago," he says, referring to his wilder single days. "When I go out now, I just watch what I'm doing."
Not that he ventures out much. As Brady puts it, "I think my wife and I, we probably enjoy staying home more than most." The initial hope for this interview was that Brady would consent to getting, say, a beer or two at a sports bar—regular guy, regular setting. But Brady's rep insisted that the talking take place at, or exceedingly near, the Chelsea Piers studio. In retrospect, it seems somehow appropriate: a safely unoccupied café, several stories above the whirligig Manhattan streetscape, at a fashion studio tucked inside a giant sports-and-entertainment complex—a metaphorical nexus of all things Brady.
Yet such a conceit implies, however obliquely, that there's something empty about Tom Brady, something shallow and vaguely corporate. It isn't the first time the implication has been made. Some say about Brady what Gertrude Stein once quipped about Oakland: that there's no there there. It's easy to see why—Brady can come across as more CEO than QB, speaking in loose generalities, hyperpositive platitudes, guarded imprecisions. "You wonder," he says at one point, "how bad is bad? Is bad really bad? Because bad ends up being great after a little bit of time." Asked to clarify with an example, he says, "You know, things in my personal life, obviously, and in my football career," which narrows it down to... everything.
But here's the rub: Those are earnest generalities, that's genuine positivity. "He's very naïve, almost like a child," Gisele recently told a reporter. "He is innocent. He sees the world with colored glasses." Brady "really is an open book," says Alex Guerrero, a Utah sports therapist who became friends with Brady after treating him seven years ago. "He's a very philosophical person, a very deep-thinking individual. He feels things deeply."
One thing Brady is alluding to with the Zen koans above—presumably—is the 2007 birth of his son, John Edward Thomas Moynahan, known as Jack. For a man who cherishes organization and control, which is reflected in what friends say is a clutterless home and an impeccably arranged closet, fatherhood arrived as an epically disorderly jumble. Two months after he'd ended his two-year relationship with the actress Bridget Moynahan, in 2006, Moynahan revealed she was pregnant with Brady's child.
By this time Brady was already seeing Gisele, whom he met on—of all things—a blind date engineered by a mutual friend. "This friend told me he knew a girl version of me," Brady tells me over the phone in early July, after our conversation at Chelsea Piers. Gisele, in the background, chimes in: "And he said to me he'd found a boy version of me." If there's a certain absurdity to the concept of a "blind" date between celebrities, so be it. They had dinner together in New York City—"I think the place is closed now," says Brady when I ask him where—following a Patriots-Dolphins game. The blind date worked. The pair stuck. And then came fatherhood, with his movie-star ex. The tabloids, naturally, went berserk: Hot actress! NFL icon! Supermodel! Baby! The exclamation-point potential was infinite. "That's not how you envisioned your life, that's not how you envisioned having children," he says now, "but it happens.
"But you're not talking about a tragic event," he adds, his voice deepening. This is new conversational terrain for Brady, at least publicly; he's maintained a strict silence about his personal life since it all went cuckoo. ("It doesn't affect anybody but me," he told Details in 2007. "So why is it a big deal?") "You're talking about a life," he says. "It's what happens. And that's forced me to grow up in a lot of ways, and in a lot of ways I've learned about the people around me, learned about my wife and about how important she is in my life, through this. You see what she's really about. Because that's not what she wanted either. But once again, it's...I just don't think...life is not what everyone..." Here Brady stumbles momentarily, searching for the words. "Life is not living in the suburbs with a white picket fence. That's not life. Somehow our American culture has made it out that that's what life needs to be—and that if it's not that, it's all screwed up. It's not. You go through life and you try the best you can."
And Brady does seem to be giving it his all. "I think the biggest misconception about Tom is that he throws money at his son and doesn't care," Guerrero says. "People perceive him to be this globe-trotting, jet-setting celebrity who doesn't care about his son. That could not be further from the truth." A closer look at the paparazzi pics—Brady playing in an L.A. park with Jack, riding him around Boston on the back of his bicycle, hanging out with him on-field after a training session—appears to bear this out. "You march to your own beat for so long," Brady says. "It's like, an hour commitment used to be a big commitment, and now you chase a little boy around for eight hours a day, waiting to catch him if he falls and changing his dirty diaper. You think, How crazy is this?" Crazy enough that Brady says he wants more of it. Scads more. "I want a lot of kids," he says, then repeats it for effect. "I'd love four or five. We'll see. It's not always my decision." This echoes something Gisele said, back in 2005: "My life's dream is to have a baby, but it's not only up to me." That's a lot of joint procreative yearning. Little wonder, then, that Gisele became pregnant—reportedly, anyway—before the wedding-present thank-you notes were mailed.
Though Brady doesn't come out and say it, fatherhood seems to have colored his decision to marry. "We'd dated and had been through a lot together," he says. "That's been a nice settling part of my life as well." For a vast swath of the male population, the word settling might provoke cognitive dissonance when applied to Gisele, the glamour girl who pressure-cooked an entire generation's hormones with her Victoria's Secret spreads. "You don't know what you don't know" is Brady's response to those who, peering green-eyed at his life, would say he's hit too many jackpots, has it all too good. "We're all here, man, we're all sharing the same air. Everyone wants to look at the guy"—meaning him—"and say, 'Well, if I had that, I'd really be happy.' But happiness is really about how you feel yourself and if you're satisfied with yourself. I wish everybody happiness, man. And fulfillment in life. You don't need to play football to have that. At least I don't think that's what was going through the creator's mind when we were created. "People in Ohio or Texas probably think that," he adds. "But ..."
That Brings us back to Brady's job. The tough one, you'll recall. The one in which rabid, hulking freaks of nature try to pound Brady into dust. And this year, he says, it may be exceptionally tough. Tougher than modeling, even. "We've got a lot of youth," he says of the Patriots. "But anytime you've got Bill Belichick, as far as I'm concerned, you've got a great chance. If we can get a few good bounces, and everyone stays healthy, I think we're going to be just fine." There's a symbiotic magic to Brady's relationship with Belichick. Together they're astonishing, with an 87-24 record. But apart? As head coach, Belichick without Brady is a mediocre 52-62, and though a decent highlights reel could be made out of Brady's career at the University of Michigan, he began there as the seventh-string quarterback and was rarely the starter, and he was drafted into the NFL, remember, after 198 mooks. "I know what he expects," Brady says of his coach, "and I know what his idea of leadership is, and that's what I focus on." The work marriage, however, is not without its prickly spots. "You'll practice on a Wednesday, and you'll come in Thursday morning and he'll have the film up there from practice," Brady says. "Sometimes, during practice, you throw a bad ball—that's the way it goes. But the video comes up and he says, 'Brady, you can't complete a goddamn hitch.' And I'll be sitting there thinking, I'm a focking nine-year veteran, I've won three goddamn Super Bowls—he can kiss my... That's what you're thinking on the inside. But on the outside I'm thinking, You know what? I'm glad he's saying that. I'm glad that's what he's expecting, you know? Because that's what I should be expecting. That's what his style is."The concern among fans is that the memory of Brady's injury will cause him to go soft—there's that word again—to fold too early in the pocket, play it too safe. "I wouldn't think so," Brady says. "Whatever happens, you can't avoid it. It's the way you land." The lesson from his injury and its aftermath, then, has not been a newfound cautiousness. It's something deeper than that. "When you go down on the field and they carry you off, you know what happens?" he says. "The game goes on. They line up for the next play, and nothing stops. The game doesn't stop for anything or anybody. It just keeps going."
There's something dark about that statement, something existential in the Sartre sense—at least coming from Brady, who exhales positivity like candy-colored smoke rings. "I love everything I've experienced," he says quite sincerely at one point. Though he still may be "Tommy Brady from Portola Drive in San Mateo," as he insists when asked about ways in which he's changed in the past few years, he's older now, maybe wiser. And perhaps even—poolside hand-feedings notwithstanding—a little harder. When I ask him if he still feels the need to prove himself, he says, "Yeah, certainly, certainly," then follows it with this: "Because nobody cares—I mean, at least I don't—about what happened two years ago in my career. It's great that we won the Super Bowls—hey, I'll show you the rings. But get over it. Move on. Move on." So I paraphrase: Live life in the present tense, right? "Hell yeah," Tom Brady says, not softly at all.