It might be that Tom Brady's classic fourth-quarter 12-for-12 performance Sunday at Pittsburgh brought him to an even higher atmosphere among NFL quarterbacks, if that's possible. Never has Brady received so much respect and admiration following one regular-season game, not only from his teammates but from the opposing team.
Steelers receiver Hines Ward, on the late drive that set up the last-second field goal: ''That's Tom Brady. Tom Brady is the best quarterback in football." Casey Hampton: ''We chased him around and put some pressure on him, but he's Tom Brady, you know." Steeler after Steeler talked about Brady in superlatives.
Sunday's game seemed to elevate Brady to a new echelon. And there's a reason for that. After Brady's mentor, Charlie Weis, went to Notre Dame, it was clear this would be a transitional season. The respect he's gained in the Patriots locker room is off the charts, especially now, when he's been given more responsibility in terms of play-calling and leadership.
''I call him The Fonz," said punter Josh Miller. ''He's so cool, doesn't get rattled. The clock's ticking, no timeouts, we're cool, we're fine, wins the game, and immediately after the game, what's he do? He gives credit to everyone else on the planet Earth.
''He's got everybody believing in him. It's just awesome. I mean, I've been here for 20 minutes -- it's been a year and a half -- and it's been a great pleasure."
And then something off the field seems to crystallize what's even more important than Brady the quarterback: Brady the person. Here's an excerpt from a letter written by Jason McMahon, a part-time sportswriter from Mt. Horeb, Wis.:
''My name is Jason McMahon, and I am from Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin. I met you in February 2002 after a practice for your first Pro Bowl, but I'm sure you won't remember me. You may remember my brother, Chris, however. He was at the Pro Bowl, along with our family, through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Chris was 15 at the time, and he was one of a few kids in wheelchairs. But he was the only one wearing a No. 12 New England Patriots jersey.
''When we were at that Pro Bowl practice, we were all very anxious to see how you would interact with the children, and Chris in particular. So we probably watched you a little more closely than we watched the rest of the players. But what we saw was so touching.
''You spent more time with Chris than any other player that came through, though that was not surprising, given his choice of attire. But you also spent so much time with all of the children who were there. You didn't just stop and sign an autograph and maybe pose for a picture; you gave them all a conversation, something they would cherish long after those autographed footballs were tucked away on a shelf or boxed up in a basement.
''But more than that, two things specifically impressed me. With my brother and every child in a wheelchair, you knelt down so you could talk to them face to face. No other player did that, not a one. Such a small gesture, but one that carried so much meaning to those who were on the receiving end. And you were also the only player that day to do one other thing -- no other NFL all-star took the time to stop and say goodbye to the kids on their way out of the locker room. Some players stopped on their way in, some on their way out, but you were the only one who stopped for the children going both ways.
''My family and I have told that story countless times, and we will never forget it. I don't know if Chris mentioned this to you at the time, but that trip to Hawaii came at a very difficult time for our family. Less than a month earlier, we had lost my other brother, Matt, to muscular dystrophy. He was 21 at the time. He was my best friend, but he also had a unique bond with Chris, who missed him terribly after he was gone. Chris' experience meeting you was a sorely needed wonderful memory for our entire family.
''I have always meant to write to you somehow and tell you that. I wish I had a happier reason for finally getting around to it, but unfortunately I don't. Chris passed away on Friday night. His physical abilities had deteriorated over time, as is the case with all kids who have MD, though he had been in relatively good health. He had a few respiratory issues over the years, and he could not stave off his latest bout with pneumonia, which came on Thursday and took him in just two days. He just turned 19 a month and a half ago. We always knew this day would come, but we were blindsided by how soon and especially how quick. Chris didn't even know what was hitting him. Our parents were with him in the ambulance, and his final words, just minutes before he died, were 'Dad, this isn't the big one.'
''He never did get around to becoming a Michigan fan, as you asked him to do. He graduated last spring, and was taking classes at Wisconsin this fall (he was even at his Thursday afternoon class). He certainly would have enjoyed the game on Saturday, though he would have enjoyed your game on Sunday even more. We couldn't help but wonder if he had a hand in the infamous clock mishap.
''Chris drew one very bad break, growing up with a disease that would take him away from us long before we were all ready to say goodbye. But despite that, he was able to collect so many wonderful experiences and forge so many fabulous memories. I just wanted to write and tell you that his brief, yet so incredibly meaningful encounter with you that day in Hawaii was right up there on top of the list, and it will be a memory that the rest of his family will cherish as long as we all live."