PHOENIX - It's with a mix of admiration and unease that Dinah Crafts talks about Tom Brady.
A Giants fan from New Jersey, Crafts knows all about Brady's poise in the pocket, his three Super Bowl rings, and the New England Patriots' quest to become the NFL's first undefeated team in 35 years. But she also knows the soap-opera story line that's become Brady's private life: his breakup with actress Bridget Moynahan, the subsequent birth of the couple's baby, and the quarterback's romance with Gisele Bundchen, the gold standard of supermodels. Each titillating chapter is chronicled by gossip websites, which have begun to treat the football player like a rock star. It's no surprise that paparazzi, not sportswriters, broke the story of the star's injured ankle while snapping pictures of him carrying flowers into his girlfriend's New York townhouse.
"Looks like your perfect boy has some tarnish," Crafts says.
But even as Brady has become fodder for the tabloids, and his celebrity status threatens to overshadow his historic performance on the field, public perception of the Patriots quarterback hasn't changed much. Female fans, particularly, may not approve of the way Brady has behaved away from the game, but they're giving him the benefit of the doubt.
That's as it should be, says Joe Namath, the former New York Jets quarterback who knows something about the twin disciplines of football and fashion. Namath, the NFL's first "sex symbol" and the last player to achieve the sort of celebrity enjoyed by Brady, says it's no secret why Tom is Teflon.
"He is executing better than anyone I've ever seen at that position," said Namath, who'll watch tomorrow's Super Bowl at his home in Florida. "People have a smile on their face when they talk about my career, and it's the same thing with Tom. The truth is, if you play with style and you respect the game, people appreciate that."
"Broadway Joe," as Namath was dubbed by the New York press, won only one Super Bowl, in 1969, but his flamboyant off-the-field exploits made him an iconic figure. He wore full-length fur coats, dated famous actresses such as Ann-Margret, and posed in pantyhose for a memorable TV ad. Asked, in hindsight, how well he handled celebrity, Namath bristles just a bit.
"Shoulda, woulda, coulda," he said. "Tom knows how to do it. What am I going to say to him?"
That's a question Lisa Donovan, one of the cohosts of KISS 108's "Matty in the Morning" program, has given some thought to. Donovan, who used to work as a publicist in New York, thinks Brady needs to use better judgment. She says, for example, he shouldn't have worn the protective boot while visiting Bundchen last week, and maybe should have bypassed the Big Apple altogether. (The picture of Brady in the boot was all over the Web, with one snarky site posting it under the headline "Booty Call.")
"Tom Brady's reached a new level of fame, whether he knows it or not," Donovan said. "He needs someone around to give him a reality check and say, 'You know, Tom, maybe it's not a good idea to go to New York two weeks before the Super Bowl.' "
No one could have predicted Brady would have this problem when he was drafted by the Patriots in 2000. The odds of an unheralded sixth-round pick becoming a superstar in the NFL are not good. But three Super Bowl wins began to change that, and in late 2006, after his three-year relationship with Moynahan ended, Brady was photographed with Bundchen, the world's richest supermodel, traveling in Europe. Magazines such as People, In Touch, and Us Weekly immediately took notice. Brady's fate as a full-blown celebrity was later sealed with the surprise announcement that Moynahan was pregnant. The boy, John Edward Thomas Moynahan, was born last summer.
"When you have a celebrity who's dating a celebrity, that's equal to, like, three celebrities," says Us Weekly news editor Lara Cohen, explaining the calculus that determines coverage. "You throw a baby into the mix, and, well, it becomes a big deal."
Cohen said the magazine doesn't have anyone assigned to the Brady beat in the same way it keeps a close eye on, say, Britney Spears. She said questions have been raised about how much time the quarterback spends with his son, but there's been no public acrimony between Brady and his ex.
"I've been struck by how uniformly good the press about Brady has been," says Rachel Sklar, media editor of The Huffington Post. "There are plenty of good-looking cads in the world, but I'm not sure Brady's one of them. My default in any situation is to look at the evidence, and this guy looks to me like a hard-working team player who happens to have dated two beautiful women."
In fact, if anyone deserves credit for Brady's continued popularity, it may be the girlfriends, says Mary Alice Stephenson, a contributing fashion editor at Harper's Bazaar.
"Tom Brady basically ducked a major identity crisis because Bridget and Gisele are elegant women who can deal with the press," says Stephenson, who knows and has worked with both women. "In America, once you have women against you - and women would've been against Tom if Bridget handled this differently - it's over for you."
But Stephenson acknowledges that Brady does have a few things going for him: He's an extremely handsome and successful athlete whose sense of style is smart, subdued, and all his own. She says there's a reason he is paid millions of dollars to appear in ads for Stetson cologne, Movado watches, and SmartWater.
"Look at the style of a guy like David Beckham - he works it and it's done with flair," Stephenson said. "But Brady's always on the down low. Those paparazzi shots of him in New York? There's an appealing effortlessness there. He's not posing."
And he's not talking, either, at least not about his private life. Brady has rarely spoken publicly about his son and never about his one-year relationship with Bundchen. At media day this week, Brady gamely answered questions for 60 minutes, but he didn't reveal much. Asked, for example, how he handles all of the media attention off the field, he shrugged his broad shoulders and smiled.
"You just go about your life," he said. "It's a give and take. God knows, my life has been extremely blessed."
David Hudgins, a writer and producer of "Friday Night Lights," the TV show about a fictional high school football team in Texas, said he has a laugh every time he hears someone talk about Brady's image problem.
"Pacman Jones has an image problem. Players who . . . get arrested - they have image problems," Hudgins said. "Brady has an incredible-looking girlfriend and he's about to win his fourth Super Bowl. Where's the image problem?"
But Hudgins also knows there are football fans who've soured on Brady. His own 12-year-old son thought Brady was a gridiron god after the Patriots won their first Super Bowl title in 2002. Now, though, the kid can't stand him.
"It's not about Brady's girl-friends," Hudgins said. "It's because he wins all the time."