Mark Leibovich got to hang out with Tom Brady at his house. No, scratch that. Leibovich got to hang out with Tom Brady at two of his houses. Multiple times.
Leibovich, a veteran political reporter, best-selling author of This Town, and chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, earned New England’s collective jealousy when Brady’s agent gave him the go-ahead to write a profile of the legendary quarterback. The article is the cover story of this Sunday’s The New York Times Magazine.
“I’ve interviewed politicians and presidents, and this is the first time I’ve really been nervous,’’ Leibovich told Boston.com. “I’m not used to talking to athletes, and there’s a mythology that grows up around them in a way that fades when you cover politics.’’
Writing about Brady was different from the political reporting Leibovich has done, which includes profiles of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, ex-presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.).
“There are similarities,’’ Leibovich said about the departure from his usual beat. “There’s a lot of bullshit with both; a lot of ego, money, gatekeepers, image consciousness. But ultimately, sports is a much more transparent business than politics because the performance plays out in front of you.’’
In sports, Leibovich explained, there are winners and losers. A team can’t convince the public that they won when they didn’t. It’s also an intimate business: We watch athletes do their jobs. Their job is to make us want to watch them do their jobs.
“Ultimately, there’s an exposedness to athletes,’’ said Leibovich. “They’re literally naked in the locker room. But it’s also a metaphor. You actually walk into their place of work, and see them at their most vulnerable. That’s more honest than we get to see most politicians.’’
Brady’s gatekeepers, as Leibovich calls the quarterback’s PR team, are not many. “It’s basically Tom and his agent, Don Yee, a very laid-back guy based out in L.A.’’ The Patriots quarterback generally agrees to one big print interview each year, and in the past they’ve appeared in Men’s Health, Esquire, and Details. These are not, as Leibovich points out, the magazines you’d expect, such as ESPN or Sports Illustrated.
Why doesn’t Brady appear in more sports-focused publications? Why did his team tap Leibovich, a man who covers government and politics, as the writer for this year’s article?
“Brady really likes being around people who don’t normally cover him,’’ Leibovich said. “He likes being in the company of people who have expertise or knowledge. He’s a genuinely curious guy—he likes different perspectives on life.’’
Leibovich’s piece, however, makes it clear that Brady, like politicians, is aware of how easily his words can be twisted, how ready he is to put up his guard up at any moment. He’s quick to snap at a reporter who suggests he might be past his prime during a press conference. So did Brady ever loosen up? Was he fun? Was he funny?
“Oh yeah, we joked around,’’ said Leibovich. The two met on and off throughout the season, but spent most of their time together during the Patriots bye week before the AFC Championship. (Both men, after all, have day jobs—Leibovich made it clear that his piece wasn’t “an immersive year-in-the-life’’ article.)
“But I mean, The Times is a family paper,’’ Leibovich continued. “So you have to clean up profanity and can’t print it all, especially with him. The guy swears a lot. But I swear a lot, too. I’m not offended by swearing.’’
Leibovich lamented the fact that he couldn’t get more of the profanity in. “I wish we could’ve printed some,’’ he said. Some of the funnier lines that came from Brady, it seems, were too riddled to be entertaining once censored.
Along with Brady’s propensity to drop F-bombs, he has other verbal tics. Leibovich writes, “Brady introduced me to a nanny, whom he addressed as ‘babe.’ He calls a lot of people ‘babe,’ male and female, a custom he picked up from his father.’’
Was Leibovich lucky enough to be deemed a ‘babe’ by Brady (or Tommy, as those close to him call him)?
“I think he called me ‘bud,’’’ Leibovich said. “I don’t think he called me ‘babe.’ His father certainly did. His father is the original ‘babe’ user. He did repeatedly. I think from Brady I only got a ‘bud.’’’
Speaking of Brady’s father, also named Tom, Leibovich told Boston.com that if he could add to the piece, he would include more about the impact the elder Brady’s personality had on his son.
“I loved his parents,’’ Leibovich said. “They are just really phenomenal. I thought they were awesome.’’
But the recent media maelstrom surrounding the PSI of 11 footballs didn’t allow for it.
“We couldn’t just not deal with Deflategate,’’ said Leibovich. “When my original draft went in, that was not part of it. So the question then becomes: Do you blow up the entire piece and recast it? Do you add some stuff about it? Do you add nothing? So unfortunately some of the better things in there got cut for more timely events.’’
A lifelong Patriots fan, Leibovich isn’t too worried about the whole scandal. “I think it’s at the very worst a parking ticket. Maybe I’m a partisan New Englander, you know—‘It’s us against the world!’ But it strikes me as a bit of a, well, nothing.’’
In addition to including more about Brady’s father, Leibovich also would’ve pushed harder to interview Belichick, a voice that’s missing from the otherwise comprehensive piece.
“I remember asking once, but I didn’t press, either.’’ Leibovich said. “I should’ve probably pressed harder. If I were to revisit this, Belichick is someone I would love to write about. He, like Brady, is extremely shallowly drawn and not well understood.’’
Other Patriots players and people who work closely with Belichick told Leibovich that the head coach is capable of being incredibly thoughtful and kind.
“I think he does himself a major disservice,’’ Leibovich said. “He chooses a certain personality at the podium that really has become how people perceive him. I don’t know why he does that.’’
Leibovich’s assessment of Brady, after spending a season with the quarterback, didn’t have anything to do with football, with coaches, or with scandals. It had to do with Brady’s character, corroborating what every New England fan hopes is true.
“Look, I think he’s a very good guy,’’ Leibovich said. “I found him to be quite decent, and the people around him to be really good testimonies to him. He strikes me as very solid, humble, and extremely driven.’’
That’s the real Brady: A babe inside and out.