The Washington Post

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tom Brady’s hair is hacked off like a zealot monk’s, and he is thin to the point of meanness. He is dieting with a hard focus, converting every morsel he eats into a purposeful burn. It’s one way to beat those slack-bellied and soft-tissued lawyers who torment him.

In Brady’s victory-obsessed state, even a piece of fruit has too much sugar and is foregone in favor of kale. What better answer to DeflateGate, and those who accuse him of participating in a scheme to underinflate footballs, than to play like a cleansed and purified essence? At the age of 38, Brady is destroying the National Football League with the best form of his life, undefeated at 7-0 with 20 touchdowns to just one interception entering Sunday’s game against the Washington Redskins. Each throw seems to have a vengeful velocity that says, “Am I cheating now?”

This is the real outcome of DeflateGate: A guy who had nothing left to gain now has everything to prove. “They did us a favor,” says New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

The events of the past year have delineated Brady’s competitive makeup in a way no Super Bowl victory could. “His reputation, and who he is, was being challenged, and when you challenge Tom Brady in any way, you’re gonna be in for a fight,” says his former college coach at Michigan, Lloyd Carr.

Late last month, the NFL filed another court brief seeking to enforce Commissioner Roger Goodell’s four-game suspension of Brady, claiming there is “significant evidence” that he approved the deflation of game balls in last season’s AFC championship game, a 45-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts. According to league lawyers, Brady undermined the “integrity of the game” in a manner similar to the 1919 Chicago Black Sox.

It has become clear what Brady’s greatest asset is, and it’s not that precision-tuned throwing arm, or the photographic memory that allows him to recall opponents’ tendencies from a decade ago. It’s the ability to maintain a controlled burn without imploding in the face of any charge. “I’ve always tried to work mentally to overcome whatever obstacles I’ve had to face,” Brady says blandly.

The ongoing legal battle might have exhausted Brady or driven him into a sullen brood. Instead he has apparently decided to add to the surfeit of success that provoked such suspicion of him in the first place – the four Super Bowl victories, the three most valuable player awards. He has also chosen to dwell on other superior aspects of his life, such as the trio of prospering children and a wife of singular beauty, the supermodel Gisele Bundchen. “I got a good life, and nothing that anybody can do to me is really gonna hurt me,” he told his father, Tom Brady Sr., during the depths of DeflateGate.

Superiority is an attitude that permeates the entire Patriots franchise, and it starts at the top. The 74-year-old industrialist Kraft, like Brady, embodies everything rivals so hate about the Patriots, with his combination of wealth, assured informality and pugnacity. He sits behind a messy desk in a pullover sweater and jeans, surrounded by photos showing off the time he danced with Jackie Kennedy and the time he got the Dalai Llama to wear a Patriots cap. At one point as he commiserated with Brady over the events of past few months, Kraft told Brady they were the lucky ones because at least they weren’t “on the outside looking in” at all their success. “It’s better to be envied than the one who envies,” Kraft says.

It has long been Kraft’s mantra that “every bump is a boost.” The saying resonates with Brady, because it perfectly describes his own halting, obstacle-impeded early career, which is by now well known: how at Michigan he started out as the seventh quarterback on the roster, how he wasn’t drafted until the 199th pick in the sixth round in 2000. Less well known are the more distant athletic failures of his childhood in San Mateo, Calif., the psychological roots of a seething athletic insecurity and ambition. All of which he was still chewing over even on the cusp of a third Super Bowl victory in 2005.

“I’ve never been the fastest guy in the world, I’ve never moved the best, I’ve never been very strong. People have always said ‘You can’t,’ ” he said then. “. . .You don’t forget where you came from. The scars that you have from those days are deep scars.”

If being drafted in the sixth round left a scar, then DeflateGate must have left a gash. Brady is accustomed to having his physical talents questioned, but this is the first time his character has been. His image as a squeaky-clean guy whose career has been all about the sweat has taken an undeniable hit. What’s more, the charge of ball-tampering is almost impossible to defend against – and the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is unlikely to clear up the matter any time soon, if at all. The court will not hear the case until February, and then will focus on narrow procedural arguments over Goodell’s powers rather than Brady’s guilt or innocence.

Brady therefore appears to believe that the best way to exonerate himself is to attack the record book in a way no one can quarrel with. With every ball scrutinized, he is directing the NFL’s top scoring offense, averaging 35.6 points a game, and he is on pace to break the single-season record for passing yardage. His father sees this as proof that DeflateGate is a politically motivated “vendetta,” led by a commissioner seeking to shore up his authority and appease jealous rivals incensed by the Patriots’ success. At one point Brady told his father, “You have to understand that this is not about me. It’s all about other people’s agendas.”

Brady himself has never aired such sentiments publicly, choosing to remain all but wordless and channel his responses to the field. When his former high school teammate John Kirby voiced disbelief that Brady would tamper with footballs, Brady texted him back with a brief “Thanks for your support. There’s not a lot of people who believe me right now.” Even when U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman lifted Brady’s suspension in September with a harshly worded rebuke of the league for lacking evidence, Brady chose to withhold his reaction. “Obviously I have a lot of personal feelings, but I don’t care to share any of those,” he said. But the gall felt by his family is surely a fair measure of them. “I mean it is such a ridiculous, stupid deal,” his father says.

According to his sister Julie, Brady’s ability to sublimate his feelings and talk with his arm instead of his mouth is not surprising. It’s a lifelong habit.

“This has been going on since he was kid,” Julie says. “As far as proof, or making a statement, he has always felt the best way to do that was on the field. That’s nothing new for him.”

Over the years, the diamond gleam of Super Bowl rings and gloss of magazine covers have obscured the grinder with awkward feet who is desperate to prove everybody wrong. But he’s still there – he shows himself occasionally in a fit of sideline temper, a seizure-like scream of frustration, or a geyser from a thrown water cup. At the start of training camp last summer, wide receiver Julian Edelman told a local radio station, “You don’t want a mad Tom Brady, and he’s a little ticked off.” Less than two weeks ago Brady threw for four touchdowns in a 36-7 victory over the Miami Dolphins, yet still pounded the ground in frustration over a single missed third-down pass. His wife told Kraft that she woke up recently at 3:30 in the morning to find her husband studying film.

“To know his level of commitment is to know how bad he wants this stuff,” Tom Sr. says.

The NFL believes Brady wants it too much – enough to cheat. The charge may never be fully resolved, given the lack of measurable evidence. All Brady can do is try to demonstrate that ball pressure has hardly been the most relevant factor in his lifelong performance.

“This season is the result of 15 years of hard work,” Tom Sr. says, “not just of a court decision two months ago.”

But his father acknowledges that revenge has been a factor in his performance. “I think there is some of that,” he says. “Though it’s overhyped.” What’s interesting is that Brady is able to control and compartmentalize it, much like he does his nerves in an urgent a fourth-quarter comeback. “He’s got a tremendous sense of the present,” his father says. “He doesn’t get rattled, he’s got a peaceful demeanor, he’s pretty clear thinking and analytical.”

Edelman calls Brady “the ultimate technician.” He obsesses over his well-grooved throwing motion, to the point of vanity. Recently the head of Patriots media relations brought him a photo to autograph. Brady rejected it because he didn’t like the way his finish looked. “I don’t want that one – look at my mechanics,” he said.

If Brady has real competitive advantage, he says, here is where it lies. “I think at this stage in my career, I’m just very efficient with how I prepare my body,” he says. He has a taste for tedium, the minute details that keep him in the present instead of worrying about consequences – whether the outcome of DeflateGate or his place among the greatest quarterbacks in history.

“I love it,” he says. “I love the whole process and preparation. And I’m always looking for ways to improve. . . . Playing quarterback, there are a lot of responsibilities and requirements. Physically, you have to be able to withstand the hits in addition to being able to throw the ball. Mentally it’s being a coach on the field. It’s being a leader. For me, football is a challenge emotionally, spiritually, physically and mentally. It challenges your mental toughness. I really enjoy all of those things. I get to do something I love to do. . . . So I don’t know if it gets any better than that.”

If he can persuade a few unbelievers along the way, well, every bump is a boost. On the day his suspension was reversed, he texted his old friend Kirby exultantly. “We’re going to have our best season yet,” he promised.

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