It’s a lesson we keep getting taught. And nevertheless, it’s a lesson that I apparently have yet to learn.

I didn’t think Tom Brady would leave. I knew he *could*, I just didn’t think he *would*. I thought something would work itself out at the last minute. I thought everything would be in place, the skids greased for Brady to finally steer himself right out of Foxborough, and then there would be a meeting of the minds, Brady would sign and everything would be back to normal, his free agency a fleeting bit of trivia.

Drew Bonifant column photo

I thought this because I always think this. I always think the star athletes, the true institutions and faces of their franchises, aren’t going to just up and leave. The player and the team are just too intertwined for there to be a separation. It’s unthinkable that that can happen, which means it won’t.

And time and time again, we’re reminded that that’s not the way things work.

The way things work is that loyalty has a limit. Everyone has a breaking point. And Brady, after 20 years, finally reached his.

He’s not the first. I remember being in this same position when LeBron James went into free agency in the summer of 2010. Speculation was rampant, and everyone raced to explain why James was going to be the next New York Knick or Chicago Bull or New Jersey Net.

All the while, I could only take it all so seriously. I had the same thought. “He’s not leaving. LeBron and the Cavs are one in the same. It won’t happen. He won’t do it. Cleveland won’t let him.”

It happened. James staged a TV event and announced he was joining the Miami Heat. And the NBA, at that moment, flipped on its head.

Skip ahead nearly two years. Albert Pujols was the most prized player on the free agent market, a future Hall of Famer and, at 32, still the best hitter in the baseball. People wondered which teams were going to make a serious run at a generational superstar.

I scoffed.

“He’s not leaving,” I figured again. “This is Albert Pujols we’re talking about here. He’s been in St. Louis for over 10 years. This is where he belongs. He’s not going to actually play for someone else. The Cardinals will give him a blank check if that’s what it takes.”

Wrong again. Pujols did leave, for Los Angeles and a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Angels.

So here we were this offseason, and I made the same mistake again. I knew that money talks, that better opportunities were out there, and that the Patriots would be in danger of losing any other player in the league if he were in Brady’s spot.

But I didn’t think the logic applied to this particular player.

“I think Tom is a different guy,” I texted a friend. “Loyalty matters to him. Legacy matters to him.”

I wasn’t wrong. That was, and remains, true of Brady. This is the least financially demanding player in the history of sports. No other player has consistently left as much money on the table in order to be part of a winning team as Brady has. Brady made it easier for the Patriots to keep and build around him than any athlete should feel compelled to. He could have broken the bank — God knows inferior players have — and for 20 years, Brady never did.

Where I was wrong was in thinking that that loyalty was endless. That it couldn’t be overcome. And with all the other factors piling up — his below-market offer from New England, Bill Belichick’s cold dispassion, the lack of support in the offense — even Brady had to say “enough.”

I learned that every athlete, at some point, can say “enough.”

So now Tom Brady’s a Tampa Bay Buccaneer. It’s weird to say, and it will be even weirder to see. This will be like if Derek Jeter joined the Diamondbacks in 2011. Or if Larry Bird in 1992 decided to give his aching back one more season and returned with Shaquille O’Neal and the Orlando Magic.

It’ll look bizarre. But as we’ve been shown once again, just because something seems unthinkable doesn’t mean it can’t happen.


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