I’ve always mocked the concept of an apocalypse, figuring it was cinematic and never real, not realizing a catastrophe was plotting an attack. Naturally, it converges in 2021 at a Super Bowl, in the freaky-deaky state of Florida, where no killer alligators are involved, just an infectious disease not taken seriously by the governor. A long-ago movie, “Black Sunday,” depicted a terrorist group trying to blow up a Goodyear blimp during the NFL’s championship game.
This won’t be that, I don’t think. But it might be the most bizarre thing we’ve experienced in our lives.
“I don’t know when normal will occur again or if normal will occur again,” said the league commissioner, Roger Goodell, who somehow maneuvered the coronavirus landmines to reach this new and grotesque normal amid — how many now? — 450,000 U.S. deaths.
While a rock-star epidemiologist in his 80s urges people to watch on TV in home isolation, only 25,000 fans will sit distanced in a largely barren stadium with a pirate ship as a 43-year-old quarterbacking mutant, unsatisfied with six title rings, tries to win a seventh. Tom Brady will do so in his adopted home of Tampa, with the long-sketchy Buccaneers, against a generational force young enough to be his son, Patrick Mahomes. All while the weary national media, masked and Zoom-tethered, ask if Brady is replacing Michael Jordan as the G.O.A.T. of all sporting G.O.A.T.s by performing at a higher level at a more advanced age than any athlete ever — when, in truth, Mahomes ultimately might claim the distinction someday, assuming Planet Earth still exists.
“The goal is to win as many Super Bowls as possible and to be playing in this game every single year,” said Mahomes, already perched alongside Brady and LeBron James as The Faces of American Sports. “If you look at guys like Tom, Michael, Kobe, LeBron … all these special guys, I think at the end of the day you see that their work ethic and drive to win is just different than everybody else’s. That’s what makes them special, and hopefully I can try to do whatever I can to have that same work ethic and drive in my career.”
Oh, he has it. And he’ll need it without both of his starting tackles, against Shaq Barrett and a swarm of hungry pass rushers, raising the possibility that Brady actually might pull off the most preposterous football story ever. Yes, bigger than Joe Namath successfully guaranteeing a victory, bigger than Nick Foles and the Philly Special, bigger than David Tyree’s helmet catch — bigger, really, than just about anything in sports because, again, Brady is pushing 44 and looking younger by the hour, a more curious case than Benjamin Button. By now, even suspicions that he’s swallowing age-defying cocktails from his mysterious personal trainer, Alex Guerrero, are softened by the shock and awe of it all: that Brady still is able to look good in a uniform and have the best-functioning brain cells on the field, despite 20-plus years of punishment at the most vulnerable position in team sports.
How is this happening? The answer might be simpler than psychoanalysts and biologists make it out to be. If you haven’t noticed, the athletes thriving amid a pandemic are the greatest in their craft — Brady, Mahomes, James, a redemptive Clayton Kershaw, a spiritual Naomi Osaka, a transcendent Bryson DeChambeau. Already obsessive about winning, they’ve used a global crisis to ratchet up their focus from lasered to maniacal. There is no messing around anymore, even in the slightest, which is why the Lakers won while the Clippers were losing their minds in the NBA Bubble and why I wonder if the presence of a COVID-19-infected barber — while Mahomes and numerous teammates and staffers were there for a cut — might prove regrettable for the Chiefs.
“It’ll all work out when it’s all said and done,” said coach Andy Reid, he of the floral shirts and cheeseburgers.
Brady, known to cut his own hair, never would put himself in such danger so close to another holy grail. Having divorced Bill Belichick, ventured from New England to the Gulf Coast and put away Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau Field, he is poised to finalize what we’ve never seen before. You think he’s taking no for an answer, as 100 million watch him step effortlessly from one generation to the next, while his merchandise sales break records nationwide — including in his discarded New England? After the Bucs beat the Packers for the NFC title, Brady noticed a teammate crying in the locker room.
“What the f— you crying for? We’re not done yet,” he said, as told on a podcast this week by linebacker Lavonte David.
Blessed with uncommon equilibrium, Brady is forever the 199th pick in the draft and the flabby kid in the combine photo, the collegian who cleaned toilets during a summer construction job, the competition freak who still loses sleep after every loss while still trying to quiet the few critics who remain. He has taken charge of the age-old sports argument: Was Brady or Belichick more responsible for the Patriots dynasty? He has quieted loudmouths like me who said he should have retired on top after winning two years ago. He has turned haters into worshippers, such as his favorite receiver, Mike Evans, who said, “You know, when I was a kid, I grew up not liking Tom Brady because I was a Peyton Manning fan. Now, I’m the biggest Tom Brady fan.” Even Goodell, who hammered Brady with a four-game Deflategate suspension, has nothing but glowing praise more than five years after prosecuting him for doctoring balls.
“Tom Brady has shown that he’s probably the greatest player to ever play this game,” Goodell said Thursday. “His leadership, his ability to rise to the big occasion and make everybody rise around him. That’s what’s absolutely incredible to me, everyone just plays better when they’re with him. I’ve known him for probably 15 years and he’s an extraordinary guy. He’s real, he cares about this game deeply, he cares about people involved with the game. So, for me I wish him well. I think he’s gonna continue to be a great performer. I’m glad to hear he’s going to play a few more years.”
So, what’s left for Brady to conquer?
At some point, Brady will have to pack away his boundless ambitions and realize that his wife, the supermodel Gisele Bundchen, and their children would like him to stop playing football. Maybe he wins Sunday night and finally gets it — the perfect ending, the glorious act of retiring on top, something Jordan didn’t do and an ailing Tiger Woods cannot do. Was Brady hinting at that as a possibility in an expansive answer this week?
“I could never have imagined it would be like this. I don’t think anybody could have,” Brady said. “(I’ve) tried to go play my ass off every week. I’m still trying to do it. This work for me has never been about — I would have thought that success is passing yards or touchdowns or Super Bowls — it was always maximizing my potential, being the best I could be.
“When I showed up as a freshman in high school, I didn’t know how to put pads in my pants. I was just hoping to play high school football because I wanted to be like Joe Montana and Steve Young. And then when I got a chance in college, I just wanted to play at Michigan. When I got drafted by the Patriots, I just wanted to play, I just wanted to start. It’s just been a series of steps like that of trying to be a little better every year, trying to learn a little more every year, trying to grow and evolve in different areas.
“My life has taken certainly a lot of different directions. I’m obviously older now. I’ve got a family. A lot of incredible blessings in my life. Fast-forward 21 years, sitting in Tampa and trying to win a Super Bowl in our own home stadium would be pretty sweet.”
So sweet, in fact, that he should follow the Florida sun into his professional dusk if he wins. Even then, it wouldn’t be an easy decision for Brady, not when he uses persistent noise as motivation. Abandoning journalism for what seems strained activism, USA Today sports columnist Nancy Armour asserted that “white privilege” has given Brady an “undeserved pass” for keeping a MAGA cap in his locker years ago. I can’t remember the last time Brady spoke about Donald Trump, with whom he once was friendly. That didn’t stop Armour from ripping Brady for “moral cowardice.” Also weighing in against Brady was FS1 host Shannon Sharpe, who said a Black athlete never would have evaded criticism in such a political circumstance.
Asked about Sharpe’s remarks, Brady said, “I’m not sure how to respond to hypothetical questions. I hope everyone can — we’re in this position, like I am, to try to be the best I can be everyday as an athlete, as a player, as a person in my community for my team and so forth. So … yeah. Not sure what else.”
His reflex, of course, is to not let anyone tell him what to do or how to live his life. So he keeps playing. That’s his revenge.
And I’m sure, the nanosecond the game finishes, there will be betting lines on whether Brady returns or retires, even though he says he’ll consider playing beyond age 45. With the shells removed from the gambling bombs and legal betting now the national rage, this will be the most insane and gross day of wagering in our country’s history. The absence of spectators in stadiums and arenas has been replaced by the grimy thrill of money action, with states realizing they can reap staggering revenues even during a pandemic. If — when — all 50 states allow sports gambling, collective annual revenues exceeding $19 billion will be commonplace, reports the New York Times. So consider Super Bowl LV to be the inaugural showcase for the new explosion.
Which makes it easy for tens of millions at home to pick up a phone and bet. That is much safer than jamming into casinos and sports bars, which many COVID-iots will do anyway. “You don’t want parties with people that you haven’t had much contact with,” urges Dr. Anthony Fauci, still alive and quite visible as Trump fades away. “You just don’t know if they’re infected, so, as difficult as that is, at least this time around, just lay low and cool it.”
With America ready to burst from pandemic anxiety and vaccine lagging, I can’t say what’s going to happen Sunday or next week or the rest of our time on Earth. “I think America needs this Super Bowl,” said CBS Sports boss Sean McManus, who is required to say such things when his network is carrying the game. “I think it’s an opportunity for the country to come together. I think it’s going to be uplifting. I think it’s going to be unifying. And I think it’s coming at the right time.”
There never can be a right time for any of this. But I do know that the roman numerals are teasing us with symbolism.
LV — as in LIVE, while you still can.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes a weekly media column for Barrett Sports Media and regular sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.
BSM’s Black Friday SALE on BSM Summit Tickets is Underway!
Each year I’m asked if there are ways to save money on tickets to the 2023 BSM Summit. I always answer yes but not everyone takes advantage of it. For those interested in doing so, here’s your shot.
For TODAY ONLY, individual tickets to the 2023 BSM Summit are reduced by $50.00. Two ticket and four ticket packages are also lowered at $50 per ticket. To secure your seat at a discounted price, just log on to BSMSummit.com. This sale ends tonight at 11:59pm ET.
If you’re flying to Los Angeles for the event, be sure to reserve your hotel room. Our hotel partner this year is the USC Hotel. It’s walking distance of our venue. Full details on hotel rooms can also be found via the conference website.
Jason Barrett is the owner and operator of Barrett Sports Media. Prior to launching BSM he served as a sports radio programmer, launching brands such as 95.7 The Game in San Francisco and 101 ESPN in St. Louis. He has also produced national shows for ESPN Radio including GameNight and the Dan Patrick Show. You can find him on Twitter @SportsRadioPD or reach him by email at JBarrett@sportsradiopd.com.
Media Noise: What Does The Return of Bob Iger Mean to ESPN?
Demetri Ravanos has questions about Disney going back to the future with Bob Iger. This entire episode of Media Noise is all about what the change at the top of the Walt Disney Company indicates about the future of ESPN.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.
Media Noise: What Is Realistic For FOX at the World Cup?
On this special holiday edition of Media Noise, Demetri Ravanos dives into the controversy and criticism surrounding FOX’s coverage of the World Cup in Qatar.