It’s as if Tom Brady has risen from the dead. At 44, and amid enormous fuss and a great deal of celebration, he has un-retired from football — just six weeks after his elaborate good-bye. In a sense, a resurrection is what’s going on.
In John Updike’s insightful 1960 New Yorker report on baseball superstar Ted Williams’ last game — often described as the most celebrated baseball essay ever — Updike concluded the piece with how the 41-year-old Williams, having homered in his last at-bat in Boston, decided to skip his team’s final three-game series in New York. Williams, Updike wrote, “had met the little death that awaits all athletes. He had quit.”
It is a profound truth that athletes “die twice;” ultimately from old age, but first by losing the existence that has defined them. Knicks’ Hall of Famer Bill Bradley, who had a second act as a U.S. senator, wrote in his 1976 book, Life on the Run, that “for the athlete who retires at 35, something in him dies; not a peripheral activity but a fundamental passion. It necessarily dies. The athlete rarely recuperates. He approaches the end of his playing days the way old people approach death….”
Maybe Brady determined that retiring from football was retiring from life. Certainly, from life as he has known it.
The late Bruce Oglivie, whose decades of work with retired athletes caused him to be labeled the Father of North American Applied Sport Psychology, long ago identified as a major factor that professional athletes “have enormous egos. Enormous egos. How do you step down comfortably from that pedestal? Very few areas of life have the ego stroking you get in sports — the charge of 65,000 people rewarding your effort with applause. There’s nothing more addictive in the world than hand-clapping.”
From baseball great Willie Mays, a shadow of himself in his 23rd and final big-league season at 42, came the admission that he “might have played one year too long. But I found that the people just wanted to see me on the field playing some, rather than quit altogether, you know. They wouldn’t let me quit.”
Similarly, Brady seems to have deduced, just 40 days after his public farewell, that the curtain call signaled there ought to be a revival. “In other words,” Late Night host Jimmy Fallon wisecracked, “he pretty much gave up football for Lent.” Boston Globe sports columnist Dan O’Shaughnessy, while praising Brady’s enormous playing accomplishments, wrote that the entire episode revealed Brady to be “an insatiable, passive-aggressive attention hog.”
Brady certainly generated blaring headlines when he said he was hanging up his shoulder pads — and even more when he quickly reversed field. Also, note that it was just last year that Brady told Sports Illustrated, “What I say versus what I think are two totally different things. I would say 90 percent of what I say is not what I’m thinking.”
What he couldn’t help thinking is that there is big money involved to be a modern-day professional star. Bigger than ever. Sixty years ago, Ted Williams made $90,000 in his last season; in 2022, the highest paid baseball player will be the Mets’ Max Scherzer at more than $43 million. (Adjusted for inflation, that’s still 80 times more than Williams’.) Brady is under contract to bank $10.4 million in 2022, not quite 20 times what the 1960s star gridder Jim Brown made.
But Ogilvie’s studies found gravitational pulls even stronger than the Benjamins — competitive need, locker-room fellowship and, of course, fan adulation.
“So with this move,” comedian Trevor Noah said, “Tom Brady has officially, officially confirmed himself as the greatest of all time, because you see, this move right here is what all the greatest do — they retire, and they come right back. Yeh, Michael Jordan did it. Jay-Z did it. And the greatest of all time, Jesus. Yeh. That guy retired from life for three days before he was, like, ‘Nah, the game needs me.’”
And there will be addictive hand-clapping.