What does a professional athlete play for? Money? Power? Prestige? For the modestly successful athlete, perhaps it is for one of these three things. But these athletes seem to be quickly forgotten. Just last year, Cam Newton seemed to be more concerned with having fun than making a lasting mark, and already Carolina has slumped back to mediocrity. If the Falcons lose Sunday, Matt Ryan could follow the same fate: a moment in the sun, quickly extinguished to shade. But the truly great athlete plays for something more: to leave a lasting imprint on his game; to do something no man has done before; and, perhaps, to become the “GOAT”-greatest of all time. This Super Bowl Sunday, Tom Brady will be aiming for his fifth Super Bowl title, a mark that would eclipse even the likes of Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw (although the Steelers were more well-known for their defense). But, say, 30 years from now, what would such a thing really mean?
To be sure, detractors will point to poorly named scandals such as “Spygate” and “Deflategate”, but these things are unlikely to be remembered by the next generation of fans. What the history books will record is the final score of the Pat’s Super Bowl Triumphs, of which there may ultimately be six or even more. But will this firmly establish Brady as the GOAT? Surely this is what any ballplayer dreams about upon entering the league, even a sixth-round benchwarmer. However, I’m not so sure. What epitomizes Montana as the finest QB in the NFL’s pantheons of greatness is his impeccable record and famous coolness under pressure in his famous winning drive against Cincinnati. But the lasting memory was a machine-like dismantling by his 9ers team against a hopelessly overmatched Broncos squad. Yet the problem about Brady is his entire career, in face the entire Patriots organization, has been a machine. The team mercilessly grinds AFC East cupcakes into the dust every year, and by this point does the same in January to a weakened conference playoff field. Pats fans fantasize about Roger Goodell handing Brady the Lombardi trophy, but it seems Brady himself does very little thinking at all. By 2100 engineers could put a machine under center in Foxborough and the operation would go on just the same. And this seems to be an insurmountable problem.
For the sake of comparison, consider Brett Favre. Favre had a much more limited amount of success than Tom Brady, winning just one title and making a mess out of the end of his career with his unretirement saga. But the thing about Favre is that there never was, and never will be, a player just like him. No other man has ever had the balls to make audacious throws into double or triple coverage, some resulting in miracle victories, some resulting in devastating picks. (And granted some passes were just dumb). Think about this: by the time he retired, he had the record for BOTH touchdown passes and interceptions. One just never knew what would happen when the Pack played on Sunday, which was all the more reason to tune in. For the Pats, each game and season have by now blurred into an unending succession of Belichick scowls and Minutemen victory shots. Brady may win the most titles but at a terrible price. While he has had some run-ins with the rules, Brady is ultimately the fulfillment of the new NFL-corporate, septic, nameless, dull. And as for that tantalizing legacy- the mark Tom Brady will leave when he goes-I fear it won’t be the GOAT. It will be as the man who gained the whole world, at the expense of his sport’s soul.