The office was filled with the faint odor of cortisone gel, and when the light spring wind stirred the dust that had settled on the grandstands outside, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the freshly laid turf, accompanied by the more delicate aroma of the Gatorade coolers on the sidelines.
In the centre of the room, clamped to an upright easel, stood the full-length picture of a young man of extraordinary beauty, and in front of it, some little distance away, was sitting the photographer himself, Bill Belichick.
“It is your best work, Bill, the best thing you have ever done,” said Robert Kraft languidly.
“I have only just begun with the man; he is far from complete. I think it unwise if we make him the face of the franchise just yet,” said the grumbling coach.
“Not let him play?” gasped Kraft. “My dear fellow, why? Have you any reason? What odd chaps you coaches are! You do anything in the world to gain a reputation. As soon as you have one, you seem to want to throw it away. It is silly of you, for there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. A player like this would set you far above all the coaches in the league, and make the other owners quite jealous, if old men are ever capable of any emotion.”
Belichick looked at Kraft. “Tom Brady is a promising prospect,” he said. “He has a simple and a beautiful nature. Your scouts were quite right in what they said of him. Don’t spoil him. Don’t try to influence him. Your influence would be bad. The world is wide, and has many marvelous people in it. Don’t take away from me the one person who may give to my team whatever charm it possesses: my life as a coach depends on him. Mind, Robert, I trust you.” He spoke very slowly, and the words seemed wrung out of him, almost against his will.
“What nonsense you talk!” said Robert Kraft, smiling. Taking Belichick by the arm, he led him gently out of his office.
SPRING 2000 – A FEW WEEKS LATER
Tom Brady remembered his first meeting with Mr. Kraft very well – he was still a young man at the time. Waiting patiently in the green room, he was startled into action upon hearing his name echo over the loudspeakers at Madison Square Garden. Walking onstage to accept his team attire and shake hands, he found himself whisked away shortly afterwards to meet the coaching staff, front office personnel, and most notably, the team’s ebullient owner, Robert Kraft. With so many new hands to shake and faces to remember, it was no wonder that Tom was feeling quite overwhelmed after only a few minutes.
Tom stepped up on the dais with the air of a young Greek martyr, and made a little moue of discontent to Mr. Kraft, to whom he had rather taken a fancy. He was so unlike Bill Belichick. They made a delightful contrast. And he had such a beautiful voice. After a few moments he said to him, “Have you really a very bad influence, Mr. Kraft? As bad as Coach says?”
“There is no such thing as a good influence, Tom. All influence is immoral—immoral from the scientific point of view.”
“Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him. The aim of life is self-development. To realize one’s own? true? nature perfectly — that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to one’s self. Of course, they are charitable. They feed the hungry and clothe the destitute. But their own souls starve, and are naked. Courage has gone out of our game of football. Perhaps we never really had it. The terror of aging, which is the basis of competition, the terror of losing, which is the secret of victory — these are the two things that govern us as sportsmen. And yet, I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream — I believe that the game would be made better, and with it, our team and ourselves. The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful. It has been said that the great events of the world take place in the brain. It is in the brain, and the brain only, that the great sins of the world take place also. You, Mr. Brady, you yourself, with your rose-red youth and your rose-white boyhood, you have had passions that have made you afraid, thoughts that have filled you with terror, day-dreams and sleeping dreams whose mere memory might stain your cheek with shame — “
“Stop!” faltered Brady.”Stop! You bewilder me. I don’t know what to say. There is some answer to you, but I cannot find it. Don’t speak. Let me think. Or, rather, let me try not to think.”
He left the meeting, feeling overwhelmed. Alone for a moment after the whirlwind that had been his draft day, he retreated to a bathroom. Staring at himself in the mirror, he felt terrified about the future that lay ahead. How curious it was that a man so young and innocent was already worried about a life after professional football, before he had even yet embarked on playing the game.
“How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this reflection of me will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of April…. If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that—for that—I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!”
If only he had known that pouring his heart and soul into the game of football would have such terrible consequences elsewhere…
“I must go,” said Tom Brady to a morose Bridget Moynahan, who silently wept as he exited out the door of their Los Angeles home. Despite all the success he’d had in his life – three Super Bowl victories, millions of dollars earned and international superstardom, he still found himself unable to enjoy himself. Everywhere he went, he remained fixated on aging. So caught up in his own mortality, he had scarcely been able to appreciate the wonders of the world around him in the very present. He was confused, afraid, and needed advice from a close mentor.
A few days later, back at Gillette Stadium, Robert Kraft sat down for a chat with his quarterback.
“I was brutal, Mr. Kraft — perfectly brutal. But it is all right now. I am not sorry for anything that has happened. It has taught me to know myself better.”
“Ah, Tom, I am so glad you take it in that way! I was afraid I would find you plunged in remorse and tearing at that nice, thick hair of yours.”
“I have got through all that,” said Tom, shaking his head and smiling. “I am perfectly happy now. I know what conscience is, to begin with. It is not what you told me it was. It is the divinest thing in us. Don’t sneer at it, sir, any more — at least not before me. I want to be good. I can’t bear the idea of my soul being hideous.”
“A very charming artistic basis for ethics, Tom! I congratulate you on it. But how are you going to begin?”
“By marrying Bridget.”
“Marrying Bridget Moynahan!” cried Robert Kraft, standing up and looking at him in perplexed amazement. “But, my dear Tom —”
“Yes, Mr. Kraft, I know what you are going to say. Something dreadful about marriage. Don’t say it. Don’t ever say things of that kind to me again. Two days ago I asked Bridget to reconcile. I am not going to break my word to her. She is to be my wife.”
“Your wife? Tom! … Didn’t you get my message? I called you this morning, and left a voicemail.”
“Your voicemail? Oh, yes, I remember. I have not heard it yet, sir. I was afraid there might be something in it that I wouldn’t like. You cut life to pieces with your epigrams.”
“You know nothing then?”
“What do you mean?”
Robert Kraft walked across the room, and sitting down by Brady, took both his hands in his own and held them tightly. “Tom,” he said, “my message — don’t be frightened — was to tell you that her career is dead. And she knows about Gisele.”
A cry of pain broke from the lad’s lips, and he leapt to his feet, tearing his hands away from Kraft’s grasp. “Dead? Bridget Moynahan’s career dead! And my passion for Gisele discovered! It is not true! It is a horrible lie! How dare you say it?”
“It is quite true, Tom,” said Kraft, gravely. “It is in all the morning papers.”
Dazed and confused, Brady felt overwhelmed by the information. While it indeed caught him off-guard, he nonetheless appreciated the news from his owner. Brady thanked Kraft for his time, and retreated to the film room once more for some time to reflect.
Fidgeting, he took his wallet out of his pocket, going through the contents; it was then that he noticed his picture from his draft day, years old and yet still feeling fresh and new in his memory all the same. A feeling of pain crept over him as he thought of the desecration that was in store for the fair face in the photograph. For a moment, he thought of praying that the horrible sympathy that existed between him and the picture might cease. It had changed in answer to a prayer; perhaps in answer to a prayer it might remain unchanged. And yet, who, that knew anything about life, would surrender the chance of remaining always young, however fantastic that chance might be, or with what fateful consequences it might be fraught? Besides, was it really under his control? Had it indeed been prayer that had produced the substitution? Might there not be some curious scientific reason for it all? If thought could exercise its influence upon a living organism, might not thought exercise an influence upon dead and inorganic things? Nay, without thought or conscious desire, might not things external to ourselves vibrate in unison with our moods and passions, atom calling to atom in secret love or strange affinity? But the reason was of no importance. He would never again tempt by a prayer any terrible power. If the picture was to alter, it was to alter. That was all. Why inquire too closely into it?
For there would be a real pleasure in watching it. He would be able to follow his mind into its secret places. This portrait would be to him the most magical of mirrors. As it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul. And when winter came upon it, he would still be standing where spring trembles on the verge of summer. When the blood crept from its face, and left behind a pallid mask of chalk with leaden eyes, he would keep the glamour of boyhood. Not one blossom of his loveliness would ever fade. Not one pulse of his life would ever weaken. Like the gods of the Greeks, he would be strong, and fleet, and joyous. What did it matter what happened to the coloured image on the canvas? He would be safe. That was everything.
He placed the picture back into its former place in his wallet, smiling as he did so, and began crunching game tape once more. An hour later he was out on the practise field once more, with Coach Belichick watching closely.
As he sat there on the trainer’s table, Tom Brady knew something was seriously wrong with his knee. The physical pain, he could deal with – the mental anguish, however, was something else entirely. He couldn’t shake the feeling that perhaps karma might, finally, be coming back to get him, after all the years he’d spent of living for himself.
The Super Bowls, the supermodel, the money, the trophies, the accolades – was it all to vanish in the blink of an eye? Perhaps it was, but none of that was nearly as concerning to him as the possibility that his body was possibly, for the first time, showing real signs of aging.
Alex Guerrero, meanwhile, put on a pair of sterilized gloves, and examined the quarterback’s leg.
“I want to speak to you seriously,” said the therapist. “Don’t frown like that. You make it so much more difficult for me.”
“What is it all about?” cried Brady in his petulant way. “I hope it is not about myself. I am tired of myself tonight. I should like to be somebody else.”
“It is about yourself,” answered Guerrero in his grave deep voice, “and I must say it to you. I shall only keep you half an hour. I think it right that you should know that the most dreadful things are being said against you around the league.”
“I don’t wish to know anything about them. I love scandals about other people, but scandals about myself don’t interest me. They have not got the charm of novelty.”
“They must interest you, Tom. Every gentleman is interested in his good name. You don’t want people to talk of you as something vile and degraded. Of course, you have your position, and your wealth, and all that kind of thing. But position and wealth are not everything. Mind you, I don’t believe these rumours at all. At least, I can’t believe them when I see you. Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face. It cannot be concealed. People talk sometimes of secret vices. There are no such things. If a wretched man has a vice, it shows itself in the lines of his mouth, the droop of his eyelids, the moulding of his hands even. But you, Tom, with your pure, bright, innocent face, and your marvelous untroubled youth — I can’t believe anything against you. And yet I see you very seldom, and you never come down to the studio now, and when I am away from you, and I hear all these hideous things that people are whispering about you, I don’t know what to say. Why is it that you chose to leave a pregnant woman for a supermodel on a moment’s notice? Why is it that your team shows such little regard for the rules after all these SpyGate dealings? Why is it that players from across the league are determined to get themselves onto your roster? That is the reason why I want you to be fine. You have not been fine. One has a right to judge of a man by the effect he has over his friends. Yours seem to lose all sense of honor, of goodness, of purity. You have filled them with a madness for pleasure. They have gone down into the depths. You led them there. Yes – you led them there, and yet you can smile, as you are smiling now. And there is worse behind. I want you to lead such a life as will make the world respect you. I want you to have a clean name and a fair record. I want you to get rid of the dreadful people with whom you associate! Don’t shrug your shoulders at me like that. Don’t be so indifferent. You have a wonderful influence. Let it be for good, not for evil.”
“I appreciate your concern, Alex,” remarked Brady, “and yet at the same time, I feel it is already much too late for me. Were I to bare my soul to you in order for you to attempt to save it, I feel it could only make matters worse.”
“Before I could answer that, I should have to see your soul,” replied Guerrero.
A bitter laugh of mockery broke from the lips of the younger man. “You shall see it yourself, this instant!” he cried, seizing the draft day picture from his wallet.
An exclamation of horror broke from the trainer’s lips as he saw in the dim light the hideous face in the picture grinning at him. There was something in its expression that filled him with disgust and loathing. Good heavens! It was Tom Brady’s own face that he was looking at! The horror, whatever it was, had not yet entirely spoiled that marvellous beauty. There was still some gold in the thinning hair and some scarlet on the sensual mouth. The sodden eyes had kept something of the loveliness of their blue, the noble curves had not yet completely passed away from chiselled nostrils and from plastic throat. Yes, it was Tom himself. But who had done it?
“My God! If it is true,” he exclaimed, “and this is what you have done with your life, why, you must be worse even than those who talk against you fancy you to be!” He held the picture up again to the light and examined it. The surface seemed to be quite undisturbed. It was from within, apparently, that the foulness and horror had come. Through some strange quickening of inner life, the leprosies of sin were slowly eating the thing away. The rotting of a corpse in a watery grave was not so fearful.
“Good God, Tom, what a lesson! What an awful lesson!” There was no answer, but he could hear the young man sobbing at the window. “Pray, Tom, pray,” he murmured. “What is it that one was taught to say in one’s boyhood? ‘Lead us not into temptation. Forgive us our sins. Wash away our iniquities.’ Let us say that together. The prayer of your pride has been answered. The prayer of your repentance will be answered also. I am punished for it. You worshipped yourself too much. We are both punished.”
Tom Brady turned slowly around and looked at him with tear-dimmed eyes. “It is too late, Alex,” he faltered.
“It is never too late, Tom. Let us kneel down and try if we cannot remember a prayer. Isn’t there a verse somewhere, ‘Though your sins be as scarlet, yet I will make them as white as snow’?”
“Those words mean nothing to me now.”
“Hush! Don’t say that. You have done enough evil in your life. My God! Don’t you see that accursed thing leering at us?”
“Alex – I cannot change what has already unfolded,” said the quarterback. “I have hurt many people, and will hurt many more in future. But you – there is something about you that makes me want to help you. I know not why, and yet there is a plan unfolding within my mind’s eye that may yet lead us both to redemption. Shall we risk it?”
“Risk what?” sputtered the bewildered therapist.
“As you heal me, we shall try to heal the world. Not only shall a proper training regimen nurse me back to health, but it can also make us rich – especially yourself.”
“I’m not sure I follow,” said Guerrero.
“We shall call it the TB12 Method”, said Tom. “Exercises, recipes, and healthy meal kits, all available in easy-to-follow instruction manuals and food delivery baskets. Whether or not it actually works matters not; the idea that the customer feels they’re improving their life is the important fact of the matter.”
“But we’d be selling them nothing but snake oil! How would we know if it even works?” cried the trainer.
“I shall save that question for greater minds than my own,” said Tom. “If I am truly to be healed, I need the stem cells of orphaned infants, and God knows those are incredibly expensive to harvest and preserve.”
“What a wretched plan,” shuddered Guerrero.
“Alex, if you are truly facing a moral quandary about my existence as you have professed to me this evening, I feel a few minor misdeeds in the face of the salvation of many seem a small price to pay.”
“How can you claim to desire the salvation of many when the ultimate goal of this plan is merely your own self-interest, above all else?”
“I shall give you a bonus ten million dollars, in cash, to never speak of such a question again. Now, the stem cells, please,” said the injured star.
Guerrero cursed silently as he set to work on Tom’s knee.
Another Super Bowl victory, with more last-minute drama from a goal-line interception by Malcolm Butler. It should have been cause to celebrate. But the last eighteen months had hardened him further. From the lows of the murder charges of Aaron Hernandez and the controversy surrounding the deflated footballs, to the highs of a beautiful family, bountiful riches and another ticker-tape parade through the city of Boston, this victory was supposed to be a renaissance for both Tom and the Patriots as a whole. And yet Tom could not bring himself to care. He merely found himself opening his wallet, running his fingers over the draft-day picture. He was no longer sure if it was even changing anymore. The hardened lines and wizened features no longer surprised him, and yet, he still often found himself enraptured by their astute foulness.
Tom called for Alex Guerrero to bring him another vial of stem cells, as he sat, entranced by the bright screen of his laptop, looking at Google reviews of the latest TB12 meal kits. Despite the stars and accolades flowing off the web page, the one feeling he did feel was pangs of guilt. Yes, he had preserved his age from the riches the TB12 method had brought him – and even endeared himself further to teammates and fans with the Super Bowl win. He had made a hard-working man into a wealthy entrepreneur and a respected figure in the health & wellness community. But he still felt adrift – the very method he and Alex hard worked so hard to develop and market was still, at its root, a giant question mark. Were vegan meals responsible for Aaron’s derangement and cold-blooded killings? Did the lack of white sugar and trans fats cause equipment managers to win at all costs? Tom wasn’t sure – he was no doctor himself. Or – worse yet – was this what Robert Kraft had meant all those years ago? Was this really what yielding to temptation in order to be one’s prime self was like?
Tom scarcely had time for those thoughts in his mind. As the latest syringe of stem cells entered his veins, he felt a renewed calm wash over him once more. Yes, this was the feeling that he had been chasing all those years – surely, this must be what it means to have truly conquered aging.
He could savor it for only a few minutes – as he became more aware of his surroundings once again, he found himself annoyed. It was all too simple. Why did the game of football not put up more of a fight? Why did it no longer challenge him like it once did? He decided in that instant that perhaps maybe playing with some reckless abandon might allow for some further youthful vitality to nourish him. Consequences be damned.
Even after being made a pariah in the national media over DeflateGate, even after yet another Super Bowl win – arguably the greatest game of football the sport has even seen – Tom barely had satisfaction in all of it. And the picture changed further. He’d hardly even tried in the championship game – no matter. Even after missing a quarter of the season – no matter. He was cursed now. No matter what he did – no matter what success lay in store for him – he had become a prisoner of his own mind, unable to stop caring about himself for more than a minute at a time.
He had achieved his life’s goals, many times over, and yet, the hollow feelings of despair still tortured Tom Brady with every passing day. He had been dwelling on the conversation he’d had with Mr. Kraft, not long before the older gentleman’s arrest in Florida a few months previous.
“The soul is a terrible reality,” said, Tom. “It can be bought, and sold, and bartered away. It can be poisoned, or made perfect. There is a soul in each one of us. I know it.”
“Do you feel quite sure of that, Tom?” said Robert.
As he sat, alone once more in the dark film room, his mind raced.
“Who cares anymore about success on-field? All that matters is to remain young. The longer I deny my own age, the more I sin in order to maintain it – and, paradoxically, the longer the team remains successful. What is the breaking point? When shall we have crossed the threshold of viability? At what point have we entered into lunacy? I know not, and yet, I care not as well. Shall we win another title this season? Quite possibly. Are the rookies we have promising and full of vigour? They have every indication thus far. And yet, whether or not I possess another of Lombardi’s shiny baubles of victory becomes an entirely moot point. What is left in life, if not to grasp desperately at my fleeting youth? From the TB12 method, to DeflateGate, to my dear friend Gronk’s retirement and departure, I should be overwhelmed with emotion – and yet, still, I feel nothing in return. I should be filled with regret towards the end of a career where I have sacrificed so much in the name of success – and still, there is only emptiness. Why must the only thing that makes me feel anything is my own mortality? Why must the cruel fancies of a younger man continue to haunt me so many years later? “
Was it really true that one could never change? He felt a wild longing for the unstained purity of his boyhood—his rose-white boyhood, as Robert Kraft had once called it. He knew that he had tarnished himself, filled his mind with corruption and given horror to his fancy; that he had been an evil influence to others, and had experienced a terrible joy in being so; and that of the lives that had crossed his own, it had been the fairest and the most full of promise that he had brought to shame. But was it all irretrievable? Was there no hope for him?
His misdeeds, his callowness, his corruption—was it to dog him all his life? Was he always to be burdened by his past? Was he really to confess? Never. There was only one bit of evidence left against him. The picture itself—that was evidence. He would destroy it. Why had he kept it so long? Once it had given him pleasure to watch it changing and growing old. Of late he had felt no such pleasure. It had kept him awake at night. When he had been away, he had been filled with terror lest other eyes should look upon it. It had brought melancholy across his passions. Its mere memory had marred many moments of joy. It had been like conscience to him. Yes, it had been conscience. He would destroy it.
Perhaps not tonight, but when the opportunity struck. There was still work left to do – passes to throw, film to dissect, tomatoes to avoid, Super Bowls to win. But Tom, and only Tom, knew the truth that lay within what remained of his soul – indeed, perhaps immense pain and suffering lay ahead, but at least it might allow him to feel something, anything, for one last time in his life.
[With sincerest apologies to Oscar Wilde. All artwork by The Maestro except where otherwise noted.]