Not a single soul born in the 21st century has seen an NFL season without Tom Brady.
They almost got a glimpse of what life would be like without the legendary quarterback when he retired in February last year, only for the future Hall of Famer to return just over a month later.
After an underwhelming season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the 45-year-old appears to have finally stepped away for good, calling time on the NFL’s most successful career; one which took him from scrawny Michigan graduate to the NFL’s greatest player of all time.
“I’m retiring for good,” he said in a short video posted to Twitter. “I know the process was a pretty big deal last time, so when I woke up this morning, I figured I’d just press record and let you guys know first.
“It won’t be long-winded. You only get one super-emotional retirement essay, and I used mine up last year.”
Last year seemed the ideal time to step away.
Brady and the Bucs had agonizingly lost to the Los Angeles Rams, despite mounting a spirited 24-point comeback, in the divisional round of the 2021 playoffs. The heartbreaking end to the season came just a year after winning his seventh Super Bowl ring in his first year in Florida.
At 44 years of age, he was by far the most successful player to play into his 40s and had long since secured the title of the best player to ever play.
It seemed like the perfect situation to drift off into the sunset with his wife, Gisele Bündchen, and his three children, spend time with them and explore his interests away from the game.
He mentioned in his initial retirement announcement that he was excited to see what the future held for him, his family and other aspects of his life.
“The future is exciting … As I said earlier, I’m going to take it day by day,” Brady wrote in February 2022. “I know for sure I want to spend a lot of time giving to others and trying to enrich other people’s lives, just as so many have done for me.”
It appeared that Brady was genuinely thrilled at the prospect of spending more time with Bündchen and his children, who he’d had to sacrifice time with to squeeze as much out of his NFL career as he could.
Not long after returning for his 23rd NFL season, cracks began to show in Brady’s ‘win at all costs’ persona which he’d molded and has driven to unimaginable heights.
In the build-up to and during the 2022/23 season, Brady expressed a more philosophical approach to the sport on his weekly podcast appearances, leading outsiders to theorize his commitment to playing may have changed, having seen the joys of life away from the hullaballoo of it.
“I haven’t had a Christmas in 23 years and I haven’t had a Thanksgiving in 23 years, I haven’t celebrated birthdays with people that I care about that are born from August to late January. And I’m not able to be at funerals and I’m not able to be at weddings,” Brady said.
“I think there comes a point in your life where you say: ‘You know what? I’ve had my fill and it’s enough and time to go on, to move into other parts of life.’”
Away from the gridiron, Brady’s personal life seemed to be changing.
In August, as the Bucs were ramping up to their season opener, Brady took an 11-day leave of absence from training camp to “deal with personal things,” according to his head coach Todd Bowles.
A month later, in an interview with Elle magazine, Bündchen said she had “concerns” about her husband returning to the field after initially retiring.
“This is a very violent sport, and I have my children and I would like him to be more present,” Bündchen told the publication. “I have definitely had those conversations with him over and over again. But ultimately, I feel that everybody has to make a decision that works for [them]. He needs to follow his joy, too.”
CNN reported around that time that Brady and Bündchen had hired divorce attorneys, had been dealing with “marital issues” and were “living separately.”
And in October, the pair announced their divorce after 13 years of marriage.
“We arrived at this decision amicably and with gratitude for the time we spent together. We are blessed with beautiful and wonderful children who will continue to be the center of our world in every way. We will continue to work together as parents to always ensure they receive the love and attention they deserve,” Brady wrote in an Instagram story.
“We arrived at this decision to end our marriage after much consideration.”
With one final season ahead of him and his personal life swirling around him, the Bucs season never really got off the ground.
But that wasn’t down to a huge decline in Brady’s play. While he finished ranked No. 11 in the NFL’s quarterback rankings at the end of the regular season – a fall from first place in 2021 – Brady remained an overall positive at his position, showing the arm-strength, accuracy and touch a man half his age would wish for.
It was Brady’s surroundings which began to fall apart instead. Between an injury-plagued offensive line, his offensive weapons injured or out of sync and the defense struggling, the Bucs could never maintain a winning run.
And so, what was meant to be a final swansong and a blaze of glory to an eighth Super Bowl title spluttered to an 8-9 regular season record – securing a playoff berth primarily down to a below-par NFC South division – before being roundly thumped in the first round of the playoffs by the Dallas Cowboys.
While the results weren’t perfect, Brady showed he could still perform at the top level, meaning he didn’t suffer a regressive final season in the limelight akin to many older quarterbacks before him.
With his contract expiring at the end of the season, Brady’s future was uncertain. Would he remain with the Bucs? Would he sign with another team to continue his legendary career? Or would he retire?
After a few weeks of deliberation, Brady decided to call time in his career for the second – and seemingly final – time, as he begins a new journey in broadcasting. Last May, Brady agreed to join Fox Sports to become the station’s lead analyst on a reported 10-year contract worth $375 million.
A day before he retired, Brady said on his weekly podcast appearance that he was “really looking to learn” when he begins his broadcasting career.
“There’s so much to learn,” Brady said. “There’s so much to teach. It’s ever-evolving. Believe me, as much as you think I’m willing to teach people, I’m really looking to learn. I’m really looking to learn from all the people that I get to talk to.
“I get an opportunity to be in a job in the future where I get to travel around and learn from all the other people that I’ve looked up to and admired in different organizations and different people. It’s exciting for me too. I feel like the opportunity to do that is something I’m really looking forward to, whenever that time comes.”
If he puts in the amount of hard work and dedication to his broadcasting career as he did to his playing career, it might be just the beginning of the next long and fruitful chapter of Brady’s life.
But his final hurrah, having walked away first before being unable to resist the siren song of NFL action, proved once and for all – not that we needed any more evidence – that closer to 50 than 40, Brady still had it.