HOUSTON, Texas — The coronation began in peace. Tom Brady crouched low to the NRG Stadium turf to be completely alone with his thoughts.
As confetti poured, music blared and adults cried, nobody bothered him for 30 seconds.
First, LeGarrette Blount arrived. Then, Bill Belichick muscled through the madness to find and embrace Brady. Moments later, owner Bob Kraft cradled his right hand around his quarterback's neck to say a few words in private.
Vindication was never sweeter, no. When Brady took the podium with smeared eye black, tears welling and boos raining down on commissioner Roger Goodell—when he finally gripped the Lombardi Trophy and hoisted it high to scream, "Let's gooo!"—there was clearly zero debate.
Brady, fifth trophy in hand, is the G.O.A.T.
He shouted once more.
"We're bringing this sucker home!"
Name any quarterback. Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson—none are in Brady's stratosphere. What he pulled off against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI leaves Joe Montana in his dust. Any argument to the contrary is officially "back in my day" myth-making. He's the best quarterback ever. Period. And he's probably the best player ever. This 34-28 overtime thriller for ring No. 5 puts Brady in his own class.
How did this 39-year-old render the Falcons a pale, traumatized mess? Brady was not surgical; no, he was downright diabolical in erasing a 28-3 deficit with just over 17 minutes left.
How? Simple. This win echoed Brady's past. Only he can pull off this stunner, because it's wired into his football DNA. To those who've been in his day-to-day football universe, who've seen him overcome before, Sunday night's heroics were expected. From San Mateo, California, to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Boston, this coronation reverberated.
Take it from the kid who caught Brady's first touchdown ever, a 60-yarder in a freshman scrimmage at Junipero Serra High in San Mateo.
"He's unreal," John Kirby texted. "Told you."
Or from the quarterback who competed with Brady at Michigan, the one so often referred to as Brady's No. 1 source of motivation in college.
"That was unbelievable," Drew Henson texted. "No panic by anyone ever."
Or from the fullback lining up behind Brady during his first Super Bowl run 15 years ago.
"Amazing," Marc Edwards wrote. "Just amazing. Never count out TB12."
They've all seen it. Lived it. Understand it. Now, here in Houston, there are even more witnesses. On the field, teammates touched him, grabbed him, screamed with him as if to see for themselves if Brady is real.
This is no miracle to a guy like Brady. It's another Sunday, another ring. And the horrifying reality is that Brady isn't finished yet.
And yet, Brady didn't even see Robert Alford on Sunday. The greatest ever made a mistake typical of a rookie from Nowhere Tech. In the second quarter, he threw an awful interception to a cornerback so anonymous that he actually left media night early because no one amongst the thousands of reporters and clowns wanted to ask a question.
Brady galloped after Alford in one…two…three strides, pathetically hurled his 6'4," 225-pound body in a helpless lunge and Alford pranced to the end zone.
Into the second half, Brady sailed multiple passes high.
To truly grasp what was going through his mind in this moment, look back to his days as Tommy. As the slow plodder he was then. In ninth grade, Brady didn't even start on his winless freshman team at Serra. He spent all fall on the sideline, waiting, and he only got his shot to start the next year on Serra's JV team, when the quarterback ahead of him decided to focus on basketball.
He steered that Serra JV team to a championship showdown against Bellarmine College Prep, which was quarterbacked by future World Series champ Pat Burrell. Only family and friends watched this championship game, but, man, was this important. His time to shine. Brady's first "Super Bowl." And down six, deep into the fourth quarter, he drove the Serra offense to Bellarmine's 35-yard line.
Then, the automated sprinklers turned on.
Officials stopped the game for 10 minutes as the field morphed into a swamp. When play resumed, Brady inched Serra to Bellarmine's 20 and…the sprinklers turned on again.
He tried to throw a swing pass, and the ball slipped out of his hand.
"Bellarmine picks it up, houses it, we lose the championship," Kirby said, with a laugh. "Sprinklergate."
Brady became the starter on Serra's varsity team the next year, but coaches and teammates alike ridiculed his foot speed. He lumbered and labored. So the year after that, Brady spray-painted the dot drill onto his garage floor and doused himself in sweat all summer long, one-footing and two-footing different patterns on those five dots.
"That was the first glimpse for me," Kirby said, "that this guy will do anything in his power to face any adversity in his way and overcome it. That's his specialty."
Serra played on Fridays, watched film on Saturdays and Brady invited players to his home on Sundays to watch more film. His mom made everyone sandwiches while Tommy asked, "Kirb, what were you thinking on this play?" He'd tell his go-to receiver where to break off routes and what he was thinking, play to play to play. Soon enough, Serra was scoring 30, 40 points a game, and Brady was being recruited by Division I schools.
Of course, here in Houston, Brady trailed 28-3 under emotional circumstances. Eighteen months ago, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. This night, finally, Galynn Brady got to see her son play for the first time this season.
Brady's bond with his mom and dad was always special. When nobody believed, they did.
"If you knew Mr. and Mrs. Brady, you'd understand why Tommy is the way he is," said Father Joe Bradley of Saint Bartholomew in San Mateo, who is a family friend. "I cannot emphasize enough—it's his family, his folks. Tom and Galynn are the exact same people today as when Tom was on JVs."
Maybe this is why any Goodell-induced stress felt coming out of his Deflategate suspension to open the season was secondary for Brady. His mother had cancer. Perspective was reinforced.
So it's no wonder that hours before Super Bowl LI, Brady posted a photo on Instagram of himself kissing his mother.
"That's the whole heart and soul of who they are," Bradley said. "There's a love connection with each other. It's so real."
Added Kirby, "His family support, his base, in my opinion is why he has so much success."
When the clock Sunday dripped to six minutes and 12 seconds left in the third quarter, Brady flipped a quick pass left to Julian Edelman, who then lofted an incomplete double pass to Dion Lewis deep right. At that precise moment, New England's probability of winning the Super Bowl was 0.5 percent.
There was no need for Goodell to turn on the sprinklers at NRG Stadium.
The Falcons were kicking Brady's ass for him.
Then, suddenly, all errant overthrows became bullets. After that Edelman miss, Belichick went for it on 4th-and-3. Many coaches don't. Many coaches, tail between legs, meekly punt.
Instead, here, Brady gunned a 17-yarder to Danny Amendola, and the comeback was on.
One laser after another, he clawed the Patriots back.
Those drops? A horizontal Julian Edelman, eyes saucer-wide, hauled in the catch of the century. Those questionable play calls? Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels dialed up two brilliant calls on the two-point plays New England needed. Brady took that 0.5 percent chance and willed his team into overtime.
From his home in Tampa, Drew Henson was not shocked. In awe? Yes. In shock? No.
The story is immortalized in Brady lore by now, written in books and memorialized in documentaries. As legend goes, Brady was the boring fourth-year junior set to replace Brian Griese. Henson was the holy disciple with the wheels, the howitzer arm, the dual-sport pizzazz. It didn't matter that Brady took charge as the Wolverines' clear No. 1 to teammates all summer as Henson played for the Yankees.
When Henson arrived, with 10 days to switch gears, he shared reps with Brady.
And he quickly became a witness himself.
"Credit to Tom's tenacity and competitiveness," Henson said, "he fought through all the stuff. I was fully aware of everything he was going through, even though it was because of my circumstance. I didn't try to cause it.
"We all went to school to want to play, but you have to earn it. And this is the guy I tried to compete with."
"He's going to go down in history."
The third-stringer on that team, Jason Kapsner, originally chose Michigan because Brady was no threat. Don't worry about that Brady kid, coaches said in so many words, he's not a threat. Heck, even Kapsner received more practices than Brady in their early years together.
"The coaches weren't excited to play him, to give him an opportunity," Kapsner said. "From an athletic perspective, coaches were underwhelmed and trying to find someone with a better skill set. But what Tom always did was he'd get that one rep with the first team, and he'd make it perfect. It was almost like the coaches were, 'All right, damn it, now we have to give him two!' Then he'd do two reps perfect. So he worked his ass off. He worked harder than anyone.
"He set the tone for that work ethic in Michigan. People didn't believe in him."
Into that 1998 season, he remembers fans cheering Henson and booing Brady. The mood of the entire 100,000-seat stadium depended on which quarterback was in the game.
He also remembers how Brady reacted.
"When a lot of us would bitch and moan and complain about it," Kapsner said, "Tom was the guy who it fueled him more to win. And he proved to the coaches, proved to everyone, 'Nope, I'm the guy.' He didn't say it verbally. He just outworked everyone."
Head coach Lloyd Carr had no choice but to play Brady. Coaches didn't want to. It pained them. But this boring, methodical upperclassman was too resilient, too clutch.
Henson reels off the wins. In 1999, there was the 31-27 win over a No. 6 Penn State team that featured eventual No. 1 overall pick Courtney Brown and No. 2 pick LaVar Arrington. Brady's touchdown strike with 1:46 left won it. Then came three hours of Super Bowl foreshadowing in the Orange Bowl. Brady twice dug Michigan out of 14-point holes in a 35-34 thriller over Alabama, completing 34 passes for 375 yards and four touchdowns.
Only nine points in two losses separated Michigan from a perfect season that year.
And yet, even today, the perception remains that Brady never truly took that job by the reins.
Even in Houston—three days before the Super Bowl—Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk said he knew what everybody else did about Brady out of college.
"He sucked," Faulk told reporters, "and he couldn't beat out Drew Henson."
The truth is, at Michigan, Brady was further molding himself into the greatest.
As Henson explained, Brady would uncover the slightest, nuanced advantages on film. Once, he realized a safety couldn't flip his hips, so he burned that safety on a post-corner route. Yes, Brady was still pretty slow, despite all those dot drills, but he could demoralize defenses with his mind.
If you're looking for bad blood, look elsewhere.
Henson scoffed at the word "tenuous" and said he's pulled for Brady his entire career.
"I knew Tom was going to be successful," Henson said. "I knew the situation we had held him back as far as his draft status. But his mechanics, his determination—it didn't surprise me to see his success. The extent of his success? I don't know if anybody could've foreseen.
"I couldn't be happier for him. That needs to be clear. We competed hard. When he left, and I played a year, when he came back he couldn't have been happier for me when we beat Ohio State on the road. And I couldn't have been happier for him when he won the Super Bowl at 24 years old. Everyone from Michigan pulls for each other. That's never changing."
Who knows what would've happened to these two if Henson's father could've convinced Brady to attend Arizona State. Dan Henson, a longtime quarterbacks coach, actively recruited Brady to come there out of high school.
As it turned out, Brady won Super Bowls, and Henson's NFL career flamed out in 2009. Henson did some broadcasting for ESPN in 2010, was a hitting coach in the Yankees' farm system in 2013-14, a pro scout from 2015-16 and is now taking a break to be with his family more. Baseball's always been in his heart, so he'll stay involved somehow. Right now, he loves being a dad to his three-year-old daughter.
Like Brady, Henson grew up idolizing Joe Montana. And a fifth ring, to him, makes Brady the best ever.
He texts deep into the night, writing hours after the game about how calm the Patriots were. They never trailed like this all season.
"Didn't get off the game plan," Henson wrote. "Sped up the tempo on offense with results."
The missed onside kick. The jaw-dropping Julio Jones catch. Brady's Patriots overcame it all.
"Looked over at that point."
When the Patriots won the coin toss in overtime, there was no doubt.
There was blood in the water.
On Feb. 3, 2002, Brady took over at his own 17-yard line with no timeouts, and color commentator John Madden spoke for most of America in suggesting the Patriots should run out the clock and play for overtime.
By the time Brady calmly spiked the ball to set up the game-winning field goal, nonchalantly plucking it off the bounce with one hand, Madden was stunned.
"What Tom Brady just did," he said, "gives me goosebumps."
On Feb. 5, 2017, there wasn't a soul in the stadium who thought Brady could actually be stopped with the game on the line. It took all of 75 yards over eight plays for Brady to put the Falcons out of their misery.
What a difference 15 years makes.
There were two constants: those "goosebumps" and Brady's demeanor. A game-winning drive from this 39-year-old Tom Brady still looks like one from that 24-year-old Tom Brady. Same effortless command. Perfect touch on an out route to Danny Amendola for 14. Same emotionless, stare-into-your-soul glare. Perfect timing on a comeback to Chris Hogan for 18. Same sixth sense to know precisely where a team is vulnerable on defense and attack with pinpoint accuracy. An absolute bullet to Julian Edelman for 15.
James White scored, and the Patriots were champions again.
For Marc Edwards, Brady's fullback that first year and the next, and for every player inside the Louisiana Superdome 15 years ago, this was deja vu. Their Brady was young, was raw, was spoon-fed most of that season. But when the Greatest Show on Turf tied Super Bowl XXXVI at 17-17, he didn't flinch.
"He was too young to know any better," Edwards said. "He didn't care. There was no panic. There was nothing that said, 'Oh my gosh, this is the Super Bowl and we just lost a 14-point lead and we're about to lose this game.' None of that was even in his mind. He was a little kid out here having a good time, winning this damn game."
Kevin Faulk, a Patriots teammate from Brady's rookie season in 2000 to his own retirement after the 2011 season, said he sensed "something special" in the huddle from Brady even before the Super Bowl year. When Brady was a fourth-string rookie, Faulk said, he possessed a "this is my team" command. Willie McGinest, a teammate from 2000 until after the 2005 season, had no grandiose experience; rather the two-time Pro Bowler took one look at Brady and realized he "needed to get his ass in the weight room." Edwards didn't think much of anything.
"He was a scrub, right?" Edwards said. "Maybe he'll make the team. Maybe he won't. As training camp started, we said 'Wow, this guy's pretty damn good.'"
He stunned the Rams, he made a $100 Million Dollar Man in Drew Bledsoe expendable, and he hasn't stopped since. Brady now has five rings, seven AFC titles, 14 division titles and one stranglehold on the NFL.
Brady now gives new first impressions.
"Yeah," despondent Falcons linebacker Vic Beasley Jr. said Sunday night, "I would definitely say he's the best quarterback of all time."
"You guys saw the same game I saw," defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman added. "There isn't any rocket science behind what Tom Brady did. He executed. He's—in my opinion—he's the G.O.A.T. That's all."
"I'm disappointed that we came out on the losing end," defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. "Hell of respect for Tom Brady."
Friends wanted to see Brady call out the commish, nationally, on that Sunday Super Bowl stage. But the only real, raw words we'll hear from Brady about Goodell are probably "Roger that" in that pre-taped Shields Health Care ad that went viral Monday morning. He never stuck it to his high school coaches or Michigan coaches, or blistered NFL GMs publicly for slipping to the No. 199 pick. Instead, expect courteous, stale news conferences all offseason.
Allow Kevin Faulk to take you inside the Mind of Tom.
"It doesn't matter what you feel about me," Faulk said, imitating Brady. "It's what I feel about me. I've got a confidence level about me that can take me to the top."
Articulating Brady's greatness is not easy. Players inside the interview room were like you, me, everyone.
Trey Flowers held up a newspaper with rings on each finger of a hand and simply said, "It says it all. I'm just glad I witnessed it. It's unbelievable."
Martellus Bennett? "Tom Brady's Tom Brady."
LeGarrette Blount? He pointed out that Brady not only has five Super Bowl titles…but five titles against five different teams.
Each challenge was different. This one, easily, was the most stunning.
"We were down 28-3," Blount said, "and he orchestrated possibly the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, and I was here to watch it. I've seen how he goes about his business and what he does to make sure he's prepared for his games is amazing."
What now? Brady will return for more.
The greats put it bluntly: This isn't your father's NFL. Troy Aikman doesn't see quarterbacks getting pummeled to a pulp like his generation did. If you feel fine on Mondays, the thought of retiring doesn't creep into your conscience nearly as much. Terry Bradshaw sees quarterbacks throwing the ball differently today. They're not exhausting their arm, not "snapping" the ball as he did. Rather, they're using their entire shoulder with compact torque.
And the same week Kurt Warner was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he said he could play himself right now at 45 years old. That proverbial cliff you have in your mind? Forget about it.
"The bottom line for a guy like Tom Brady is, Does his mind ever fall off the cliff?" Warner said. "Does he stop being able to see things, react to things, make the decisions he's made throughout his career mentally, not physically. … If there's anybody who throws less than 50 yards more than anybody else, it's the New England Patriots. A lot of their throws are 10 yards or less. So as long as he can make decisions that way and see the field and have a comfort level in this offense—I mean, I'm 45.
"I don't see any reason why he can't continue to play at this type of level until he's at least 45."
Brady was never on a pitch count this season. He throws and throws and throws every chance he gets. Assistant quarterbacks coach Jerry Schuplinski guessed that Brady threw 200-plus balls a practice and 20 in between each series during games. Brady watches as much film of himself practicing—critiquing fundamentals to the inch—as of the team he's going to face that Sunday.
Said Schuplinski, "There's a difference between 'want' and 'will.' He wills himself to do it."
The world has not seen the last of Brady. Hardly. The fire inside has been burning since Sprinklergate. He'll stay on his funky nutrition plan. Backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett assured Brady is still eating that gross avocado ice cream. These players young enough to be Brady's son help him stay hip, too.
They introduce him to new music to bridge the age gap, and when Brady created an Instagram account and went, uh, a tad too wild with the hashtags, Brissett stepped in.
"His locker's right next to mine," Brissett said, "so I'm like 'Come on, Tom, you can't do that.'"
That arm? Still powerful. So often this season, Brissett needed to take two, three steps back to brace for Brady's fastballs.
Yet he's still going. Still dominating. Don't connect this magical 2017 season directly to a Deflategate suspension, either.
Belichick was honest as ever when that topic came up Monday. To insinuate that this season was any different, he said, that Brady competed any harder "is insulting."
"It's been like that every year, every day, every week, every practice," Belichick said. "I don't care if it's in May, August or January—Tom Brady gives us his best every time he steps on the field."
And this is the essence of Brady. Belichick is 100 percent correct—the quarterback has always been this way.
If that postgame scene was awkward for Goodell, too bad.
Brady will be back again.
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.