Tom Brady's ultimate victory is over the whole dumb, stick-a-needle-in-it NFL culture. A 39-year-old man completed the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, and he walked off the field without a limp or a chip on his shoulder. How about that? He has played this game better, for longer, than anyone in the annals of the game, outsmarted and outlasted not just the unscrupulous commissioner, Roger Goodell, but the hack doctors and the ham-fisted trainers and all of the locker-room scroungers who would use him, or sully him, or steal the jersey from his back, yet leave him crippled up for life.
He's still upright, having proved that there is no sneaky ball trick, no amount of air that can put the substance and composure in a man to come from 25 points down with 23 minutes to go in the biggest game and win. His legacy is not just the record-tying five Super Bowl rings; it's the lasting influence he will have on younger players, guys such as receiver Chris Hogan, who was all of 14 when Brady won his first title, in how to go about things in the face of reversal, and re-seize the narrative of your own life and career. You wait patiently for your chance, and you play "to the last whistle," Brady said as he put an arm around Hogan in the postgame locker room. "To the last whistle."
No player has given a greater lesson in how to use the game of football instead of being used by it, how to build yourself up instead of letting it break you down. Among other things, Brady is the healthiest great champion the NFL has ever had, both physically and mentally. That is the most interesting and important aspect of his career trajectory. Forget the revenge and redemption narrative, the way he made a fool of Goodell over Deflategate. Brady's far more revolutionary act has been to seize control of his own body from a league that specializes in ruining men with Mesozoic training methods and corrupt medical practices rife with painkiller abuses and MRSA infections. Make fun of Brady's avocado ice cream if you want, but, on the cusp of 40, he has never looked or played better in his life, and he appears to have more years left in those strikingly limber arms and legs.
"You know, I don't feel 39," Brady said Monday morning at a news conference to accept his fourth Super Bowl most valuable player trophy. "I hang out with a bunch of 20-year-olds, and that makes you feel young. I try to take care of myself with things I've learned through a lot of positive and negative experiences. I've found a unique way, a little outside the box, that's really worked for me."
Somewhere around a decade ago, Brady told the NFL doctors and trainers to get their hands off him, the same way he told Goodell to get his hands off his reputation. In 2008, he underwent knee surgery that was complicated by a staph infection that required a second surgery, six weeks of antibiotics and wound washes. His shoulder hurt, too. "When I was 25, I was hurting all the time, and I could never have imagined playing this long," he said.
Credit for his remarkable longevity goes, whether anyone likes it or not, to the fact that he sought out an unconventional Eastern-medicine masseuse-trainer, Alex Guerrero, at whom NFL doctors look askance. Brady has been mocked, and Guerrero has been called a quack and a fraud, because of a dicey past in which he made extravagant claims about unproven products. But much of what he and Brady have done makes nothing but sense. NFL weight-training was hurting his joints and robbing him of flexibility, and the food he was eating was inflammatory and making him stiff.
Brady now consumes no dairy, white sugar or white flour. He uses resistance bands and anti-gravity treadmills and focuses as much on pliability as strength. He meditates and does yoga. What's more, he has steered about half the team to Guerrero's care, to the consternation of NFL medical staff. "I'm 39, and I never hurt," Brady says. "My arm never hurts, and my body never hurts. I know how to take care of it. . . . Hopefully I can keep passing that message on to a lot of young athletes."
The message is that you don't have to wind up with an old man's body prematurely. Every year, the New England Patriots do physical testing in preseason. Each of the past three years, Brady has actually improved some of his physiological values.
Young players, observe. This is how you control your own destiny. At every step in his career, Brady has refused to let other people define him. In college, at Michigan, he was branded a grinder who wasn't good enough to win the starting job. On entering the NFL, he was the 199th draft pick, with awkward feet. During Deflategate, he was a cheater who ordered the game balls underinflated. In every instance, he erased the old perception and replaced it with a new one, remaking himself, his body and his performance. "I've never been the fastest guy in the world," he once said. "I've never moved the best. I've never been very strong. People have always said, 'You can't.' "
Brady's constant determination to be self-defined is why, in Deflategate, he ultimately emerged the winner and Goodell the damaged loser. The Patriots' victory and Brady's performance exposed the commissioner all over again as a devious user, willing to sacrifice a player's career to shore up his own – but Brady accepted Goodell's congratulations with pure class and no outward appearance of hard feelings. One reason for that, as it turns out, was that he had bigger things to think about. His mother, Galynn, has been battling cancer, undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. "She's been through a lot," Brady said Monday. "Way harder than what I went through last night, way harder than what our team went through."
Another reason is that Brady and the Patriots understood all along how to wrest the narrative back from Goodell: by simply proving who they really are. As Coach Bill Belichick suggested Monday at the winner's news conference, the trouble with the revenge-and-redemption narrative is that it suggests Brady somehow needed them.
"With all due respect," Belichick said, "I think it's inappropriate to suggest that in Tom's career he's been anything but a great teammate, a great worker, and has given us every single ounce of effort, blood, sweat and tears that he has in him."
Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post.