Tomase: Two photos, 17 years, one Tom Brady

John Tomase
January 23, 2019 - 11:50 am

The photo ran everywhere on Sunday night, perfectly capturing Tom Brady's euphoric mix of jubilation and disbelief.

Moments after a 37-31 sudden-death victory over the Chiefs in the AFC title game, Brady stood on the Arrowhead Stadium field with both hands on his head and a "no-bleeping-way" smile spreading across his face.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady
USA Today Sports

If the entire scene looked familiar, there's good reason. Seventeen years earlier, Brady had struck virtually the same pose, but this time as confetti rained.

The Patriots had just upset the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI in what remains the defining victory of Boston's two-decade run of greatness, and the photo of Brady on a riser awaiting the Vince Lombardi Trophy is now iconic. Then only 24 years old, Brady looks like someone only partially convinced he's not dreaming. How does a sixth-round pick win a Super Bowl not even two years after watching 198 players get drafted before him?

Study the two photos and what becomes clear is how remarkably similar they are in terms of what they say about Brady the football player, but how different they are when it comes to the evolution of Brady the person.

Back in 2002, Brady wasn't TB12, he wasn't a passionate spokesman for health and wellness, and he definitely wasn't a corporation. He was the kind of guy blown away by a beauty pageant invite from a D-list celebrity developer, and he hadn't yet become a tabloid fixture on the dating circuit. Tara Reid? All we knew at that point was that his three older sisters protected him like hawks.

Nearly two decades later, that D-lister is the president who actively courted Brady's endorsement during the campaign, using their relationship as a shorthand to highlight his association with winners. When Brady's support waned, the most powerful man in the world felt betrayed. It turns out Brady called the shots.

And while early-20s Brady had his fun as one of the world's most eligible bachelors, he is now long married to one of the most powerful and driven women in the world, a force of nature given the signature moment of the opening ceremonies at the 2016 Rio Olympics when she strutted across the catwalk for the final time in her native Brazil.

That's a lot of life experience to pack into 17 years, which is why the Brady in the first photo not only can't conceive of the possibilities that lay before him, he wouldn't even try. There was no moment worth pondering beyond that one.

The Brady in the second photo probably thought he couldn't be surprised anymore. The Patriots collect AFC titles like the rest of us save ticket stubs or wine bottles, and what's another on the pile?

The answer is right there in Brady's face. The slightly cherubic cheeks and wide-eyed roundness of 2002 have been replaced by harder lines and middle-aged stubble. (The cleft chin, of course, remains constant.) Young Brady had never rehabbed a season-ending knee injury or deliberated whether he should take a case about deflated footballs to the Supreme Court. Brady may have resented sharing snaps at Michigan, but Drew Henson didn't represent the same existential threat as Jimmy Garoppolo.

The Brady of Sunday had survived not only all of that, but constant doubts about his ability to thrive at age 41. The look on his face betrayed his own shock, on some level, that he had done this all again.

But if there's one place Brady has not changed, it's on the field. One can draw a straight line from the unflappable youngster who drove the Patriots to the winning field goal in the final 90 seconds of Super Bowl XXXVI to the one who converted three straight third-and-10s in overtime on Sunday.

This Brady is blessed with the confidence of repeated success, but that one trusted his ability under pressure, too. Watching Brady interact with teammates in behind-the-scenes footage that appeared online, one is struck by the genuine wonder in his voice as he repeats how "un(bleeping)believable" it was that the Patriots had once again found a way. But there are also smaller moments, like when he apologizes to receiver Cordarrelle Patterson for throwing a slant behind him.

The competitive juices that fueled Brady's rise continue to power his sunset, and that brings us back to the ultimate unifying theme of two iconic moments frozen for eternity -- each Brady looks like he's having the time of his life.