HOUSTON -- At the end, Tom Brady crouched alone, head bowed close to the confetti, encircled by reporters and security and finally his teammates. Immediately around him, backed up just a few inches, everything stood still for a few seconds. The onlookers peering down at him and then, as if to respect his private moment, away.
At long last, someone put an arm around his back, and LeGarrette Blount put his hand on Brady's head and told him what everybody watching was thinking, too: "You're the f------ greatest." Finally, Bill Belichick came and Brady stood and smiled, the coach and player who have won five Super Bowls sharing the relief of their most extraordinary season and perhaps their most stunning victory.
It has been a wrenching season for Brady -- really a wrenching two years since his integrity was first questioned -- and at last it was over, the absence of his mother, the suspension that had sullied him, the season that, incredibly, had redefined his greatness yet again. There was a quick handshake with Commissioner Roger Goodell -- if that won't soothe any feelings in New England, it at least provides closure to the drama -- and tears in Brady's eyes as he stood watching the Lombardi Trophy make its way through the crowd on the field. It was a stirring moment, a rare glimpse of emotion from a quarterback so poised he, in one night, could be so frustrated he would throw a binder full of Polaroids to the ground late in the first half and then engineer 31 straight points in the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, a 34-28 victory.
"There was a lot of s--- that happened tonight," Brady said, by way of explaining the comeback.
Actually, there was a lot that happened all year. Shortened by suspension, this still must have felt like the longest season of Brady's life, how he had to wait to reassume his job after exile. Seeing Jimmy Garoppolo touch the Lombardi Trophy as it was carried to the podium was a quick reminder of how the season started, with Brady throwing passes to anybody who would have a catch with him on any patch of grass he could find. That was back in the heat of summer, and if Garoppolo's flash of talent was a promise of what the future might hold, once Brady reassumed his place, he also reminded everyone of why Garoppolo probably will be traded and the Patriots' future will roll on for at least a few more years with Brady. That the season stretched a few minutes longer into the first Super Bowl overtime seemed fitting.
Of all his championships, this was surely the most difficult for Brady, tonight and over the course of the season. While he continued Sunday night to demure about whether there were any feelings of redemption, that solitary moment amid the maelstrom told the story. So, too, did the comments of those who are closest to Brady, and the most protective of him. Patrick Chung said "haters need to shut up" and own up to Brady being the greatest.
"A lot has transpired during the last two years," Kraft said. "I don't think that needs any explanation."
Brady grew up in the Bay Area idolizing Joe Montana. And when Brady took the ball with 3:30 remaining in the fourth quarter at his own 9-yard line, readying for what would have to be a 91-yard drive for overtime, it was hard not to think for a moment of Montana's 92-yard drive to beat the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII. Montana was Joe Cool, and, like him, Brady is possessed of a spellbinding calm in the midst of chaos.
With Patriots fans thundering his name, he unleashed pass after pass after pass. When the Patriots scored, Brady did not even react, but immediately signaled for two. Then came the overtime drive, erasing whatever memory there was of the overthrown passes and the big hits that had rattled him in the first half. When James White dove barely over the goal line for the winning score, so close that it demanded a second look, Brady peered up to the scoreboard, refusing to celebrate even as his teammates flooded the field. He finished with 466 yards -- a Super Bowl record -- two touchdowns and one interception, missing just eight of 30 pass attempts in the second half.
That is the part of Brady we are most familiar with: The cool, calculating leader who does not panic. But to look at Brady tonight was to know this all took a toll on him. When he was younger, in his early Super Bowls -- he's played in so many that he has eras of Super Bowls -- Brady exulted when the games were over. But on Sunday, more than ebullient, he looked relieved and a little weary. He grasped his children in his arms as he kissed his wife and made his way to his mom.
"How he handled everything is just something to look up to," said receiver Julian Edelman, whose fingertip-just-barely-off-the-ground catch will be featured on highlight reels for years to come. "What he was dealing with at the end of season, what he was dealing with personally. He's just a class act. A lot of people want to hate on him just because he's at the top always, but the guy is a family man, he loves football, he loves putting in the work."
Whether the suspension, playing out while his family wrestled with his mother's illness, really did provide any additional fuel, Brady might never be willing to explain fully. In the end, it doesn't really matter. However he got here, to that podium with the red-rimmed eyes, he is unquestionably the greatest quarterback in history.
Ignore the bland, diplomatic quotes and look at a few pictures of Brady from tonight. He is older and a little more beaten up than he was when he first started winning these championships. But with him crouched on the field, crying as we have never seen him after a game, his longest season was over. He needed a rest.
"There was a lot at stake tonight," he said. "To beat this team, and to get down 28-3, it was just a lot of mental toughness by our team. And we're going to remember this for the rest of our lives."