GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When he first had this moment, he was much younger, with no wife or children, and none of the scars of the devastating losses and the troubling controversy that have dented him since.
In that first Super Bowl victory, Tom Brady put his hands on his head in disbelief. The victories seemed limitless then, and they were, for a while. It was hard for him to remember that night in New Orleans now, Brady said Sunday evening, the game-winning drive he led in those waning seconds. Thirteen years have passed since that first title -- tying Brady with Ted Hendricks for the longest time elapsed between a first title and the most recent.
"I'm a little bit older now," Brady said.
And much more accomplished, and perhaps a little wearier, too. This past season included a terrible start, questions about whether his decline had begun and now suspicions about his character that might never be entirely quelled.
But in the final seconds of the Patriots' 28-24 victory in Super Bowl XLIX, Brady -- who had earlier led his team back from a 10-point deficit against the league's best defense -- jumped up and down, his arms outstretched, his mouth agape, the way a little boy would celebrate his biggest win. The Patriots' bench was celebrating around him, but Brady was alone for a moment, before Bill Belichick would embrace him, before Robert Kraft would hold him and before Brady would blow kisses to his family in the stands. In that moment, he was back to being the Brady who had it all in front of him. Maybe he still does.
On the night Brady joined Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as quarterbacks who have won four Super Bowls, Brady's win came with something special -- a decade between this one and the last, a decade that saw him lose his two previous title chances to the New York Giants, a decade that drew him much closer to the end of his career than to the beginning, a decade that included the last two weeks, which might have presented the greatest challenge to his personal reputation and his ability to focus as anything that has confronted him before.
He arrived at his postgame press conference looking not so much elated as relieved and satisfied and, well, older. There was little overt jubilation. Someone congratulated him, and he said thank you. But beyond a small smile, Brady hid his emotions as well as he has over the last two weeks.
Did he feel any vindication after spending two weeks with the Patriots' reputation and his own character being called into question because of a league investigation into whether New England tampered with footballs used in the AFC Championship Game?
"No, I don't feel any," he said quietly.
Did he just feel tired?
"Yeah. It's a long day. I think we put a lot into it. Yeah, I'm tired."
Whatever comes of the league's investigation, it is unlikely -- unless it points the finger solely at Brady -- to do anything to significantly derail Brady's claim to being the greatest quarterback in league history. Brady likely will be questioned in the coming days about his knowledge of the deflated footballs and what his role in preparing them was. And perhaps a definitive finding against the Patriots would taint Brady in some eyes. But no amount of lost air pressure and no amount of improperly taped opponents' signals can account for Brady's remarkable run of success. He shares the victory record with Bradshaw and Montana, but Brady's achievement came in the free-agency era, and with him playing for a team that has rarely invested heavily in top-tier receivers. That decade in between -- and the consistency Brady and the Patriots have exhibited even in those intervening years -- gives this championship a shine even brighter than the earlier ones.
The suspicions that have dogged the Patriots in the last two weeks -- Kraft made a point of saying on national television after the game that nobody on his team had touched the footballs for this game -- have surely left a mark on Brady. Of course, he has now indisputably left his mark on the game, too, cementing a legacy with two fourth-quarter touchdown drives after two weeks of duress.
But while everybody else ponders Brady's place in history, he had no use for it Sunday night. He will be 38 when next season begins, and a loss might have marked his last, best chance to win another Super Bowl. This victory, though, opens up all kinds of possibilities, considering the well-documented regimen of diet and body maintenance that allows him to keep himself in shape to play. When the Patriots were trailing entering the fourth quarter, it was easy to imagine the beginning of the end for Brady in New England. Now, it is tempting to wonder if he can add one more title before he is finished.
"No, I've got a lot of football left," Brady responded when asked if he has thought about how his legacy fits into NFL lore. "It's hard to play this game, and it takes a big commitment, a lot of sacrifice. For all the players that have played in the past and I've looked up to and admired, and a lot of the players now who I look up to and admire -- it's a big challenge and it's incredible to experience this feeling once, and I've been fortunate to play on four really great teams, so I'm really blessed."
Brady was named the Super Bowl's Most Valuable Player for the third time, and he also holds the record for Super Bowl touchdown passes in a career (13). He said he couldn't believe it when it appeared the Patriots would be victimized by an extraordinary catch for a third straight Super Bowl, when Jermaine Kearse bobbled and batted the ball three times before finally securing it on Seattle's final drive. Brady shook his head slightly on the sideline when Kearse came down with it.
He was gone behind the curtain soon after, having revealed precious little about how the last two weeks affected him, about whether, in his darkest moments, he had ever doubted he'd get the fourth title, about just how much more of this he has left in him. The conclusions would have to be drawn from the record 37 completions in the game, from the eight straight completions in that final drive. It is all still there, just as it was 13 years ago in New Orleans.
Brady was asked if he is at peace on the field after all the controversy, but he sidestepped that question, too. There might not be much peace for the Patriots for a few weeks, or maybe for much longer. But the trophy is theirs again, and the best quarterback is, too.