Football fans know what old quarterbacks look like as they fade away. It is not like Tom Brady.
Old quarterbacks hobble around the field, propped on stiff hips and achy knees, their arms ragged and their faces craggy. They look like survivors, elevated in myth but diminished in stature.
Vaults and minds are filled with clips of Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Brett Favre and all the other creaky quarterbacks who tempted the fates of time and tradition, shunning retirement until deep — maybe too deep — into Hall-of-Fame careers.
When John Elway played his last game, winning a Super Bowl, he was 38. Peyton Manning did the same at 39. Rigid and worn, older quarterbacks usually move as if they might be unable to tie the laces on their cleats.
Then there is Brady, a cyborg. He is 43. Does he have a wrinkle on his face? Is his arm bionic? Are his joints made of rubber? He probably can tie his own laces while doing downward dog.
“You look at this guy and think, ‘Wow, it’s absolutely incredible,” said Gordon Lithgow, a professor and vice president of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, Calif. “Is he actually aging at a slower rate than other people?”
That is the question football fans are asking ahead of Sunday’s Super Bowl between Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Kansas City Chiefs.
The answer appears to be yes, at least in football terms. The hard question is why.
“There’s no way that elite athletes are immune to aging,” Lithgow said. “You can see quite a precipitous drop-off in performance — even though they are way above average, it’s still happening at the same rates.”
Brady, who is in his first season with Tampa Bay after 20 years with the New England Patriots, will be the oldest player to participate in a Super Bowl, at any position. He is the only quarterback to start a Super Bowl after age 40, and he is about to do it for the third time.
Brady was born in 1977, the summer of “Star Wars,” Son of Sam and the death of Elvis (at 42, notably). Brady has been alive for every victory in Tampa Bay franchise history. (The Buccaneers were 0-14 in 1976, their inaugural season.)
The 18-year age gap between him and Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes is the biggest ever between Super Bowl starting quarterbacks. When Brady was born, Mahomes’s mother was 1.
Brady was selected in the 2000 N.F.L. draft and has been a starting quarterback since New England’s second game after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Each of the 11 other quarterbacks drafted in 2000 (Brady was the seventh taken) has been out of the N.F.L. for at least nine years.
This will be his 10th Super Bowl. He has won six of them and earned the game’s Most Valuable Player Award four times.
“If anyone has any superlatives that haven’t been used yet, you know how to get in touch with me,” said Jim Nantz, the Super Bowl play-by-play announcer for CBS. “My reservoir is bone dry.”
Sports fans are accustomed to the inevitability of late-career declines by stars. But this season Brady threw 40 touchdowns, the second-highest total of his career. Still mobile in the pocket, he was sacked at a lower rate than his career average. Hardly a weak-armed version of his past self, he recorded an average air distance on his throws, whether completed or not, that was longer (9.1 yards) than in the previous two seasons with New England.
Brady looks more like his younger self than like a doddering old quarterback.
Is he the best athlete ever? How can that be measured?
Brady may not be the best football player, or even the best quarterback. But through an incalculable algorithm of excellence, consistency and time, Brady might come out No. 1.
Brady, though, might not be No. 1 in the hearts of football fans. Age and accomplishment bring respect to older athletes, but Brady and the Patriots dynasty of the past two decades proved especially hard to adore for those outside New England. They won steadily behind their cranky coach, Bill Belichick, and the cool Brady, who long ago shed any underdog charm he brought into the league as a sixth-round draft pick.
The Patriots rarely dazzled. They were seldom fun. They were respected in the way that steamrollers are. They swapped coordinators, shuffled the roster and got older, yet Belichick and Brady kept winning. It was hard to explain. Any awe came from their relentless efficiency.
Controversies surrounding accusations of cheating — Spygate in 2007, Deflategate in 2015 — cling loosely to their championships, like dryer sheets on fresh laundry.
Brady’s skills have never been obvious, but he was always there, smiling and holding the trophy. It could seem a bit much — his persistent winning, his sunny but vapid California disposition, his supermodel wife, his Uggs.
Now he is recast with the Buccaneers, an innocuous franchise that elicits little emotional reflex, playing for an affable coach in Bruce Arians, an anti-Belichick. And Brady, wearing a new costume, performs like a carnival act — Come see the ageless man! — as audiences gather in wonder for another look, if not the last one.
Nantz has twice thought he had broadcast Brady’s last game — two years ago in a Super Bowl victory, last season in a playoff loss. Will this Super Bowl be the end? It does not seem so. Brady talks of playing to 45, maybe beyond.
His age is now his business. Brady has marketed his longevity, packaged it into something called the TB12 Method, and explained it in a 2017 book espousing muscle “pliability.” The goal is a spongy elasticity that can absorb all that life throws at a body, even that of an aging quarterback.
Brady’s long career is not just vital to the pitch. It is the pitch. The main headline on the TB12 home page reads, “Still Here,” mocking our amazement. The implication is clear: The elusive Fountain of Youth might come boxed in a “TB12 Immunity Gameplan Starter Kit” ($175).
There are no N.F.L. logos, no mentions of the Patriots or Buccaneers — just the lure of youthfulness and positivity. Whenever he retires from football, Brady will still be in our lives, selling not cars, pizza or insurance, but aspiration and lifestyle — part Jack LaLanne, part Gwyneth Paltrow.
Items for sale include TB12 Performance Meals, “freshly frozen for your active lifestyle.” Brady’s diet is mostly plant-based — but no strawberries, because he detests the smell of them, a trait that football opponents have somehow been unable to exploit. He fills his body with protein shakes, TB12-branded electrolytes and lots of water — “Drink at least one-half of your body weight in ounces of water daily,” he instructs on the site.
TB12 also sells dietary supplements, exercise equipment (lots of stretchy bands and vibrating rollers and balls) and clothing (including shirts reading “20 Seasons” and “Tampa Brady”).
Acolytes can make an appointment with a TB12 Body Coach, “your partner in performance and recovery,” either virtually or at one of several TB12 locations in Massachusetts and Florida. “Replacing injury and rehab with pliability and prehab” is a catchphrase. Sleep and mindfulness are also promoted at TB12 as key components to good health.
The prevailing mood is calm, which feels counter to football’s grunting culture of power and testosterone. All that is missing are candles scented like Tom Brady.
Does his philosophy work? Is that the key to his football longevity, or is Brady merely the beneficiary of great genes and luck?
After all, he has not missed a game because of injury since 2008.
“Genetics is probably less than 10 percent of the equation,” Lithgow, the aging expert, said. “That means that there’s a whole lot of stuff out there, in terms of environment, everything we’re exposed to, that actually plays a much, much larger part — which is kind of good news, actually. It means that maybe we have some ability to control our own rate of aging.”
Brady and his “method” suggest that he has found the optimal blend of diet, exercise and sleep. Those factors certainly affect aging, Lithgow said.
“But — and it’s a big but,” he said, “with any of these interventions or systems, we can’t say anything about them until they’re subject to a normal double-blind clinical trial.”
“If you find something that works for you, that’s great,” Lithgow added. “That’s just looking after yourself, and it’s not science, and it’s not something you can necessarily recommend for your next-door neighbor because they may respond completely differently to it.”
For someone so adept at selling himself, Brady has been shrouded in suspicion of his own making. In 2015, he was the focus of Deflategate, the N.F.L. investigation into whether Brady instructed team employees to reduce the air pressure in footballs below the league standard to gain some sort of advantage. (Brady was suspended in 2016 for four games, the only ones he has missed since 2008.) In recent years, a relationship with the controversial fitness guru Alex Guerrero has further cast Brady as someone trying to hide something.
Guerrero, a purveyor of holistic medicine, was charged in 2004 by the Federal Trade Commission with deceptively marketing an herbal supplement called Supreme Greens. Infomercials starring “Dr. Guerrero” (he has no doctorate or license to practice medicine) claimed the product could prevent and cure cancer, diabetes and heart disease, among other maladies, and spur substantial weight loss. The case was settled in 2005, and Guerrero was required to pay $65,000 or to give up his 2004 Cadillac Escalade.
That is about when Brady and Guerrero began working closely together. They founded TB12 in 2013. In 2015, a New York Times article referred to Guerrero as Brady’s “best friend” and “his spiritual guide, counselor, pal, nutrition adviser, trainer, massage therapist and family member.” He is a godfather to one of Brady’s sons.
Guerrero’s constant presence around the Patriots reportedly caused friction with Belichick, who kept Guerrero off the team plane and limited his sideline access in 2017. In 2018, another player working with Guerrero, receiver Julian Edelman, was suspended for four games after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance.
Brady has made theater of not discussing Guerrero. During a weekly radio obligation in Boston in 2018, he refused to answer questions about Guerrero and hung up.
After Brady’s contract expired last year, the Patriots reportedly did not offer a new deal. Only two teams, the Buccaneers and the Los Angeles Chargers, took serious runs at him. Brady left for Tampa Bay, taking Guerrero with him.
In October, Brady posted birthday wishes to Guerrero on Instagram. “It’s not often in life we find people that share so many common beliefs,” he wrote, in part. “Love you big bro!!”
Whatever Brady is doing, his ability to defy his age has captured the collective imagination of football fans.
When the N.F.L. playoffs began, they seemed like a seniors tournament. Drew Brees (42), Philip Rivers (39), Ben Roethlisberger (38) and Aaron Rodgers (37) all led their teams into the postseason. Each is likely to end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Only the oldest of the elders, Brady, reached the Super Bowl — again.
Last year, Mahomes merchandise (jerseys and numbered T-shirts) set sales records during the two weeks before the Super Bowl, according to Fanatics, which operates online stores for the N.F.L.
Brady merchandise surpassed the two-week total for Mahomes items just three days after Tampa Bay won a spot in the Super Bowl, the company said.
“The greatest who ever walked,” said the former quarterback Tony Romo, who will be Nantz’s broadcast partner for the Super Bowl.
Romo had a 14-year N.F.L. career, long by most standards. But he is three years younger than Brady, and he retired four seasons ago with a sore back.
Fans know what old quarterbacks look like. They can see one in the broadcast booth on Sunday.