Super Bowl 2019: Patriots star Tom Brady is a man America loves to hate. Here's why I love him anyway.

In an era where our heroes are increasingly diminished, sometimes the worst thing you can do for your image is be relentlessly, consistently excellent.
Image: Super Bowl LI - New England Patriots v Atlanta Falcons
Tom Brady hoists (yet another) Vince Lombardi Trophy in 2017.Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Joe Brettell

It’s easy to do, really. The perfect hair, the supermodel wife, the eye-popping success — for goodness sakes, the man says hello to his mom when he’s on national TV.

It’s so easy to hate New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

It’s so much more convenient to believe, deep down, that he’s the personification of everything we hated in high school: The jock who always seemed to get away with not studying, had the admiration of everyone he knew and then played hero on Friday night. And as the Patriots face the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl on Sunday — Brady’s ninth appearance — his haters are once again out in force.

Whether due to Patriot fatigue, his questionable choice in headgear, or bizarre diets, Brady has yet to receive the kind of late-career reverence afforded transcendent stars.

Whether due to Patriot fatigue, his questionable choice in headgear, bizarre diets, or even the supermodel-like photo spreads in "GQ," Brady has yet to receive the kind of late-career reverence afforded other transcendent stars like Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky or even Brady’s own childhood hero, Joe Montana.

SIGN UP FOR THE THINK WEEKLY NEWSLETTER HERE

Get the think newsletter.

To be fair, there are plenty of reasons to dislike the Patriots great. Allegations of cheating have hounded the Patriots dynasty for years and the “deflategate” scandal provided more fuel for the fire. At least one kid even channeled that frustration into a winning science fair entry.

Yet, I suspect a darker reason motivates much of the hatred. The last 20 years have conditioned Americans to stay skeptical of our heroes. After watching Muhammad Ali deteriorate into a shell of himself, greats Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds — not to mention Lance Armstrong — become poster children for the triumphs of chemistry instead of athletic achievement, and countless professional athletes accused of domestic violence and other crimes, we’ve become conditioned to regard achievement as a reason for suspicion instead of celebration.

It was inevitable — Americans love an underdog and they love a winner, but only to a point. And it’s easy to forget now that Brady was once an underdog — a humble 199th draft pick who made the most of his chance when starter Drew Bledsoe got injured. As the accolades and trappings of fame have piled high, however, it became harder to believe the narrative that Brady was simply an everyman who got his shot. In an era where our heroes are increasingly diminished, either by overexposure or a relentless social media culture, sometimes the worst thing you can do for your image is be relentlessly, consistently excellent.

New England Patriots backup quarterback Tom Brady warms up on the sidelines before an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan on Aug. 4, 2000.Carlos Osorio / AP file

Despite all of that, I’m writing this piece to come clean about a dirty secret — one that I’m willing to bet is shared by many others: I love watching Tom Brady. There, I said it.

This is not to say I’m a Patriots die hard or even a New England bandwagon groupie. I am, and always will be a San Diego Chargers fan at heart. (Emphasis on San Diego.)

I root for Brady at this stage of his career because I admire his talent and work ethic, pure and simple. On some level, many root for Brady for the same reason we love superhero movies: We like to watch winners win. Make it close of course, but by the end, we want the hero standing over a vanquished enemy; the city saved and we all live happily ever after. Similarly, when the Patriots took the ball with 2:03 left in the fourth quarter in their playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs, I roused my young boys out of bed and let them stay up late. I knew we were about to watch a master at work.

Is the TB12 Method a little much? Yes. And yes, "Tom vs. Time," his Facebook reality series-turned-informercial was polished enough that it could have played at a political convention. And yes, Brady’s seeming fandom — however casual — for President Donald Trump has rubbed some fans the wrong way. And yes, the Patriots under Bill Bellichick have practiced a ruthless win-at-all costs strategy that can border on the unethical, to say the least.

But many players are ruthless, have political affiliations we may or may not agree with and have odd or superstitious relationships with food. This is not a justification so much as a reminder that Brady’s sins are clearly magnified by his stardom. Would we vilify a lesser player for eschewing strawberries? Perhaps not.

The way Brady makes record-shattering performances seem routine, even bland, shouldn’t allow us to ignore the fact that we witness history pretty much every time No. 12 takes the ball.

On the other hand, history suggests hating Brady is just par for the course. Wilt Chamberlin was dominant, but never beloved. Jack Nicklaus was far superior as a golfer, but never won over the crowds the way Arnold Palmer did. Like those legends before him, Brady has earned grudging appreciation, but typically not admiration. In each case, it took the rigors of age and a decline of skills — Nicklaus in the ’86 Masters, Chamberlin late in life — before each was truly appreciated in his time. The same may be true for the famously private Brady.

So will Brady eventually earn not just respect, but adulation? I’ll wait and see.