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From tortoise to G.O.A.T.: Tom Brady retires as the greatest dynasty in NFL history

It was late in his first year as a starter when Tom Brady relayed a conversation he'd had, in which he sought to explain to a teammate how he went from a scrawny sixth-round draft pick to a starting quarterback in the Super Bowl in less than two years.

"When I was a kid growing up, there was a kid who was a lot faster than me," Brady said then. "I challenged him to race. He killed me. I challenged him again. He killed me again. I just kept challenging him until I beat him. It's like the tortoise and the hare. I was the tortoise."

Brady, of course, became the hare long ago. As the astounding consistency and Lombardi Trophies accumulated, the rest of football chased him, from team to team, conference to conference. Brady always extended his lead by winning seven Super Bowls. In the end, the NFL's greatest dynasty didn't lie within a specific franchise -- not even the two he transformed -- but instead was cocooned in a scrupulously-maintained body, nurtured by a maniacal work ethic.

The story of Brady, who officially announced his retirement on Tuesday, can be boiled down to this: The G.O.A.T. never stopped thinking like the tortoise, convinced he had to outwork everyone, the eternal sixth-rounder even after he had vanquished his peers and the pretenders who came in later years.

From that very first Super Bowl, when the Patriots upset "The Greatest Show on Turf" Rams after some still wondered whether Bill Belichick should have forsaken Brady and his sprained ankle and gone back to $100 million backup Drew Bledsoe, to his crowning achievement -- a Super Bowl in Tampa Bay -- Brady channeled that slow kid who blasted through expectations. He leaves the game having permanently reset the standard for dominance, thoroughly ruining things for quarterbacks who dare to win "only" one Super Bowl. He finished having won 243 games -- tops in league history -- and losing just 73, thrown 624 touchdown passes and supplanted his own childhood hero, Joe Montana, as the greatest quarterback ever. Those figures, after all, don't even factor in the postseason, where Brady went 35-12 with 86 more TD tosses.

Brady did not have the biggest arm and certainly not the fleetest feet. But he had a preternatural poise and a deep understanding of offense from the very start. Early teammates remember him suggesting, when he was just a few starts into his career, how he wanted them to adjust their routes. That attention to detail never left him.

Ultimately, the single-minded drive that catapulted him to greatness contributed to his retirement. He had once said he wanted to play until he was 45, but six months short of that mark, the pull of his family -- and the acknowledgement of how much time and attention football took from them -- finally ended Brady's run with a finality that no opposing team could manage. There was no farewell tour, no emotional exit. When the Bucs lost to the Rams in the Divisional Round, Brady merely walked off the field like everyone else, the celebrations only in the memories.

But what memories. Brady's career is a blur of astonishing moments and unexpected disappointments. When he was finally drafted 199th overall in 2000, he was the Patriots' fourth-string quarterback. Bill Belichick and the late quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein told him they liked his release, but not his size. He had to put on weight and improve his footwork. He attempted just three passes as a rookie, and Belichick would say later that, based on that season, it was hard to argue with Brady's sixth-round placement.

He spent that season largely in the weight room and then attended every one of the Patriots' 60 workouts the following offseason. By the time he returned for training camp in 2001, Brady was up to 220 pounds, had better mechanics and was outrunning some teammates, shocking since his own father used to joke that Brady could be timed with a sundial. He was so improved that he earned a preferred parking space at camp, where he kept a canary yellow car. Bledsoe was the high-priced starter, but Belichick already suspected Brady was the best quarterback on the roster.

It was Jets linebacker Mo Lewis -- in the form of a hit that shredded a blood vessel in Bledsoe's chest -- who unleashed Brady on the league early in the 2001 season, and TB12 took it from there. The run to the first Super Bowl was a joy ride, Brady still looking like a lanky kid in sweatshirts and ballcaps. There was the "Tuck Rule" and the birth of The Patriot Way. That first title team was defense-led, but New England evolved as Brady developed, his understanding of the offense, his precise timing, his ability to sense and slide from pressure pushing the Patriots into the passing attacks that are now the standard of the game. The championships piled up, three in the first four seasons Brady started.

There was the electrifying pairing with Randy Moss in 2007 and an undefeated regular season, followed by a stunning Super Bowl loss -- the first of two -- to the Giants. There were seemingly annual shootouts with his friend and foil Peyton Manning, during which AFC playoff seeding was often on the line. There was a controversial suspension after the NFL alleged Brady had been aware of a scheme to deflate footballs to improve their grip. And then, with Brady already in his late 30s/early 40s, there were three more championships with the Patriots, each pushing the quarterback further atop the pantheon of the game's greats. No player was more closely entwined with his team's image and no player propelled his team to the loftiest levels with such metronomic consistency.

In the 18 seasons when Brady was New England's starter and was healthy (excluding 2008, when he was lost to a knee injury in the opener), the Patriots missed the playoffs just once, in 2002. Of those 17 playoff appearances, Brady's Pats advanced to at least the conference championship game 13 times, including eight straight seasons from 2011 through 2018. He led New England to nine Super Bowls, winning six and earning MVP honors in four.

All of that success made Brady a star far beyond football. He married the biggest model in the world. He started a health and wellness company and wrote a book about how to achieve peak performance. He made avocado ice cream a thing.

Very early on, Belichick had used the word "awesome" when talking about Brady, but their relationship ultimately grew stale after Belichick drafted Jimmy Garoppolo as a potential successor in 2014 and Brady got tired of the relentless grind in New England. For all of his achievements and the riches that followed, Brady was still so rooted in football that he seemed openly miserable as the Patriots' playmakers dwindled and the offense struggled in 2019.

When the inevitable split from New England came in early 2020, it was still a shock. Brady had grown so close to Robert Kraft that the owner often said he was like another son. Brady's departure pained them both, but it also set the stage for what was, at the end, Brady's most remarkable achievement.

Brady signed with the Buccaneers just as the NFL shut down at the start of the pandemic. There would be no gatherings with coaches at the team facility, no offseason program, no minicamp to meet his new teammates. Brady was joining a playoff-caliber roster and he behaved like the hungry sixth-round draft pick he once was. He demanded of general manager Jason Licht the phone numbers of his receivers. He told Licht he knew exactly how many hours there were until Tampa Bay would open the 2020 season. Brady walked into a stranger's home in search of his new offensive coordinator. He organized workouts with his new receivers in a public park, only to be kicked out because the park was closed. He held clandestine throwing sessions at an area high school, to the dismay of the league and union, which had banned such gatherings because of health concerns. He was frantically trying to learn his receivers and a new offense.

Brady was starting over at age 43 under the most unusual and difficult circumstances -- circumstances that heavily favored teams with continuity and familiarity, not new quarterbacks -- but he was noticeably unburdened by his relocation. His social media accounts grew more humorous, his press conferences more informative.

In the days before the Super Bowl a year ago, Buccaneers quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen bemoaned all the lost time and the hundreds of practice reps Brady had not had with his new team. He wished then that the Bucs had eight more games to play, so that the offense could get to where he thought Brady would take it.

But Brady had been defying expectations since he was a player at Michigan, fending off uber-recruit Drew Henson for the starting job. And the first season of the new Brady era ended the same way so many campaigns of the old Brady era did: with No. 12 holding a Lombardi Trophy. He and the Bucs had blown out the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes, Brady holding off the future just as he had his own aging. The Chiefs dynasty would have to wait. The Brady dynasty was still reigning.

Brady said that night that he had not had time to think about what that victory would mean to his legacy. But everybody else had. The greatest was greater than ever then, his extraordinary career having come full circle, with a championship as unlikely as that very first one.

Brady had studied Bledsoe before that first championship run in New England, the way everyone else in the league has studied Brady in all the years since. What they have seen is something rare, a player who pushed himself even harder at the back end of his career than he did at the start. Brady would have been a Hall of Famer after those first three titles in New England. And then, somehow, he got even better, elevating his game and his team -- two of them. If you split Brady's career in half, each half had more wins and more touchdown passes than Montana's entire career.

While still on the podium, with confetti everywhere, Brady was asked to compare his most recent Super Bowl to all the ones that came before. He had won more of them than any single franchise, than any other player. He holds nearly every major regular-season and playoff passing record.

"Every year is amazing," Brady said that night, which brought him a fifth Super Bowl MVP award. "This team is world champions forever. You can't take it away from us."

The scene was both routine and unique for Brady. He was in a strange uniform, for a new team, with the same results. Bucs owner Joel Glazer told a story while he held the Lombardi Trophy. His late father, Malcolm, had had an expression. If you wanted to know the road ahead, the elder Glazer would say, ask the person who's been there.

The Bucs had found that person. Brady knew the road to championships better than anyone else. And with all 22 starters back for the 2021 campaign, Tampa Bay aimed to follow the same path to a second straight Lombardi Trophy.

At 44 years old, Brady led the NFL in passing yards (a career-best 5,316) and touchdown passes (43). He earned his 15th Pro Bowl bid, the most in league history, and won his 18th division title. Ultimately, though, the injury-depleted Bucs fell short of their goal to repeat, losing in the Divisional Round despite a frantic comeback attempt that nearly added another extraordinary chapter to Brady's incomparable story.

Brady had once said he would quit when he sucked. He never did. Instead, the player who thought of himself as the tortoise was still, two decades later, running circles around the NFL.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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