By Charles P. Pierce
Special to Page 2

Editor's Note: The following excerpt from "Moving the Chains: Tom Brady and the Pursuit of Everything" examines how Tom Brady is able to maintain a successful balance of humility and stardom while being one of the fiercest competitors in the NFL. Reprinted from "Moving the Chains: Tom Brady and the Pursuit of Everything" by Charles P. Pierce with permission of the publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Each chain is precisely ten yards long. There's an upright at either end. There is also a third upright with numbers on it. The uprights are called the "sticks." The officials who keep the uprights that are connected by a chain are called the "rod men." The official who keeps the other upright, which is called the "down indicator box," is called the "box man." Across the field are auxiliary chains and sticks, and auxiliary rod men and box men, so that players can look at either sideline and determine the state of play.

When a football team makes a first down, one rod man plants his stick in the ground parallel to where the ball has been placed. The other rod man extends the chain to indicate to the team (and the spectators) how far they have to go to another first down. Once a team passes that second stick, it gains a first down and the chains move. The object of any offense is to keep the chains moving.

It's within the movement of the chains that football finds its soul. It's within the movement of the chains that football players see most clearly how they are bound together. When an offense is moving the chains, it keeps its defense off the field, rested and ready, while exhausting the defense of the other team. When an offense is moving the chains, its success is easily defined in calibrated achievements, ten yards at a time, one after another after another again. Each player gains confidence -- in himself and in what comes to be seen as an inexorable whole. This confidence can become an almost physical force -- something Newtonian, like gravity or inertia: "An offense in motion tends to stay in motion, except when acted upon by an equal or opposite force, which is usually a linebacker with blood in his eye." In fact, an offense relentlessly moving the chains is often said to be going "downhill." The constant progress shortens the game. "Time of possession" is one of the most beloved statistics among football coaches. Moving the chains bends time itself to a team's will.

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Tom Brady moves the chains. It's the first thing the New England Patriots and their coaches saw in him, back in 2000, when he was a sixth-round draft pick -- and a fourth-string quarterback -- directing the scout team with players who hadn't been around long enough yet to be considered castoffs. The scout team's job is to simulate the offense of the upcoming opponent. However, after practice, Brady and the scout team would practice the New England offense. He led, and they went with him. "They'd go through the plays, and, if somebody got something wrong, he'd correct them," recalls Belichick. "You could see them getting better. They moved on you."

Almost two years later, in the Superdome in New Orleans, playing with the starters in the biggest game of his life, at the end of a very strange football season, Tom Brady moved all the chains, literally and figuratively, transforming the Patriots and changing his life. By the end of the day, he had produced a remarkable upset that had marked a beleaguered franchise with an entirely new identity, one that resonated deeply with a country still freshly wounded, and Brady instantly personified all the change he'd helped to engineer. Along with his team, he stepped into strange new territory.

In the early evening of February 2, 2002, the Patriots were sitting on their own 17-yard line, tied at 1717 with the heavily favored St. Louis Rams with 1:21 left in regulation time. Their defense, which had smacked the velocity out of the Ram offense all evening, was literally on its last legs, having just surrendered a touchdown on which at least one pursuing New England defender simply collapsed as though the air had gone out of him.

The smart play was to let the clock run and take a chance on winning in overtime. In fact, John Madden was recommending that very thing on national television while Brady, Belichick, and the offensive coordinator, Charlie Weis, huddled on the sideline. "It was a ten-second conversation," Weis recalls. "What we said is we would start the drive, and, if anything bad happened, we'd just run out the clock."

Belichick and Weis agreed that the Patriots should try to win the game immediately -- in part because of the exhausted state of their defense, but mainly because they knew that, even if he didn't get the team a chance to win, Brady was not likely to make a mistake that would cost them the game.

The bare-bones play-by-play does not do justice to what happened next. Consider the play described as: "2-10 NE 41 (:29) T. Brady pass to T. Brown ran OB at SL 36 for 23 yards (D. McCleon, Little) Pass 14, Run 9." Brady hit receiver Troy Brown with a pass that Brown carried twenty-three yards down to the St. Louis 36-yard line before being forced out of bounds.

What's missing is the moment on the previous play that made this one possible. Brady read a blitz by a St. Louis linebacker and threw the ball away. ("T. Brady pass incomplete," says the official record.) What's missing is the fact that Brady noticed that St. Louis had rushed only three of their defensive linemen, dropping a defensive tackle into pass coverage, the way he'd seen them do it on all that film with which he'd seared his eyeballs over the previous week. What's missing is how he bought enough time for Brown to "clear" the unwieldy defensive tackle and get free, how Brady took a tiny, instinctive step up in the pocket to avoid an onrushing lineman whom he felt more than he saw, enabling him to find Brown for the completion.

"There are a lot of little things that go into it," says Bill Belichick, whose occasionally terse commentary can make the official play-by-play read like Finnegans Wake.

The movement is missing. There's no sense of constant forward motion, or of the burgeoning confidence that was its primary accelerant. Two plays later, with seven seconds left, Brady "spiked" the ball, deliberately tossing it to the ground in order to stop the clock so that New England would have time to kick the winning field goal. In this situation, most quarterbacks simply slam the ball to the turf and walk off the field.

However, on this occasion, Brady bounced the ball gently, caught it, and handed it to the official. ("T. Brady pass incomplete" reads the play-by-play sheet again.) Up in the luxury suites, Robert Kraft, the owner of the Patriots and the man who had redeemed the franchise from its history as one of the greatest screwball comedy acts in the history of professional sports, was stunned by the coolness of the gesture. On the next play, Adam Vinatieri came on and won the game for New England with a 48-yard field goal.

Two years later, in Reliant Stadium, deep in the industrial savanna outside Houston, Brady established himself permanently in the place where the win in New Orleans had brought him. The Patriots were favored this time, and this time Caro-lina could be said to have tied them, 2929, on a late touchdown pass. However, New England was gifted with a bizarre kickoff that went out of bounds on their 18-yard line, giving them a minute and eight seconds to travel only about thirty-seven yards to get into position for another field goal try. The measure of the distance that Brady had come is the fact that, this time, almost everybody watching the game expected him to do it

This time, the pivotal play came with fourteen seconds left, a third-down-and-three situation from the Carolina 40-yard line. Again, Weis and Belichick worked on a vulnerability they'd spotted earlier in the week. Carolina would play man-to-man coverage near the line of scrimmage while sending two defensive backs deep, what the coaches called "Cover Five." At the line of scrimmage, Brady read the defense and intuited the consequence: receiver Deion Branch would be open underneath the deep coverage.

Branch lined up in the slot between another wide receiver and the line of scrimmage. The cornerback was playing him to take away the middle of the field, so Branch broke out and down and away, toward the near sideline, and Brady hit him for seven-teen yards and a first down. The chains moved. Vinatieri kicked another game winner. A year later, in Jacksonville, Florida, Brady and the Patriots beat the Philadelphia Eagles to win their third Super Bowl in four seasons.

The territory that had been so new in New Orleans was now the place in which he would live out the rest of his life. Brady would forever be discussed in the same conversation with the greatest quarterbacks who'd ever played. He would be held up as the ideal player on an exemplary team and, while the velocity of his life had increased exponentially, it would be assumed by others that its trajectory would remain straight and true. In the minds of many people, he could live the rest of his life on automatic pilot. He didn't have to move another step. His life could be complete if he wanted it to be.

And this is the oddest irony about moving the chains -- the quarterback is the only player anywhere on the football field whose job specifically requires him to stand still. Even the most mobile quarterback usually has to stop to throw the ball. This means that the quarterback has to perform a task made up of a half dozen finely jeweled movements while a thousand pounds of hostile beef is running around him with its hair on fire.

"Think about it," says Steve Nelson, a former Patriot linebacker. "The quarterback's the only player on the field that has to worry about his elbow pointing the right way to do his job." And the final irony is that it's what the quarterback does when he's standing still that gets the chains to move.

Ultimately, moving the chains can add up to a journey. By resisting easy summation, Tom Brady commits himself to that journey on his own terms. He declines to be defined by the limits of his profession. He declines to be the vessel for anyone else's virtue. Somehow, he has struck and kept the balance that Elwood Reid noticed in that classroom full of knuckleheads. He will live life -- and be successful -- on his own terms and, at the same time, he will not be culled from the herd. He will be a star and he will be a teammate. He will be smart and handsome and rich and popular and he will be one of the guys, too. He will move the chains in his life, constantly, so that he will determine its ultimate definition.

In this, he sets himself up for a journey through public life that's fueled by formidable contradiction. He will live a normal life, albeit one that includes a movie-star girlfriend and a condominium that priced out last year at $4 million. In this, he is the perfectly consonant face of the mythology that his performance has helped the New England Patriots create and market about themselves -- that, in a day of stylized individualism, the Patriots and their quarterback are a team with red-state family values playing in the bluest state of all.

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Can anyone be humble if he talks about being humble on 60 Minutes?

Can anyone be a teammate when the team's success works at the same time to exalt him individually?

How can any football team be a family when a great deal of the family's success depends on grinding up some of the children and tossing them away?

There are material rewards, certainly, to football, but they come with the realization that physical destruction is as central to the sport as it ever was to boxing. (Which is why so many of the pious calls to ban the latter ring so hollow when they come from people who glorify the former.) That basic fact can lead to a soul-killing destruction, in which the player commodifies himself until the essential parts of the person grate together the way the bones in a knee will when the cartilage is removed.

Success is an anodyne. Adulation is a powerful anesthetic. It deadens the pain of that moment when the physical destruction of the sport darkens the heart and bleeds the soul. The key is to keep the adulation under control in such a way that the essential person is not lost. The key is to keep moving. Resist everything that slows you down, whether it's physical pain or the petrifi-cation of celebrity. Keep moving. Keep moving. Keep the team moving, even when you're standing still. Keep your life moving, even when you're frozen in the fondest memories of the people who watch you play.

This is the journey Tom Brady has taken on. It began in a family wherein the spirit and documents of the Second Vatican Council mean as much to his development as any playbook. It moved along to college, where the whims of incompetent coaching nearly brought it to an end. It proceeded into the NFL, where it benefited by a brutal injury to another quarterback and where it has arrived, finally, at the opening game of the 2005 season. A Thursday night at home, September 8, 2005, against the Oakland Raiders.

In its game presentation, the NFL is what the Roman Empire would have been had it invented the bass guitar and the thirty-pack. To be in the middle of it is to be deaf to many things, including irony. For example, there has to be an academic slumming out there somewhere who's willing to undertake the study of the phenomenon of sockless males -- public heterosexuality and testosterone at flood tide -- howling along to "YMCA" and "Rock and Roll, Part Two," the only hit for Gary Glitter, a kiddie-porn aficionado who, at the very moment his song is blasting away across Gillette Stadium, is on his way to a couple of decades in a Vietnamese prison for having transferred himself and his hobby to Southeast Asia.

Tonight, the NFL's in full voice. The rapper Kanye West was dropped at the last minute because he'd said unkind things about President George Bush's reaction to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, but he was replaced by Santana and the Rolling Stones, and we have indeed arrived at that dark day in which the Stones are the safe play. There are fighter jets and fireworks. The teams come out onto the field as completely obscured by smoke as Cemetery Ridge was on the last day at Gettysburg.

Outside the press box at Gillette Stadium hang a series of television monitors. These enable the sportswriters to follow the action, especially the slow-motion replays, since the height and funky corner location of the press box make watching the actual play on the field problematic. One screen carries the actual television broadcast seen in people's homes. Another carries the raw feed. At this moment, Tom Brady is on both of them.

On the broadcast monitor, dressed in a knife-sharp suit, he's sitting at a table in what appears to be a high-toned restaurant, surrounded by his actual offensive linemen, who are in full uniform. It's a commercial for Visa credit cards, and the linemen are metaphors for the various forms of consumer protection offered by the card. They read their lines, straight credit-card cant, no chaser. They cut their eyes at one another from behind their facemasks, which, oddly, emphasize every change in expression rather than obscuring them, as though the cages bring their features into clearer focus. The funniest thing, of course, is that here in the restaurant, full to the gunwales with Armani and attitude, it's the offensive linemen who have individual identities, even if only as "Fraud Protection" or "Zero Liability." These are roles with greater range than those of, say, "Left Tackle" or "Right Guard," which can be the football equivalent of those movie roles identified in the closing credits as "Second Man in Elevator" or "Dead Soldier No. 3." Here, Brady's just another guy in an expensive suit, and he's the straight man.

Presented with the check for the meal, Brady delivers his one-liner: "Do metaphors pay?"

"Ha, ha," the linemen laugh in reply. "No."

On the monitor next to this one, there is a low-angle shot of Brady live on the New England sideline, with fireworks exploding far above his head. It's the kind of hero shot in which the NFL specializes. It's hard to tear your eyes away to look all the way down to the sideline at the actual person, slapping high-fives with his teammates, his face a bright burst of joy that you don't need a television to see.

This is where the journey truly happens, down on the field. Everything else is side trips and diversions -- roadside amusements and reptile farms. Tom Brady fought hard to begin the journey, and he will fight just as hard to determine its direction. Ultimately, he'll determine its end. After all, in some ways, his career is already complete. He's won three Super Bowls, more than any other professional quarterback except Joe Montana. He's rich. He's famous. He will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, even if he gives the whole thing up tomorrow and joins the Carthusians. But he won't stand still, except for those moments when he has to in order to move the chains.

"Is there a perfect game out there?" Brady muses. "It's got to be at the highest stakes. It has to be a game that means a lot, and it has to come down to the end, probably a game where you have to keep digging and digging. You don't remember the ones you win 3517. You remember the ones you win 3835. A two-minute drive. They score. You score. Those are the ones that are memorable. Who wants everything to come easy?"




Charles
P.
Pierce
MOVING THE CHAINS