In a postgame interview, Brady’s face was flushed, his hair tousled like a child coming in from the playground. He was informed that Madden, before the game’s final drive, had insisted that the Patriots should be playing conservatively, settling for overtime.
“Madden was worried you’d do something stupid,” a reporter said.
Brady, then 24, looked wounded at first. Then he considered what he’d just done.
Smiling impishly, Brady said Madden, the game’s biggest celebrity at the time, was wrong. Brady added: “I can say that, right?”
He could at that moment, and for the next two decades, he could say almost anything he wanted. Brady’s stardom and his football wizardry became profoundly entwined with the narrative of the cultural monolith that the N.F.L. would become over his career.
On Tuesday, Brady retired, the last simple gesture in a fabled pro football life so complex, productive, triumphant and relevant that he became one of the best known — and occasionally reviled — people in America.
Typically calm on the field and stylish off it, he started more N.F.L. games, won more championships, set more records than nearly all of his peers and was somehow involved in multiple scandals ending with the suffix “-gate.” Mostly, he let the goose bumps accumulate in his wake. Brady will take his place in a separate wing of the pantheon of North American sporting greats reserved for the likes of Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Serena Williams, Babe Ruth, Wayne Gretzky, et al.
Perhaps for longer than any other person, he was the face of the N.F.L. during a period that saw the league vault to a pre-eminent status among sports played in the United States.