American Football: American hero who is pick of the bunch

One man will be centre stage tomorrow at Wembley when the NFL returns to London. James Corrigan explains why the Patriots' Tom Brady may be the last of a dying breed
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The Independent Online

Last week Tom Brady threw five touchdowns, in a single quarter, in a snowstorm. Here truly is a global icon bearing a man-of-the-match award who the Wembley crowd should not be made to feel ashamed for cheering.

Not that the British gridiron fans – who will tomorrow make their annual pilgrimage as the New England Patriots take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the third staging of the NFL's "International Series" – would defer to any negativity as far as this particular superstar is concerned.

Yesterday, journalists at the Patriots' pre-match pow-wow in the surreal setting of the Long Room at The Oval were quick to label the 32-year-old as the best American team sportsman ever to play competitively in Britain. And while it was hard to argue (after all, Tiger Woods's team performances on the UK fairways hardly boast pride of place in his CV) it was also difficult not to look beyond the passes and interceptions. For Brady seems so much more than a mere sportsman. He was the only member of the New England squad donning a suit when they arrived at Heathrow on Thursday night. The rest were in training gear and distinction seemed appropriate.

From a certain angle of the spotlight, Brady can be seen as the Beckham of the NFL. His wife is the Brazilian supermodel, Gisele Bündchen, and the pair are weekly starters in the gossip columns. There are currently lawsuits flying back and forth with two photographers who dared point their lenses at the couple when they were renewing their marriage vows in Costa Rica in April. Brady and Bündchen are claiming invasion of their privacy, while the paparazzi are claiming invasion of their car's windows. Shots were fired by security, shattering glass on the backseats. Beckham might just sympathise.

But there are some obvious differences, not least the fact that while Beckham turned down the chance to be ridiculed on The Simpsons, Brady only too readily accepted. While Brady holds all of the honours, he does not command all of the endorsements, mainly because he chooses not to. Brady's clean-cut boy image is protected vigorously and for some reason the American media obliges. A few years ago Brady split with the actress Bridget Moynahan when she was pregnant, but the love-rat accusations were not forthcoming. Beckham might just envy.

Perhaps that is because Brady is portrayed as the last all-American hero. As baseball's big-hitters continue to be smeared in steroids and as their basketball equivalents see their reputations collectively besmirched by the ever-growing perception of arrogance, Brady's role is defined. Certainly his claim to being a genuine great bears some scrutiny. Yesterday his coach, Bill Belichick, walked into the inner sanctum of Surrey County Cricket Club and talked of his quarterback's qualities.

"I can't say where he stands in the pantheon as I didn't coach the greats he may be being compared to," he said. "But I have worked with him since he joined the Patriots as an unheralded pick in 2000 and he is one of the hardest working players I have coached." He then proceeded to list his virtues, which ranged from the ability to obey instructions, to his vision, to his timing, to his nerve in the pocket, to his ability to think for himself. While Brady may be many things to many people, to his coach he is simply everything. "The best way to put it is there is no quarterback I'd rather have than Tom Brady," says Belichick.

But there have been doubts; there always are. When he was drafted he was almost an afterthought with one cruel scouting report dismissing the strength of arm and psyche. To say Brady has proved him wrong is to suggest the ugly duckling didn't spruce up too badly. With three Superbowls and two Superbowl MVPs to his name, Brady's reputation should be confirmed, yet still the question marks flash. That is largely down to the calamity he suffered last year in the very first quarter of the very first game. Hit by Bernhard Pollard, of the Kansas City Chiefs, Brady's left knee went pop and he was out for the entire campaign. He actually went through the same joint reconstruction as Tiger Woods. The disadvantage was American Football is a contact game.

"Will he ever be the same again?" If they were to say it about Woods they were bound to say it about Brady. And so it proved. Indeed, right up until Sunday's record 59-0 belittling of the Tennessee Titans the debate would rage. As the Pats lost two of their first five, the focus was to fall on Brady's displays. His trademark late, late show against Buffalo in the season-opener – as Brady threw two scoring passes in the last two minutes to win it 25-24 – was all too soon forgotten in defeats to Denver and then in the fifth match against the Jets. An overthrow to a wide-open Randy Moss and a game-losing fumble were shown on loop and the critics were readying themselves to tie this loop around his neck.

But in snowy Boston, Brady burst free, just as Brady always tends to. Is this supposed Joe Montana clone breaking the mould all over again? The majority of the initiated in Pats-loving Britain would doubtless scream a resounding "yay". The man, himself, however is rather more circumspect.

It not just in the knee's ligaments where Brady emulates Woods. Their press conferences are spookily similar in terms of the amount they give away – nothing. Sir Jack Hobbs, looking down from the large portrait at the head of the Long Room, would have commended this flat-batting performance. Wouldn't you know it, but Brady concentrates on "one game at a time" and refused to show any disrespect to a Bucs outfit who have played six, lost six. "We don't underestimate anyone," he roared. Then the inquisitors turned to Brady's apparent return to predominance against the Titans. At least here was a morsel. "The way I see it, it's been a progression," he said. "It's been a year now and there have been setbacks. But it's the seventh game and the confidence is growing."

It is the nearest thing to a warning the Bucs and the rest are ever likely to receive off this thoroughly pleasant young man. Of course, his rivals are well aware of the dangers of appearance and reality; particularly as far as Brady is concerned. His drive has long since entered Gridiron folklore. "Why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still think there's something greater out there for me?" he said in a television documentary in 2007. "I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, 'Hey man, this is it. I reached my goal, my dream'. Me, I think, 'God, it's got to be more than this.' I mean this isn't what it's cracked up to be. I love playing football and I love being quarterback for this team. But at the same time, I think there are a lot of other parts about me that I'm trying to find."

Maybe, Brady is starting to locate them now. Who knows, Wembley could be another step on this journey of self-discovery. With Brady in full flow, Britain's NFL dream would never seem more attainable.