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TOM BRADY was caught in a crowd, yet he felt utterly alone. The New England Patriots' quarterback was in a ballroom at the InterContinental Hotel in Houston, where in the early-morning hours of Monday a couple thousand people with some connection to the Pats' organization were celebrating the franchise's second Super Bowl championship in three years. Besieged by random admirers seeking his autograph or a snapshot with him, Brady, clad in a Zegna shirt, a platinum bracelet and dark jeans with a bulky pocket chain, looked beleaguered and bewildered. With no security guards or team officials to clear a path, he felt helpless. "I just want to get with my family, O.K.?" Brady kept saying, to no one in particular.
Finally, a friend got through and handed him a gin and tonic, and before taking a sip Brady said, "I hope this s—is strong. I'm on a mission." Seconds later he was on the move, fleeing the ballroom for an elevator that would take him to the second-floor VIP area. Again, scores of partygoers closed in. Brady winced, and, his voice cracking, said, "This is horrible." Downstairs, Kid Rock joined Aerosmith onstage, ripping through the Boston band's classic Sweet Emotion, but Brady, to all those who spotted him, was the show.
Such is the life of a man suddenly seen as a Super Bowl immortal. Having already drawn comparisons with his boyhood idol, Joe Montana, the 26-year-old Brady, on the strength of his performance in Sunday's classic at Reliant Stadium in Houston, must come to terms with a new level of celebrity. He is more than a football star now. He is the darling of America's sports fans, the successor to Montana and John Elway, the magical passer who can coolly pull out a victory in the final seconds.
After picking apart the Carolina Panthers' secondary on two dramatic scoring drives in the last seven minutes to lead the Patriots to a 32-29 victory, Brady was awarded his second Super Bowl MVP trophy, joining Hall of Fame quarterbacks Montana (three), Bart Starr and Terry Bradshaw (two apiece) as the only players to be so honored on multiple occasions. He is the youngest quarterback to have won two Super Bowls, and with his movie-star looks, actress girlfriend, tight-knit family and adoring teammates, Brady's life could not be much sweeter.
All he lacks is peace and perspective, neither of which is likely to come soon. Not after one of the greatest and weirdest Super Bowls ever, one in which the halftime show, as well as the game itself, would end in a flash.
Like Janet Jackson's one-headlight salute—and an equally immodest streaker's fiasco preceding the second-half kickoff—this back-and-forth battle between a pair of flawed but gutty teams was a revelation. Though Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme provided some stirring moments and New England kicker Adam Vinatieri, as he had two years ago against the St. Louis Rams, nailed the championship-winning field goal in the final seconds, it was Brady (32-of-48 passing for 354 yards and three touchdowns) whose star shone brightest in Space City.
As calm as he was in the game's tensest moments, Brady was drained and out-of-sorts upon its completion. To say that he was awestruck is not an understatement. "Yeah, very," Brady conceded an hour after the game, as he emerged from the shower. "You don't ever dream about this. I mean, you dream about playing football, and you have your fantasies, but you don't dream about winning Super Bowls like this. The way it ended is just incredible."
The use of the second person in interviews was one of Montana's habits, a way of deflecting the attention that his greatness attracted. For Brady, too, the praise will keep coming. Said Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, "I told Tommy after the game, 'Your coattails are getting heavy, and I apologize. Right now I'm hanging on for dear life.' "
It's a gracious sentiment but not an entirely accurate one. These Patriots (17-2), as they were two seasons ago, are a quintessential team. Despite the league-high 87 games that its starters lost to injury in 2003, New England won its final 15 games, the second-longest single-season streak in NFL history. The Pats' marquee free-agent signee, linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, played just two games in 2003, yet underrated veterans, such as linebackers Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest and safety Rodney Harrison (who broke his right arm late in the fourth quarter on Sunday), raised their games to new heights.
Brady may be the team's lone star, but New England's hero in a headset, coach Bill Belichick, is equally indispensable. In addition to being a shrewd talent evaluator, meticulous in his game preparation and the best defensive strategist of his generation, Belichick, 51, has evolved into a stirring speaker—at least when behind closed doors with his players. After giving a bland breakdown of strategic priorities during a team meeting last Saturday night, Belichick mesmerized his troops by holding up the Lombardi Trophy that New England had won two years earlier and placing it on a table. The room went silent for a few seconds, and then Belichick finished by saying, "Look, guys, this is what we're playing for. Let's put this week in perspective: It's not about the parties; it's the trophy. Only 37 teams can say they've owned this. You guys can be the 38th."