"People say, 'What will you do if you don't play football?' Why would I even think of doing anything else? What would I do instead of run out in front of 80,000 people and command 52 guys and be around guys I consider brothers and be one of the real gladiators? Why would I ever want to do anything else? It's so hard to think of anything that would match what I do: Fly to the moon? Jump out of planes? Bungee-jump off cliffs? None of that s--- matters to me. I want to play this game I love, be with my wife and son, and enjoy life."
Impassioned, fiery, a little defiant—it was a side of Tom Brady the public hasn't often seen. Truth is, the public hasn't seen much of Brady at all since the injury, save for the few images taken with the long telephoto lenses of the paparazzi—sharing an ice cream cone in Brazil with his new wife, supermodel Gisele Bündchen; strolling on the beach with his toddler son, Jack; golfing with the Entourage cast; catching a Celtics playoff game with Bündchen. Brady has jealously guarded his privacy; and those close to him, including coach Bill Belichick and the rest of the Patriots staff, have helped him do so.
Last week, though, he finally opened up about what his life has been like since Sept. 7, when the helmet of Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard smashed into his knee on New England's 15th snap of last season. (Kansas City was blitzing; the hit appeared accidental and was not flagged by the officials.) Brady said he never felt anger toward Pollard ("It's football—there's no way he owes me an explanation") or bitterness over his first major injury. But he did admit to feeling "pretty empty" as he was being helped to the sideline. "You go down, they take you off the field, the ref blows the whistle, the 25-second clock starts, and they play the game without you," Brady said. "You're like, Wow. That's really what it's like. They play without you."
To perform the operation, Brady chose a friend, orthopedic surgeon Neal S. ElAttrache in Los Angeles, reportedly against the wishes of the Patriots' medical staff; last week Brady said his choice had the full support of Belichick and team owner Robert Kraft. Two days after the Oct. 6 surgery, he defied Bündchen's pleas and his doctor's orders to stay off the leg by putting Jack on his shoulder and moving around the hospital room, playing with him. A hematoma developed in the knee, and the staph infection ensued.
"I wanted to prove I could move around and get ahead of schedule," Brady recalled, "and nothing was going to stop me. Unfortunately I did too much too soon. I was responsible for the infection. In a way it was probably good for me—it slowed me down a little bit."
Since the two procedures to clear the infection, Brady said he's had no problems with the knee and denied a December report that he was in danger of having to undergo a second major surgery because of the two staph cleanups. He returned to Foxborough last November, commenced daily rehab at the Patriots' facility and was soon throwing a football. For the rest of the NFL season he stayed out of the public eye, watching games at his home in Boston's Back Bay. "Coach Belichick didn't want me on the sidelines for the game," Brady said. "He told me, 'Every time we'd throw an incompletion the camera would go to you on the sideline, and we don't need that.' And I didn't want to watch from a [luxury] box."
By the end of December, Brady was able to run and cut pretty well. Back at his home in Southern California, he woke up on Super Bowl Sunday, five months after the injury, and his thought was: I'm going to play some football. He called ElAttrache and a few other buddies, and before the Cardinals and the Steelers played for the NFL championship 2,200 miles away in Tampa, Brady threw and caught with his friends on a field at UCLA. "Running, jumping, throwing—it felt so good," Brady said. "Throwing never was a problem. I've really felt comfortable throwing since two months after surgery."
Brady said he learned much about himself during his forced layoff. "When I was playing every week, I bitched about the little things," he said. "Like, God, we've got to go outside today? It's raining! Or, why is Bill dunking the ball in soap? Or, why do we have a meeting at 7:30 to talk about everything we've already talked about. Geez!
"Then, when you're not playing, you realize you would [gladly] do any of that—whatever they wanted me to do. I saw the guys in the locker room, mid-November; I was doing rehab, and they were at the point of the season when things had slowed down, and they were bitching. I said, 'Come on, guys! It's football!' Mentally, they needed a break, but I said, 'Quit complaining!'"
Brady drew an analogy based on his parenting experience with 21-month-old Jack. "I don't see him every day"—Brady shares custody with former girlfriend Bridget Moynahan—"and we play when I change his diaper: lifting his leg up, playing with his toes, biting his feet. There's this different appreciation. If you had him every day, you'd go, Let's just get this done. But when you get him, say, one week a month, you're like, This is so cool!