AS IT turns out, Plato was smarter than most football coaches, maybe even smarter than Bill Belichick, with whom he at least shared an attitude toward neckties in the workplace. Anyway, back in the day, there were all these athletes running around, and jumping around, and wrestling around, and Plato looked out on all of them-Platonically, perhaps, but who knows?-and realized that every performance is an act of generosity, because of all the solitary effort it takes to make that performance possible. The generosity that begins in the rough draft blossoms in the novel. The generosity that begins in the rehearsal space blossoms on the stage. The generosity that begins on the practice field blossoms in the stadium. � Plato saw something else too. "The mere athlete," he wrote, "becomes too much of a savage." There's generosity in putting yourself through ceaseless preparation, but there must be an end product, an act of public sharing, or all the preparation is sterile. Plato did not anticipate the National Football League, but what he wrote about athletes is more conspicuously true in football than it is in any other sport. Even the best quarterback-even, say, Tom Brady, a quarterback who rose from the Mel Kiper-ish netherworld of the sixth round of the draft to lead his team to three Super Bowl championships in four years-gets to actually play only once a week. The rest of the time is repetition, a Baltimore Catechism with sweat and collisions. The rest is off-season workouts, and voluntary minicamps that aren't voluntary at all, and hours and hours of meetings. Belichick, who's coached Brady through those three Super Bowls, talks about how much he enjoyed going to prep school lacrosse practice because he got to, you know, play lacrosse. Nobody ever said that about football practice.
Thus is the life of any great quarterback. What makes Brady different is how vividly you can see not only the results of that work every Sunday, but also his innate ability to carry the logic of practice to the conclusion of the game. "I love seeing us get better," Brady says, "and I don't think you get better in games. The improvements come in practice." His high school teammates recall a practice dropback drill called the Five Dots, wherein the quarterback matches his steps precisely to marks on the ground, much in the way Arthur Murray once taught the clumsy how to waltz. Brady marked out a Five Dots course in his backyard and worked on it every day before school.
Even then he knew that preparation and rehearsal, the grinding work of constructing football excellence, pays off in the public performance. Sooner or later, to be complete in what you do and who you are, you have to leave the silence and walk toward the cheers. "I love it so," Brady says. "Just running out there in front of 70,000 people...." And then his voice trails off, as though he's given explanation enough.
YOU WALK toward a huge stadium in Michigan that rises from the earth like a city long-buried and recently excavated. You walk toward lights that illuminate a bend in a river in Jacksonville, and those that shine over a mechanical wonder in the industrial savanna outside Houston. You walk toward a domed stadium in a city now drowned, a place that most recently appeared on television as the vestibule to a graveyard.
But you also walk to a place like this one, tucked into the ridges and hillsides south of Boston, looming above a nondescript piece of highway. And you arrive in games like this one, in which the New England Patriots, now nine months into the defense of their third world championship, play the New Orleans Saints, now two months into their first season in San Antonio. The Saints are 2-7. The Patriots, riddled with injuries, are a ragged 5-4. The match is such an obvious mutt that at least one New England television station is carrying another NFL game. The defending champions are playing an orphan game against an orphan team.
On his first drive of the game Tom Brady takes the Patriots 98 yards in 17 plays. He converts three third downs and a fourth down. On a third-and-10 he throws a deep out to tight end Ben Watson, deftly dropping the ball over Watson's inside shoulder, just past the fingertips of safety Dwight Smith. The touchdown comes after a play-action fake to fullback Patrick Pass, when Brady drills a pass to Deion Branch in the back of the end zone. There is great dedication in the solitary work it takes to produce this kind of lethal efficiency. But without the risk of the performance, without the willingness to share all that work through public display, the generosity would be desiccated and pointless.
The game hardly lives up to its first five minutes. The Patriots build a 24-7 lead, but their defense is ragged enough in pursuit of Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks that New England doesn't salt the game away, 24-17, until Eugene Wilson intercepts Brooks in the end zone on the last play of the game.
"I think both teams were playing hard," Brady says later. "They have a very physical defensive line. Those guys were playing hard all day. And it is a good group of linebackers."
His generosity is not just in the ritual graciousness with which he talks about the Saints, but in the way he brought his talent to bear against them, the way he took everything he'd honed and polished in solitude and put it on display in an orphan game against an orphan team. The generosity lies in the way he gave them his best and cut them to ribbons. Joe Montana would understand. Plato would have thrown him a parade. Or at least handed him an urn.
THESE ARE the kinds of things you must endure when you are SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's Sportsman of the Year, the 52nd time the award has been given, a line stretching all the way back to Roger Bannister. You've already done 60 Minutes and Saturday Night Live, and here you are, being photographed in the crepuscular light of the Gillette Stadium press box, and there is also a local film crew on hand. A tiny stylist is fussing with your hair, and someone else is handling your wardrobe. You are being filmed while you are being photographed, but at least nobody has brought a goat for you to hold. "I'm telling you," Brady says to the assembled entourage, "there must have been a thousand goats there."