Last month, I turned 26. I'm still young enough to do foolish things in foolish places with foolish people, but at the same time, I'm old enough to realize that I'm not really a child anymore, and the superficial things that were surprising and exciting and passion-inducing when I was 14 now get a raise of the eyebrows and a retweet.
I'm not writing this to grouse. One thing I don't miss about being younger is being negative for negativity's sake. When I was a teenager, I hated roller coasters because they went upside down, Iowans because they were bad drivers, soccer because nothing happened, and egg nog because who wants to drink eggs, really. The highs may be less frequent now, but so are the cesspools of negativity, sneering pockets of disdain aimed at whatever movie or team or restaurant seemed cool to hate. I wore my dislikes on my sleeve like pus-filled badges of honor. I'm never going to be all sunshine and daffodils (ask me about The Big Bang Theory or Buffalo Wild Wings), but I like not being that guy anymore.
That said, the passionate highs are something I miss. It's not a secret that I spend a lot of time watching sports. I follow 700 people on Twitter, probably 500 of whom talk mostly about Major League Baseball or college football. When you're young, sports have the ability to shock on a weekly basis, and you get locked into a lifetime of chasing that high again. Luis Gonzalez's base hit to win the 2001 World Series, a series in which my favorite team was not participating, made me jump out of a friend's chair and yelp with glee, and no upset will ever shock me the way Kansas State's 35-7 dismantling of undefeated Oklahoma in 2003 did. I watched it at a Latin Club party.
Tom Brady was the 199th overall pick in the 2000 draft, a fact that crossed over into the mental compendium of the casual fan soon into the Patriots' run of three Super Bowl victories in four seasons.* It was seared into my mind as soon as the page loaded on ESPN SportsZone, having watched every game he had played the prior two seasons as quarterback of my Michigan Wolverines.
* - The third Super Bowl win came in Jacksonville. Someday when I open the Museum of WTF Sports Moments, there will be a bronze plaque that says "Jacksonville, Florida hosted the Super Bowl" hanging between 1996 Brady Anderson and the popularity of Jason Sehorn.
His finished his amateur career with a thrilling Orange Bowl win to cap 1999. It's a blast, knowing what we do, to watch the highlights on YouTube. Big Blue's opponent was an Alabama team that had another future NFL MVP at the height of his powers. Shaun Alexander ran for over 160 yards and three touchdowns, but it was Brady who brought his team back from a pair of 14-point deficits and put the team in position for a game-winning field goal at the end of regulation. The Tide blocked the Hayden Epstein kick before allowing Michigan to score on the first play of overtime. Alabama countered with a score of its own, only to lose in the most stomach-hollowing of manners: by watching their kicker miss an extra point. No block - just a straight push right, like a kid in the backyard who takes a full minute to get the ball to sit just right in the grass before letting it slide off the outside of his foot.
Tom was the first quarterback who was my quarterback. He had a strong arm, he made my team win, and, yeah, he was pretty handsome. He's the first athlete whose headshot I saw and thought, "I bet he doesn't have to do scholastic bowl to get girls to like him."* I searched the Boston Globe website every month after to find out where he would land on the depth chart behind the incumbent Drew Bledsoe, and every week in 2001 after a vicious Mo Lewis hit sheared open a blood vessel in Bledsoe's chest.
* - This strategy was less successful than envisioned
This isn't about then, though. Any sports fan who was bitten by the bug as early as I was reaches a point where the only thing that can bring back that raw excitement is seeing the athletes they loved at that age competing at a high level. Kerry Wood and Tiger Woods both feel that way to an extent for me, but in terms of the totality of a career and the monolithic odds facing him, Brady is the one.
He is now 34. In about six years, a guy whose career I've followed every fall weekend for the past 14 years will cede to the demands of time. He will make a decision to golf and sign autographs rather than play football, and that seems painfully soon.
So, until then, I'll keep watching him, and I'll keep pulling for him to be the winning quarterback in every Super Bowl that the Bears aren't in*, and I'll savor the joy that comes with watching one of your childhood heroes perform at the highest level imaginable. It feels fortunate, because this seems like something that easily could have only been realized as Brady stepped to the podium in Foxborough for that bleary-eyed press conference in February 2018.
* - So, all of them.
So go do something you loved when you were 14. Listen to Barenaked Ladies, watch Titanic, eat Chef Boyardee straight out of the can. I can't begrudge you. I'll just be over here watching this video on loop in the dark.
Not crying, just allergic to something. Wood, maybe. Or typing.