I wasn’t looking to get nostalgic last Thursday. But I got that little twist in the tummy. It was a song that did it. It reminded me of how things were and how things are.
The song was “Beautiful Day” by U2. It was, for a few years, practically a Patriots anthem. It was the first song the legendary Irish band played during its halftime set at Super Bowl 36, a mini-concert that was sad, hopeful, jubilant and defiant all at once.
It’s not hard to recall what things felt like in early February of 2002.
Five months earlier, the September 11 attacks stripped away the sense of security and insulation we'd come to enjoy as our birthright. Anger, indignation, unity, national pride and a sense of resolve emerged that probably hadn’t been felt in 60 years.
But our new reality also meant a palpable sense of unease, too. Vulnerability.
It was at sporting events in the wake of 9/11 that we got an introduction to how things had changed and how we’d been changed. Armed security, bomb-sniffing dogs, personal searches and patdowns fueled our new trepidation. But once inside, a strength-in-numbers feeling emerged. The vulnerability was replaced by a near-universal sense of community and patriotism. The focus was on what we had in common as Americans, our shared interest in being safe and maintaining who we were.
The feeling isn’t quite the same now, is it? A lot’s changed.
It was near the end of that Thursday practice that the song came on. Blaring. It was supposed to replicate crowd noise during an 11-on-11 drill but it had the additional impact of causing me to reflect on that time and Tom Brady.
Brady was standing behind the offense watching rookie Jacoby Brissett take the reps at quarterback. Next to Brady was Jimmy Garoppolo.
Brissett was 9 years old when U2 played at that Super Bowl while Brady sat in the visitor’s locker room at the Superdome, improbably in possession of a 14-3 lead and 30 minutes from taking the first step on the road from “cool story” to “legend.” Garoppolo was 11.
How many rookie quarterbacks has Brady seen come and go since he was a rookie himself in 2000? How many backups has he dispatched since Brady himself was a backup in 2001? A lot.
He’s so far removed from the 24-year-old kid who, upon winning the MVP in that Super Bowl, put his hands to his head in beaming disbelief. Does he think about that game? That atmosphere? That song?
That was an amazing day. I remember the military presence all week in New Orleans and on Super Bowl Sunday especially. Soldiers with M-16s surveyed and patrolled all along inside the barriers set up outside the Superdome. Inside, the Patriots were the ultimate Cinderella team going against a dynasty-in-waiting. They were -- hard as it is to believe now almost 15 years later -- beloved nationally. And the country didn’t hate Boston fans then, either. They mostly felt bad for us because of the constant sports heartbreak.
There were emotional juxtapositions that day -- from U2's moving halftime tribute to those killed on 9/11 to the Patriots stunning win -- that by the end felt cathartic. It was like an Irish wake.
Brady doesn’t beam too often anymore. At least not publically. He’s got 17 years in the league, 16 minicamps, four Super Bowl wins, two Super Bowl losses, three Super Bowl MVPs and two league MVPs under his belt. The novelty’s worn off some.
There’s also the matter of the NFL itself deciding it would bring the franchise that went from Cinderella to Godzilla to heel by over-prosecuting the team in 2007 and trumping up charges against Brady himself in 2014.
Can’t beat ‘em? Delegitimize ‘em.
For Brady to find himself a reviled athlete, a target of the league office, a media piñata must have been beyond comprehension.
But on Thursday, there was a sign that maybe he’s making some peace with that, too.
The person who was at a loss for words in an uncomfortable 30-minute press conference a year ago January, who set his jaw and refused comment last summer walking in and out of New York courthouses, who welled up in September talking about the impact the investigation had on Jim McNally and John Jastremski . . . that guy actually walked past the media on Thursday when practice was over.
He didn’t stop. He only smiled and waved a few hellos. But compared to last year, when he’d exit the practice fields 100 yards from the media and didn’t speak from the Super Bowl until September, this was a departure.
There is no bigger point I’m trying to make here about football, patriotism, party politics, the decline of civility or the Patriots being a national treasure or blight.
All this was just something that occurred to me last Thursday. Which just so happened to be the first legitimately beautiful day of the year.