Tom Brady knows people think his divorce from the New England Patriots is like so many others, rooted in bitterness and hard feelings. That he left because of some long-nursed resentment or because his relationship with coach Bill Belichick had become frayed beyond repair.
Sometimes, though, the simplest answer is also the most real. After 20 years, Brady felt he’d accomplished everything he could in New England and wanted to test himself – really test himself – one last time by stepping out of his comfort zone.
“This is a part for me, in my life, to experience something very different,” Brady said in a wide-ranging, two-hour-plus interview Wednesday with Howard Stern. “There’s ways for me to grow and evolve in a different way that I haven’t had the opportunity to do. That aren’t right or wrong but (are), just, right for me.”
Brady has always been polished, and he said all the right things about Belichick and the Patriots organization. He even said he and Belichick had discussed the team’s need to plan for the future, and that if he were Belichick, he would have been looking for his replacement in recent years, too.
But it was Brady’s telling of a rough patch with Gisele Bundchen two years ago that might have been most revealing about why he left New England and signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last month.
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Bundchen had grown unhappy at what Brady described as him taking advantage of her. His wife would take care of their children and their household during football season, but Brady said he didn’t realize he had been operating under the assumption she would do the same during his offseason.
It wasn’t that they no longer loved each other or that he’d lost respect for her. Rather, Brady said it was a good reminder that healthy relationships don’t function on autopilot.
“Things are going to evolve and change over time,” he said. “What worked for us 10 years ago won’t work for us forever because we’re growing in different ways.”
And so it was with Brady and New England.
The Patriots are all Brady has ever known. Belichick is all Brady has ever known. Yes, the quarterback’s supporting cast has changed, but the culture, as well as the system and routines at its foundation, are largely the same as when he arrived as an unheralded 22-year-old, sixth-round draft pick.
But Brady is not, and it isn’t simply because he now has six Super Bowl rings, three NFL MVP awards and a legitimate claim to being the greatest to ever play the game.
Staying in New England for another season or two wouldn’t have required him to expend much effort, but getting by isn’t the point. He still wants to play. He knows he still can, and believes that, despite being almost 43, he can make a difference. What better way to show that than by throwing away the security blanket and starting anew?
“That’s what it came down to: Where could I really excel and achieve and bring my best out? Which environment would be best for me to really excel in?” Brady said of choosing Tampa Bay.
“I chose this one, and time will tell what kind of decision that’s made,” he added. “All’s I know is what I can put into it.”
For all of Brady’s physical attributes, his mindset has always been his greatest strength. Unlike his teammates in high school and even college, Brady never thought about a Plan B. He was going to be an NFL quarterback and, after the Patriots drafted him, he was going to be their starter.
Brady said he thought before last season began that it was likely going to be his final one in New England. But Kobe Bryant’s death in January was a reminder that, ageless as Brady might feel, there’s no guarantee any of us will get the time to do those things we want.
To take those risks we always said we would.
“We all think we’re going to live forever,” Brady said. “But the reality is, we don’t know when our day is going to come.”
Brady didn’t leave New England because he was angry or hurt. He left because it was time, and because he doesn’t know how much more of that he has.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.