Nothing lasts forever, and the signs have been there for months.
Still, to see Tom Brady announce Tuesday morning that he’s not coming back to New England, that he won’t be wearing a Patriots uniform next season, was surreal. Jarring. Disconcerting, even.
Maybe it’s the times we’re in, shuttered in our homes and uncertain of what the next few weeks will bring. But Brady and the Patriots, Brady and Bill Belichick, have been one of our constants for two decades.
And now they’re not.
The double-digit wins, the deep playoff runs, the Super Bowl titles – so many titles – we came to expect it. Depend on it, really. Whether you loved Brady or hated him, revered the Patriots or thought they were cheaters, there was one thing in this world we were assured of come January: Brady picking apart defenses and then flashing that mega-watt smile when he was done.
Maybe he’ll win with his new team. Maybe he’ll transform the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Los Angeles Chargers or wherever he winds up into a Super Bowl team. Maybe he’ll look so much like his old self that, after a couple of weeks, we won’t focus on his new uniform.
But it won’t be the same. And at a time when our world has been upended and we’re craving a normality that won’t be returning anytime soon, Brady’s departure feels weightier, as if there’s far more tied up in it than yet another big NFL move.
After all, it’s not as if Brady’s decision is a surprise. There was a reason why, at 42, he structured his contract so he could become an unrestricted free agent. Departures and injuries had whittled his playmakers considerably in New England. The moves by the Buffalo Bills and surprising resilience of the Miami Dolphins means the AFC East will no longer be a cakewalk.
When the Patriots lost to Tennessee in the AFC wild-card, it carried a feeling of finality, the end of an era, and Brady’s subdued and emotional comments after did nothing to contradict that.
Nor is Brady the first star player to end his career somewhere else. Peyton Manning brought a Super Bowl to Denver. Joe Montana went to Kansas City. Brett Favre threw his last pass in the hated purple of the Minnesota Vikings, for goodness sake.
The John Elways, the Eli Mannings, the Dan Marinos, guys who played for one team their entire careers and became synonymous with them, they’re the outliers.
And no matter where he plays this season, Brady will always be known as a Patriot. Will probably always consider himself one, too, regardless of what other uniforms he wears.
“I am grateful for all that you taught me – I have learned from everyone,” Brady wrote in his first goodbye post, this one directed to the Patriots. “Everything we have accomplished brings me great joy and the lessons I have learned will carry on with me forever.”
Forever is a relative term, though. Things change, people move on and the world as you know it can be transformed in an instant, and Brady leaving the only team he’s played for for two decades is one more reminder of that.
Brady’s departure was always going to hit Patriots fans hard. They’d embraced this California kid, come to think of him as one of their own over the last two decades. They’d grown accustomed to New England’s success with him, too, the days of being an NFL also-ran a faint memory.
But given everything else going on, it’s unsettling for the rest of us, too. Brady and the Patriots were one of the few things we could count on, and now we can’t.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.