In the pantheon of great sporting stars, Tom Brady is placed amongst the elite of the elite. Whilst many will doubt whether he is the greatest NFL player ever, he is undoubtedly the biggest achiever relative to his draft pick order. His fourth Super Bowl early in February (and third Super Bowl MVP award) only further exposes the lunacy that he was not recognized as a future NFL god when a rookie.

Or was it really lunacy? Maybe Brady’s greatness lies not in what he showed in his early days, but rather in what he developed into after that time. Instead of a meteoric trajectory, the story of Brady closely resembles an evolution. And for almost all men, evolution, not being something from the start, is the only answer to life and obtaining success.

Few casual observers of football (and even many aficionados) realize that Brady was the 199th draft pick in 2000. An athlete good enough to make the draft in the first place, the time it took for him to be picked was nonetheless hardly stellar. Top draft picks may regularly sputter, yet few would have predicted that the 199th pick of a draft was to become the defining player of his generation. The Patriots, in fact, only chose Brady as that particular pick at the last minute.

Who would have guessed that this guy would “get” four Super Bowls and three Super Bowl MVP’s?

Going back further, Brady was not even close to a star in his first half of college at the University of Michigan. His playing time and psychological woes were so bad that he resorted to a sports psychologist. The mental anguish of the struggle was so consuming at the time that he seriously weighed the idea of returning to his home California.

Even in the far more prosperous second half of his college career, Brady was often neck-and-neck with Drew Henson for playing time, despite always being a starter. His UM junior and senior year record-setting and an Orange Bowl win aside, he had a mixed college experience at best.

Relative Deprivation

Malcolm Gladwell, in his excellent book David and Goliath, explores the concept of “relative deprivation,” where people judge themselves and their own value according to their immediate peers. A play on the “big fish in a small pond” theory, it is as much a part of academia as professional or college sports.

At an elite university, for example, students who otherwise scored very high to enter college regularly perceive themselves as average or even dumb. What matters (to most) is the context, not where you stand across the board. And this, Gladwell explains, is why Ivy League STEM majors drop out at the same rate as students from mediocre or “terrible” universities.

In Brady’s case, playing football at a competitive university was an achievement in and of itself. But when he was making the transition from college football, it would have been hard not to compare himself unfavorably with other elite college players, many of whom had received plaudits much greater and more effusive than Brady. He was good, but not that good. And when you’re only good in a field of elite performers, you feel about as accomplished (and feel like you’re being rewarded as much) as the shelf-stacker at Walmart.

Forget yards and guiding touchdowns, Brady’s greatest asset has been his early-days self-belief.

Athletes, like human beings, tend to take on the labels that society or their peers give them. Being picked 199th in an NFL draft would mean to almost everyone that you’re good enough to be on a roster but not good enough to be a football great.

In that sense, your worth and potential are seen as predetermined, something the individual will usually, and tragically, start to believe themselves. At best, under this belief, you’ll achieve moderately more than what people anticipated. For Brady to have become not only the best player of that 2000 draft cohort but of the last two decades is nothing short of brilliance. It demonstrates both hard work and an extraordinary self-belief to work hard without reference to any label thrown at you.

Longevity (Usually) Kills Success

Brady’s age (now 37) is another factor underscoring his greatness. Exposure to injury over so many years depletes both a player’s physical capabilities and, most importantly, his mental and emotional drive. Intense pressure, which only increases with public recognition and attention, can easily sap the confidence of even the greatest player.

Tiger Woods, unlike Brady, has been a shadow of his former self for some years. Since his return to golf after a series of sex scandals, Tiger’s seen less Majors or other success than a 100-year-old man sees sex. The pitfalls are always there and Brady, to his great credit, has almost universally avoided them.

Overall, Tom Brady has weathered the storms of high-profile life consistently, even after he joined the non-football celebrity world. A rather turbulent relationship with Bridget Moynahan, his first taste of fatherhood and the scrutiny of the paparazzi over his personal life, not usually as common with NFL players as other celebrities, did nothing to dim his overall career ascendancy. Neither has his subsequent marriage to the world’s most well-known supermodel, Gisele Bündchen, and two more children by her.

Pressured by the rise of flashier, younger stars with much, much more to prove, Brady continues to reach for and seize success. In this sense, the mental battles Brady had in his less lauded days of college and draft picks have taken a new form.

Fighting complacency and resisting resting on your laurels isn’t as “sexy” a battle as doubting yourself in your early days, or being looked over at the start of your career, but it is just as compelling and arguably more important. If anything, Brady works harder now, with a couple hundred million under his belt and a supermodel wife, than he did when he had nothing special to his name.

Mental game counts more towards Brady’s success than the physical variety.

Am I asserting that Tom Brady has always delivered? No, of course not. Like all of us, his career is littered with mistakes, albeit mistakes on a much more watched and scrutinized public stage. Brady certainly has innumerable haters, detractors, and just plain character-bashers. He is routinely underestimated and vilified. Results, however, of which Brady has seven from the Super Bowl alone, speak for themselves.

Resist the labels, implied and otherwise. When you act and go after goals, be like Tom Brady. You never know how high it may take you.

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