Can Tom Brady leave football on his terms with the TB12 Method?


“There’s always this baseline balance for me to find before every game,” Brady says in the interview after the Falcons game. “Really, our goal with the book that I wrote was to describe all of those things. … I’ve been doing it for so long it’s not hard for me to understand. It’s very simple, and it’s probably more frustrating that more people don’t just understand it.”

The TB12 Method is Brady’s first real book, but there is little surprise in the fact that it doesn’t take the form of a memoir, an autobiography or a tell-all — that it isn’t even really about Brady. Never in the business of self-revelation, he reveals nothing in his book except that he is very much in the business of Tom Brady. Still, The TB12 Method is an exercise in unintentional self-disclosure.

The man who gazes at us from the book’s cover is a fair-skinned Californian, who after spending the better part of his life in the elements has somehow acquired nary a line or wrinkle, not a scar nor even, for that matter, a freckle. It is not so much that he looks young as that he refuses to look old. When his wife mentioned his concussions, she did so once and never again, and Brady has batted away questions about long-term neurological effects as “none of your business.” The word “concussion” never appears in The TB12 Method. The phrase “brain injuries” does, but only when Brady is talking about techniques to “get ahead and stay ahead” of them, “especially in the off season.” He answers questions about concussions by saying that his body is none of your business even as he begins to build a business around his body.

It has become customary to think of Brady as an athlete without limits, one who overturns expectation by refusing to concede an inch to anyone else’s idea of the inevitable. But The TB12 Method offers a portrait of a ferociously limited human being, albeit the world’s “most hydrated” one. Every day, he wakes up at 6 in the morning and immediately drinks 20 ounces of purified water, augmented with TB12 electrolytes, which, as he tells us, contain the “72 trace minerals” generally lost in perspiration. As a result, he says, he is so well-hydrated that “even with adequate exposure to the sun, I won’t get sunburned,” and he presumes that the muscles under his skin look like “beautiful tenderloins” instead of “shriveled jerky.” He trains about four hours a day, and on most days, he “does pliability” with Guerrero, who, with hands capable of generating “50 newtons of force in a single finger” — about 11 pounds — applies “targeted pressure” to Brady’s muscles. “On the rare occasions when I don’t have the benefit of working with Alex,” he either does “partner-pliability” or goes solo with a jar of coconut oil he applies himself and a TB12 “vibrating sphere.” He eats abstemiously, with few portion sizes bigger than the palm of his hand, but also with a purpose, to maintain the “alkalinity” of his body. And he sleeps in the same determinedly therapeutic fashion, repairing to bed at 9 each night in a room uncontaminated by either technology or pet dander. He keeps a glbad of water by his bedside and sleeps, famously, in TB12 “bioceramic recovery wear,” which is also for sale from TB12 and which Brady also considers part of a “movement” — the “tech-enabled apparel and sleepwear” movement.

Last year, he writes, he was so pleased with how he was throwing at a workout that “I remember thinking, ‘My ability to sustain my peak performance over the past 10 years is almost unbelievable to me.'” With his “oxygen-rich blood” and his muscles “firing at 100 percent,” he can now afford to say “I rarely get fatigued, I never get headaches and I never cramp.” He all but pronounces himself invulnerable. He is not one of them, the irreparably damaged players we’ve come to pity even as we root them on. “I can recover from Sunday’s game significantly faster than players who may be 10 or 15 years younger than me,” he writes. But the stakes are even larger — and the odds even longer — than that, because Brady seems to be asking his readers to acknowledge not simply that he can recover but that he is unscathed, as if he were not playing in Sunday’s games at all. “In fact, two years ago, I took a hit on my knee during a practice, requiring an MRI. The doctors who read the MRI joked afterward that my knee looked so healthy, they seriously doubted I played professional football.”

Brady writes, “sustained peak performance isn’t about luck” and claims that “much of the success I’ve been lucky enough to have in my career I owe to a lifelong ‘will-over-skill’ mindset.” However, if Alford had caught the ball Brady threw to him instead of Edelman, or if the ball had followed its natural course and fallen to the turf instead of being held up by a thicket of arms and legs — or if Pete Carroll had just handed the ball to Marshawn Lynch in Super Bowl XLIX — we might be having an entirely different conversation about Tom Brady. He wouldn’t be an immortal, and instead of talking about the efficacy of the TB12 Method in prolonging prime performance, we’d be shaking our heads about another NFL great reduced to chasing his own ghost. Brady didn’t only get good against Seattle and Atlanta, he also got lucky.

Luck has not always gone his way. David Tyree ended Brady’s dream of an undefeated 2007 season when he caught Eli Manning’s desperate heave against his helmet, a catch at least as improbable as Edelman’s. And at the start of 2008, Brady tore two ligaments in his left knee, an injury so severe there were doubts about his ability to recover. When he suffered complications from surgery, he hired Guerrero, with whom he had worked in the past, to find a better way. Now Brady credits Guerrero’s “genius.” He hugs him when he sees him and calls him “Alejandro.” He overlooked issues in Guerrero’s past — Guerrero paid a judgment to the Federal Trade Commission to settle charges that he claimed dietary supplements could help cure cancer — and went into business with him. He also brought teammates into his TB12 fold, mostly converting a circle of players that includes Danny Amendola, Dont’a Hightower, Rob Gronkowski and, of course, Edelman.

To what extent does Brady now think he controls his fate? “The moment another player’s helmet makes contact with my body, my muscles are pliable enough to absorb what’s happening instantly,” he writes. “My brain is thinking only lengthen and soften and disperse before my body absorbs and disperses the impact evenly and I hit the ground.” Or, more simply, as he puts it in the interview, “I know my focus on pliability has helped me avoid so many injuries and bounce back so quickly from hits.”

Yet he remains an NFL player, and for any NFL player, the cruel whims of the game are not restricted to what happens on the field, especially when he’s a New England Patriot and plays for a man with a formidable method of his own.

At least one friend of Bill Belichick’s thinks the TB12 Method is on a collision course with the Belichick Method. Nils Ericson for ESPN

Bill Belichick is the coldest decision maker the game has ever known. He is a virtuoso strategist, but the essence of the Belichick Method is not only about plays but also about personnel, and knowing the earliest possible moment to let go of players who make the mistake of thinking they’re indispensable. For the better part of two decades, Brady has stood as the exemplar of the Belichick Method, the coldest quarterback for the coldest coach. But he has also stood as its test, a question that one day Belichick would have to answer, the ultimate inevitability of his and Brady’s careers.

Belichick appeared to have come up with his answer in 2014, when, in Brady’s own words, “the youth had worn off” and the quarterback was still trying to adjust his game after five years of postseason struggle. Smart defensive coaches had started challenging him, clogging the middle of the field in order to force him to throw outside. In 2013, Brady’s yards per attempt had fallen to 6.92, his lowest since 2006, and he completed only 17 of 68 throws beyond 20 yards. “We gotta be able to throw downfield,” Belichick said, according to people on his staff, and though Brady, working with Guerrero, was already starting to talk about playing into his 40s — prompting eye rolls from some Patriots staffers — that wasn’t the question that consumed New England personnel evaluators. The question was whether his skills were in irrevocable decline, and in the 2014 draft, Belichick seemed to come up with an answer by drafting Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round, the first signal that he was personally invested in a future that did not include Tom Brady and that the Belichick Method would never give way to mere sentiment.

The Chiefs drubbed the Patriots on Monday night early in the 2014 season, and Brady played so poorly — so creakily — that talk turned to whether he was, at long last, finished. A few days later, Belichick asked running backs coach Ivan Fears to speak to the team. Fears spoke about the importance of attitude, then turned to Brady and, with the entire team looking on, said, “Your body language reeks of fear.”

In response, Brady did what Brady does: He willed himself to get better. He says he “doesn’t remember” Fears saying that to him, but he will always remember the necessity, at that moment, for mental toughness. “It’s an attitude adjustment,” he says. “Not ever being satisfied. Things obviously have not been easy for me in my career.”

What ensued over the next three seasons was arguably the greatest sustained performance by an aging athlete in the eternal history of athletes growing old — a performance so consummate that it convinced Brady that, thanks to the TB12 Method, he wasn’t really aging at all. Brady credited Guerrero for keeping his body intact, and Guerrero credited himself, but the Patriots credited adjustments Brady had made to his game. He wasn’t too proud to throw the ball into the dirt at the first sign of danger, and he wasn’t getting hit as much. And when the team saw how fresh his arm was at the end of a 2016 season that began with his serving a four-game suspension, talk among the coaches turned to the question that will follow Brady as long as he plays: Can he do 16 games again?

Belichick is seeking to secure an immortality of his own. No one knows how much longer he’ll coach, but his friends give him two or three more years, enough to ensure that his two sons, Stephen and Brian, both Patriots badistants, are secure, and possibly long enough to establish a truly dynastic succession. He’d told friends for the past year that he wanted to coach Garoppolo as a starter and that he was confident he could win a Super Bowl with him. That, of course, would have required him to decouple himself from the player who has changed his life and his legacy, and so the question always was: Would he do it? Would he actually move on from TB12?

On the night of Oct. 30, that question was answered — for now, at least — when he traded Garoppolo to the San Francisco 49ers for a second-round pick. The trade came out of nowhere, surprising people close to Belichick, Brady and Garoppolo. But while it’s easy to see the move as a demonstration that Brady is and always will be the one exception to the Belichick Method, it instead serves as confirmation that the Method will always win. Did Belichick trade his backup out of loyalty to a 40-year-old quarterback, or because cutting bait at exactly the right time is what he always does and always will do?

For the short term, Brady will find himself in the position of being the future of the Patriots — with no end in sight. The Garoppolo trade can be seen as an expression of faith not only in Brady, but also in the TB12 Method. The apparent vote of confidence comes even as Brady has found himself in the middle of a conflict between the Patriots and Guerrero, with Guerrero blaming the team’s trainers for injuries some of his clients have suffered and with Belichick making it resoundingly clear that Guerrero has no actual role on his staff. “There’s a collision coming,” a friend of Belichick’s says, and even without Garoppolo itching to supplant him, Brady is aware of the competing legacies at the heart of the Patriots’ historic success. He says now that he “hopes” he doesn’t play for anyone else, but “I’m also not naive to think I can’t.”

And Brady is not the only one to have written a book. At the end of his 2005 collaboration with David Halberstam, The Education of a Coach, Belichick makes a case for luck as a prerequisite for greatness and uses Brady as the prime example. When Brady was suspended at the beginning of 2016, Garoppolo took his place, in an echo of the start of Brady’s career. But there is only one Brady. Garoppolo played well, but for either a want of luck or willpower he lasted only five and a half quarters before being knocked out with a shoulder injury and eventually giving way to Tom Brady and the Method.

“I rarely get fatigued, I never get headaches and I never cramp,” Brady says. David Zalubowski/AP Photo

One day last year, the two scientists whose company created the software product Brain HQ were surprised by a phone call that came to their office in San Francisco. It was Alex Guerrero, telling them Tom Brady was using the brain exercises they’d been developing, and they were surprised for a couple of reasons. First, Brady wanted to meet them. And second, he was not using the exercises in ways for which they were intended. “We improve people who need improvement,” says Henry Mahncke, CEO of Posit Science. “Old people, people who’ve suffered cognitive damage, but not a guy at the top of his game using our exercises to get better.”

So Mahncke and Posit Science founder Michael Merzernich flew to Boston and visited Brady and Guerrero at the TB12 training center. “The first thing that was pretty wild was that they had a personal team of neuroscientists,” Mahncke says. “And we’re like, ‘This is the kind of thing you can do when you’re the greatest quarterback of all time.’ But what he told us was pretty striking. He said, ‘I’m at the point where I want to be the best in every possible way. I came across the exercises in Popular Science, and I can already see the difference in my brain function. This kind of brain training is like physical conditioning. It can help anyone.’

“That’s just not how we thought of brain training before,” Mahncke says. “If you have bad cognitive function, we can help you. But Tom was using the same exercises that people in much worse condition use. We didn’t have to change the science at all. He was just using them at a totally different level.”

Did Brady decide to engage in brain training because he felt himself on the verge of rising to a new level or because he felt himself falling behind as a consequence of trauma already suffered? Mahncke didn’t know; he had never asked. But he wanted to make one thing clear: “I talk to Tom a bunch, and this might surprise you, but he never talks about concussions, at all.”

“If you want proof that pliability and the TB12 Method works, I’m it.”

– Tom Brady, in his book, “The TB12 Method”

But the question holds, because either Tom Brady is a football player who, like other football players, has suffered multiple concussions, or he is a football player who, unlike most other football players, has found a way to rise above the game’s inherent badault on body and brain. It is not only his wife who says he is the former; many Broncos believe they noticed him in an all-too-recognizable daze during the 2015 AFC championship game. Yet he not only speaks in his book of his determination to stay ahead of brain injuries; he speaks unsparingly of those who let injuries get ahead of them. Famous for being unforgiving of himself when he makes mistakes, he turns out to be unforgiving of players who make the mistake of getting injured. “If our bodies can handle the force, it doesn’t matter what sport we play or how old we are. That’s why age isn’t my problem!”

He has little sympathy for anyone whose experience might contradict the overarching TB12 narrative. “Players say the biggest reason [for early retirement] is their fear of the long-term effects of playing while injured. I don’t have that fear. They have no idea they can have a body or a career free of the pain that athletes of the past have endured.”

By the end of The TB12 Method, he is not even talking about injuries, trauma or even sport. He is professing his faith that “we can decelerate the aging process as most people experience it today.” As an athlete, he is already an immortal, but he begins to emerge as an Immortalist too, someone convinced that the answer to the question he poses near the close of the book — “What does it mean to naturally age?” — is that aging is unnatural and not to be accepted without a fight. It sounds grandiose. But after the Falcons rematch, he puts the fight in a humble context:

“The reality for me is not how long I want to live but the quality of life. I love playing football, I love everything about it, I want to do it for a long time. And at the end of that, I still want to do all the things I love to do. And that’s what it’s about for me. It’s about doing what I love to do for as long as I’m here. You can’t take any of these days for granted. But I also want to do what I have to do to prevent long-term damage to my body playing sports. Afterward, I still want to be able to ski, to surf, and do the things I love to do. I still want to be able to throw the ball around with my kids and play soccer in the backyard and have fun in life.”

It’s not that Brady wants what no one else has. He wants what everyone else has, or thinks they have. He toys with the notion of immortality because, as a human being who has played nearly 300 games in the NFL, his mortality is demonstrably accelerated and actuarially advanced. To do a job for as long as he loves and to stay whole, it doesn’t seem like much to ask. But then again it is asking for the world.

Brady credits fitness guru Alex Guerrero (pictured) with helping him to achieve the peak “pliability” that’s extending his career. Jesse Burke

Of course, Belichick and the Patriots are also asking the world of Brady. They are not only committing to a 40-year-old quarterback; they, with the Garoppolo trade, have blocked Brady’s simplest means of a graceful exit. He has decided not to stop. Now he also can’t fail.

What would count as a failure for Tom Brady? Playing until he’s 41 instead of playing until he’s 45? Never winning another Super Bowl? Getting released at age 43 from the Patriots and spending the last days of his career hobbling around for the Browns, still angry that they took Spergon Wynn in the sixth round of the 2000 draft instead of him? Or getting all he wants — playing until he’s 45 and winning two more Super Bowls — only to discover 15 years later that he has recurring headaches and his memory is hazy and he can’t follow the route to the nearest TB12 training center?

None of these scenarios is far-fetched and none of these scenarios is inevitable, and the scenario that probably scares him the most — the one in which, for all his investment in brain training and bioceramic sleepwear, he ends up just another athlete staying on a little too long and getting out a little too late — is the most likely. He is so accustomed to thinking in terms of the impossible that he often forgets to think in terms of the probable, and he’s so intent on thinking in terms of willpower that he misses the simple power inherent in accepting one’s fate. People do run out of luck, especially on the football field. And with the Method, he defines unavoidable occurrences in his sport as failures and risks making failures of his teammates and his friends.

So let’s go back to Tom Brady throwing a pbad to Julian Edelman. This time they’re not playing for high stakes in the Super Bowl; this time they’re playing for no stakes at all, in a preseason game against Detroit. Edelman lines up in his familiar place in the slot; he dances upfield, then catches a ball Brady throws over the middle. It’s an ageless play run by two men who have made ageless plays their business. Then three Lions close in. Edelman tries to do the impossible — he tries to evade them all — and when he pivots left, his right knee gives out, extending so unnaturally that it snaps him into the air with the force of a slingshot. He falls to the ground and rolls over clutching his knee, in an agony of ruin, knowing his season is over.

By Brady’s logic, the injury could not have been a matter of luck — there is no luck. It could not have been the game — don’t blame the game. It has to be a failure of pliability. “What will happen when an athlete with tight, dense, stiff muscles … runs and makes a sharp cut?” he writes. “If these functions overload a muscle, bone, tendon or ligament, he will get injured.” But here’s the problem: Edelman practices pliability. He “certainly gets some deep-force muscle work,” Brady says. How then can Edelman have failed?

But then something else happens. Over the course of the season, even as Brady maintains an MVP-level form, others go down — all members of the pliability circle. Hightower with a knee issue and a pectoral tear. Amendola with a concussion. Gronk with a groin problem. Brady himself has an aching shoulder. But he not only keeps showing up, he keeps prevailing, left alone with his Method, his singular talent and his unflagging determination. The game might never beat TB12. But it will do its best to make him the last man standing.

Tom JunodBefore joining ESPN as a senior writer, Junod wrote for Esquire and GQ. He has won two National Magazine Awards, a James Beard Award and the June Biedler Award for Cancer Writing. His work has been widely anthologized and his 2003 9/11 story, “The Falling Man,” was selected, on Esquire’s 75th anniversary, as one of the seven best stories in the history of the magazine.

Seth WickershamWickersham is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print Media. He can be reached at [email protected] and @sethwickersham.

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