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As Super Bowl looms, competitive fire still rages in Tom Brady
FROM smashing a golf club into the ground in frustration as a boy to pulling off the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, refusal to accept defeat has been a recurring theme of American professional footballer Tom Brady's life.
In the eyes of many, the New England Patriots star has long since settled the debate of whether he is the greatest quarterback the National Football League (NFL) has ever seen.
Nearly two decades at the pinnacle of his sport have yielded five Super Bowl titles and an array of records that in all probability will never be beaten. On Sunday, the 41-year-old Brady could become the oldest quarterback in history to win the NFL's championship game when he leads the Patriots against the Los Angeles Rams in his ninth Super Bowl, itself another record.
Super Bowl 53 takes place at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta (Monday 7.30am, Singapore time).
Defeating Father Time
In an era of ever-shorter NFL careers - the average shelf life of a quarterback is just over three years, according to a 2016 Wall Street Journal study - Brady has added Father Time to a long list of his vanquished opponents.
Brady - who won the first of his five Super Bowl rings in 2002, when the Patriots upset the then St Louis Rams - admits he finds it surreal to still be chasing titles 17 bruising years after his first. "No one ever imagines these things," he said. "The goal when I was a kid was to be a professional athlete. And I've been a professional athlete for a long time. I couldn't have asked for anything better."
The cornerstone of his career - a white-hot competitive streak - has burned with a vengeance during the Patriots' journey to this weekend's grand final.
Irked by the suggestion that the Patriots were a dynasty in decline, Brady has framed the five-time Super Bowl champions as unlikely underdogs, uniting supporters around a rallying cry of "We're still here".
"It's just part of who I am, part of my DNA. Those motivations run deep. When I get them scratched at, it's great motivation for me. It's just a part of who I am," explained Brady. "Some people are born with great height. Some people are born with great size or great speed. Some people are born with things that are more intangible. I think competitiveness and the ability to compete has been an attribute for me, and my whole family. It started when I was young."
Brady spoke of how his parents always encouraged him to aim big in life, and it is something that he still does to this day.
"People say: 'You're 41, what are you doing? Why are you still playing?' But I still feel like I'm shooting for the stars," he said.
Learning to manage his competitiveness wasn't always easy though. "I definitely broke some video game remote controls when I was a kid," Brady recalled. "I was a very poor sport. I can remember taking the remote control and slamming it down over and over and over again. If my kids did that today, I don't know what the hell I would do, but I wouldn't be happy."
Another memory involves a tantrum at a golf course when his father, Tom Brady Sr, took him to play nine holes en route to a San Francisco Giants baseball game.
"On the sixth hole, I hit a bad shot and took my club and started slamming it into the ground," Brady said. "My dad marched me off the course and back to the car and said: 'If you ever do that again, I'm never bringing you here again. I'm never taking you to baseball again, you're never playing sports again.'
"Man, I was crying, I was so sad. After the baseball game, my dad said: 'We're going to go back and play golf again, and you're going to play it right.' I learned a great lesson that day."
Those childhood lessons have served Brady through his college and professional career. Two years ago, Brady's never-say-die mentality saw him haul the Patriots back from a 28-3 third-quarter deficit to win Super Bowl 51 against the Atlanta Falcons, the biggest comeback in history.
Delivering under pressure
By now, the story of Brady's emergence in the sport are part of NFL legend, ritually retold with each new Super Bowl appearance. He was the 199th pick in the sixth round of the 2000 draft, who worked his way up from fourth-choice quarterback before assuming the starter's jersey from the injured Drew Bledsoe.
That breakthrough season ended with his first Super Bowl win in 2002, and gave a glimpse of the player he would become.
His opposite number that day, former St Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, says Brady's ability to deliver under pressure has become his calling card.
"The one thing that hasn't changed with Tom Brady, it's his ability to play big in the biggest moments of games," Warner noted. "When the game's on the line, he plays his best football. For me, we're living in the era of the greatest quarterback in the game."
Brady, who has spoken of playing until he is 45, has no interest in engaging in discussion about his place in the pantheon of greats. "What's important to me is playing my best game on Sunday," he added. "I'm not thinking about anything beyond this. Teams don't want an average quarterback. I've got to be better than that. They want a great quarterback. That's what I'm trying to do this week." AFP