Football is America’s most democratic game, still, despite any incremental decline in participation, the most popular of all high school sports by far. It’s for country kids and it’s for city kids. It’s for black kids and it’s for white kids. You can be fat and play on the line. You can be skinny and play wide receiver. Or you can be an unremarkable athlete like Tom Brady and win multiple Super Bowls.
That appraisal might come off a wee bit harsh for a living legend regarded by many as the greatest of all quarterbacks, the position that’s been called the most demanding in team sports. But there was indeed a time – before the six NFL titles and nine Super Bowl appearances (records both), the Tag Heuer ads and glossy magazine covers, the tabloid-fodder romances with Hollywood starlets and Brazilian supermodels – when Brady was decidedly one of us: a lightly regarded prospect with a nascent dad bod selected in the later rounds of the 2000 draft as an understudy to an established star. Even after he burst from relative obscurity early in the 2001 season, coming off the bench for injured starter Drew Bledsoe to helm the perennially underachieving New England Patriots to an improbable maiden championship in the foggy wake of 9/11, he was no more than the fresh-faced, dimple-chinned California kid next door who came through to win the big one.
Owing to decades of hard work, meticulous preparation, uncanny nerve/sangfroid, a hair-trigger release and good fortune, Brady is still today among the NFL’s finest players as he launches his second act with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers following 20 seasons in New England. If there is a 2020 season, he will be 43 when it starts. Whatever common ground he cohabited with mortals like us was ceded sometime back in the mid-aughts after his third Super Bowl title in four years or his epochal 2007 campaign. And as his preposterous, panoramic career has stretched forward long past the age when quarterbacks are put out to pasture, the answer to the million-dollar question – What’s the secret? – has only appreciated in value.
Brady’s trajectory from everyman to superman embodies the allure of upward mobility at the essence of the American dream, which for the particular generation that came of age watching him surgically pick apart secondaries with numbing efficiency – the first in modern US history bound to end up poorer than their parents – has increasingly been exposed as a false bill of goods, as hollow and unattainable as a fairytale. But for the past few years Brady has bottled, packaged and sold this fantasy with a wellness-cum-lifestyle brand called TB12™. The company, which has brick-and-mortar sports therapy centers in downtown Boston and next door to the Patriots’ home stadium in the bucolic suburb of Foxborough, peddles everything from nutritional supplements, home workout equipment and nutritional products all centered around his New York Times best-selling tome The TB12 Method: How to Achieve a Lifetime of Sustained Peak Performance. The packaging is as slick and polished as the pitchman on the cover, but the dubious science behind much of the product line is certain to leave more discriminating customers deflated.
In the book Brady attributes his freakish longevity and durability to the pseudoscientific concept of “muscle pliability”, a loosely defined concept invented by his “body coach” turned business partner Alex Guerrero, a controversial self-taught exercise guru who has twice been investigated by the Federal Trade Commission – first in 2005 for falsely passing himself off as a doctor and claiming to be able to cure cancer, Aids, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease with a dietary supplement called Supreme Greens, then seven years later for a sports drink called NeuroSafe (infamously endorsed by Brady), which he promised could prevent concussions. That muscle pliability as a concept is roundly rejected by exercise scientists is beside the point; as Brady’s scripture professes: “Feeling better – that’s the key”
The highly restrictive diet required of adherents is outlined in more granular detail in the since-discontinued TB12™ Nutrition Manual, which retailed for $200 and quickly sold out: a “living document” including “a library of 89 seasonally-inspired recipes that you can use to support your TB12-aligned nutrition plan”. In addition to well-documented no-nos like sugary foods and other processed carbohydrates, Brady eschews “nightshade” fruits and vegetables including peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms and eggplants – New York magazine famously reported that he never ate a strawberry in his life – and leans heavily toward “alkaline” foods like nuts and legumes which he claims prevent bone fractures (incorrectly, empirically) and fight “inflammation” (whatever that is).
Most of these wares, like Brady’s Vitalfit™ Tart Cherry recovery capsules ($45), are pricey if innocuous supplements that might otherwise be found on aspirational lifestyle platforms like Goop. Others like the more recent addition of TB12™ PROTECT, an “immunity blend” which promises to “activate your immune system and counter stress-induced immune suppression” and has been criticized for pandering to people’s fear of contracting Covid-19, wouldn’t feel out of place alongside the DNA Force Plus, Ultimate Bone Broth Formula and less abashed snake oil hawked by Infowars grand poobah Alex Jones.
Brady’s evolution into the Nietzschean superman, the touchdown-tossing übermensch who believes the rules don’t apply to him, has come to divide public opinion but failed to meaningfully undercut his celebrity and commercial appeal. For those who are able to put aside or compartmentalize the pattern of rule-bending and skulduggery that has resurfaced throughout his career, including a quarter-season suspension for being “at least generally aware” of plain old cheating in 2015, it’s hard to begrudge him the spoils of his success and right to leverage his brand for supplementary financial gain, even in the peddling of baseless health claims. Caveat emptor, no? It’s an industry at least as old as Be Like Mike. Buy the sneakers. Eat the cereal. Not only can you watch me, you can be me. But at a time when anti-science sentiment has been mainstreamed to an alarming extent (see: the flourishing anti-vax, anti-GMO and climate crisis denial movements), it’s equally hard to ignore where Brady’s racket fits in with the broader trend of influencers selling products under the “wellness” and “lifestyle” categories because they don’t meet the higher criteria of science.
And yet still: Is this not only another iteration of the American dream? These United States carry a long and often amusing tradition of rapscallions, hucksters and charlatans who have made their bones by trading on glamour, charisma and the promise of miracles: from Professor Harold Hill to PT Barnum to John R Brinkley to Elizabeth Holmes to Brady’s good friend Donald Trump. If ever there were a grand unifying theory to this improbable experiment, this teenager of nations, it’s this: you can’t knock the hustle. Brady’s junk science is on the whole no more pernicious than the televangelists or carnival barkers who have separated generations of marks from their money. The American dream is hard enough to achieve the first time. Leave it to the golden boy from San Mateo to manage it twice.