Tom Brady, almost a footnote

Most sports fans picture Tom Brady throwing endless touchdowns and winning championship ring after championship ring (save for 2018!).

But consider the end of the game that propelled him to his first Super Bowl as a backup filling in for the Patriots’ regular starter, Drew Bledsoe, back in 2002. When Brady was sacked at a critical moment and seemed to cough up the football, probably securing a victory for the Oakland Raiders, the refs ruled instead that the play was dead.

Let’s say the call went the other way instead. The Patriots’ season would have ended, likely with much talk about how the promising Brady still had a lot to learn about winning. His season as a fill-in had been solid but not spectacular… so maybe the Patriots would have decided that when Bledsoe got healthy, he should be back in there as the starter. Perhaps Brady would have held a clipboard for another two years, or been traded away at some point into a different system. He might have languished there.

And then there’s Jerome Bettis. In 2005 the fullback was enjoying his last hurrah as a Pittsburgh Steeler after a fabulous career. Everyone loved “The Bus” for the way he pounded defensive lines and always seemed to smile ­afterward.

The Indianapolis Colts stood in the Steelers’ way of a Super Bowl, but they didn’t seem to have any hope of winning as the clock ticked down in the AFC Championship game. Suddenly, though, Bettis coughed up the football. If not for a game-saving tackle by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Bettis’s celebration year may have gone up in smoke, and his entire legacy may have been seen ­differently.

Makes you think how close many all-time greats came to facing an alternate reality where things weren’t so rosy, doesn’t it? Or perhaps their qualities as leaders would never have kept them down for very long—and somehow, they would have picked themselves up off the field and led another charge.