HOUSTON -- The first of the two newly minted legends emerged from the door, the news conference and requisite questions behind him, the greatest performance in NFL history now his singular possession, and for a flicker of a moment, Tom Brady stopped and let it all wash over him.
It didn't last long. The glorious frenzy that surrounds champions in the minutes and hours after they have won it all burst through again. Fans exclaimed. Security guards tried aggressively to steer the Super Bowl LI Most Valuable Player toward a waiting, humming golf cart meant to zip him through NRG Stadium to his teammates. The energy ratcheted up. Every eye was on Brady, every person lucky enough to have happened into this moment captivated, staring, still disbelieving.
Somehow, down 25 points in the second half against the Atlanta Falcons, Brady and the Patriots had mounted a stirring comeback to force the first overtime in Super Bowl history. Behind his record-setting 466 Super Bowl passing yards, and a couple of late touchdowns followed by successful two-point conversions, New England had claimed one of the most stunning wins in sports history. As a result, the Patriots had their fifth championship under Brady and Bill Belichick, a combination that now defines sports excellence well beyond the NFL.
The security guards were still trying to get Brady into that golf cart, but the quarterback had spotted a burly man clad in red, his beard unkempt, his look as intense as Brady's was quickly becoming emotional. It was Matt Patricia, the Patriots defensive coordinator. Brady shot forward a few steps and they embraced.
They whispered into one another's ears, a private moment in a growingly public space, and then Brady stepped away. "I've got to get in this cart," he said with a laugh, and then he was gone, being driven toward his head coach, who still had a news conference before he, too, could let the miraculous night hit him as it might away from prying eyes.
It is now certain: Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are without peers in the history of the game. They took Deflategate, and Sunday's huge deficit, and the haters and doubters, and the weighty challenge of winning a fifth championship, and wove it all into proof of what their singular alchemy has created:
- The GOAT NFL head coach.
- The GOAT NFL quarterback.
- The GOAT comeback in league history and, given all the subtexts and the stage and the fact it was at a Super Bowl, perhaps the GOAT comeback in any sport, ever.
- The GOAT -- excuse my language here -- "screw you" moment sports has had the pleasure and awkwardness to watch.
And as the ultimate opus to all of this, it happened in the GOAT Super Bowl, the finest championship game football has ever produced.
This is the stuff of legend. It shouldn't be real -- not Sunday's game, not what Belichick and Brady have done, not the conclusion of the whole Deflategate/Roger Goodell soap opera. But these two men defy the normal bounds of what's possible in football.
There is and will likely never again be a coaching-player combination like Brady and Belichick. Together the pair -- the formerly fired Cleveland Browns head coach and the sixth-round draft pick/afterthought QB -- have conquered and redefined America's biggest, baddest sport. Neither age nor a commissioner's wrath nor what should be an insurmountable deficit against the league's best offense could best them.
Belichick has now won five championships, passing Chuck Noll for the most of all time. He has appeared in seven Super Bowls, passing Don Shula. He has mounted the most impressive revenge tour in the most dramatic, mind-blowing way.
Brady, too, now stands alone. The five rings, passing Montana for the record. Sunday's record for passing yards in a Super Bowl. And at 39, with Deflategate now a catalyst for his greatness rather than a stain on it, a signature moment few athlete outside of the likes of Jordan, Ali and Tiger have ever attained.
Revenge. Greatness. History. A piece of art, which is what that comeback was, that defined the best Super Bowl of all time. It is all theirs. They have no peers.
Shortly after the peerless quarterback had vanished into his locker room, his peerless coach emerged. The second legend of the night made a second trek to a podium to talk about all of this, though this time in his deadly low-key way.
Belichick walked the 500 yards or so, a water bottle in his left hand, staring downward as those fans who did notice him cheered, and smiled, and offered up looks of utter awe. Handshakes were extended -- some met, some not -- but he hardly glanced upward. He blended, unless you happened to look right at him. At one point, a golf cart carrying a random Patriots player honked aggressively to get Belichick to move out of the way, utterly unaware the greatest NFL head coach of all time can damn well walk where and how he wants. Which he did.
He seemed to have no notion of the buzz and noise around him until somehow he sensed Logan Ryan, the Patriots cornerback, nearby. Belichick looked up, raised his left arm straight up in the air and curled his hand in a fist, and as Ryan yelled, "Yeah!," Belichick lowered his arm and his eyes and kept going. He never said a word.
It happened several moments later with Patriots wide receiver Chris Hogan. Again Belichick silently raised his arm and fist, Hogan returning the gesture, and again Belichick lowered his eyes and kept on moving.
He, like Brady 10 or 15 minutes earlier, disappeared behind a door and walked to a podium to politely dodge most of the questions directed his way from reporters and media. And afterward he, too, walked back into the bowels of the stadium to find security and a humming golf cart waiting to whisk him away.
"That's alright," he said quietly.
He walked straight at this reporter, and with no room to move looked up. "Congratulations, coach," I said, and he might have mumbled something quietly as his eyes again found the ground.
Then he was gone, that same stride carrying him toward his quarterback and his players, that same water bottle still clenched in his left hand, more people and golf carts with overly aggressive drivers missing the fact the greatest coach in NFL history -- coming off his greatest accomplishment -- was in their midst.