When Antonio Brown’s eight-game suspension ended in the middle of this season, there was not much support for his return to action. The wide receiver found that there was only one organization willing to take a chance on him, only one team that felt it could harness the football potential while stomaching the off-the-field stains Brown had brought upon himself.
Signing with the Buccaneers did not, Brown said, feel like his last chance at returning to the NFL.
"I looked at it as my only chance," he said on Wednesday.
But really it wasn’t the Buccaneers that gave him the opportunity to play this season and reach Sunday’s Super Bowl LV. It was one person. It was Tom Brady.
The quarterback used all of the substantial clout he holds in the league and within his new organization to help bring Brown to Tampa Bay. He essentially told the Bucs he wanted Brown (they played together briefly in New England last year), vouched for his behavior, and even opened his home to the wide receiver this season as a mentor/babysitter.
It was – and continues to be – a relationship that Brady sees as the final phase of his evolution in the NFL.
"For me as an older player, I think the impact I want to have as I continue to move forward is help other people maximize their potential," Brady said. "I feel like I am much closer to the end than the beginning [of my career]. I have the ability to help people from my own experiences, to help them be the best they can be. It’s one thing to throw passes, and that’s fun, and I love winning, but we all have lives. Everybody is dealing with life. It’s not always the easiest thing for all of us. You just try to provide some words of support, or advice, or again, care for people."
Tom Brady, the NFL’s Father Flanagan.
"I try to, in my own way, be a positive influence on their lives," he said of all his teammates.
Brown may be his toughest case. The litany of off-field accusations against him includes burglary and battery charges, a pending sexual assault civil trial, and attempts to intimidate those who have accused him of other acts. When the Patriots gave up on him last season in the midst of yet another storm of controversial, behavior, it did seem as if his career was over.
Instead, the super-talented player who wore out his welcome with and tested the patience of three different franchises with increasing rapidity in the previous two seasons, who sat out most of 2019 after he was released by the Patriots and spent the first half of this season suspended, will be on the NFL’s biggest stage.
The football part has clicked back. In personal terms, his performance on Wednesday in his first and only media obligation of Super Bowl week suggests there is plenty on which to improve. He did not apologize for past behaviors, including the criminal acts for which he has been accused, did not express any regret for them beyond what they have meant to his career. Mostly he ignored them.
"I’d be doing a disservice if I talked about things that are not a focus of this game," he said. "I’ve been through some things, but that’s life. We all have a story. We all have to allow ourselves to grow for the betterment of ourselves. I’m just grateful for the journey."
Brown said he appreciates what Brady has done for him. And he looks at this situation with the Bucs not as a chance to prove himself to those who believe he is undeserving of the opportunity, but to "prove to myself that I am a high-end football player who still loves the game, still loves to compete. I never gave up or gave in."
"I want my legacy to be a guy that was persistent, a guy that never gave up, no matter the odds, no matter the hate," Brown said. "A sixth-round kid from Central Michigan that never gave up. A guy who had the will of a champion."
He was a sixth-round pick, as he said. And Brady might be able to make him a champion on Sunday. But his legacy will almost certainly be his off-field problems.
The knee injury Brown suffered last month does not seem as if it will keep him out of Super Bowl LV. He was a limited participant in Wednesday’s practice after having missed the NFC Championship Game and said the "arrow is pointing up" on his rehabilitation. Coach Bruce Arians lumped Brown in with other inured players as having "looked pretty good" participating in about half the drills and reps.
But there are plenty who believe that because of his behavior over the years Brown should not have an opportunity to play in Sunday’s game no matter his physical condition. That he should not be in the league.
Brady thought otherwise. So Brown will play.