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These days, how can you hate Tom Brady? He's so likable!

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady after winning

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady after winning the NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers on Jan. 24. Credit: AP / Morry Gash

It is getting harder and harder to hate Tom Brady.

How can you not admire a guy who had the guts to do what Brady did to get to the 10th Super Bowl of his career and the first one not wearing a Patriots uniform?

Brady and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be playing Kansas City in the Super Bowl on Sunday because he dared pull off a feat that many middle-aged fans who feel underappreciated in their work only dream of doing: He flipped off the boss, took a new job in a sunny climate and succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.

Brady, at age 43, has become a hero for the beleaguered mid-career worker as he tries to win his seventh championship ring by beating Kansas City and Patrick Mahomes, a quarterback 18 years his junior.

Once hated by most every football fan outside of New England’s six states, Brady has been embraced by new legion of converts in the wake of leaving the Patriots and coach Bill Belichick. Some of them are even Jets fans.

"My perceptions of him have totally changed," WFAN radio host Craig Carton said. "I spent two decades actively rooting against him and disliking him and everything that he stood for. I think it’s the separation between him and New England. I now view him as a regular guy. He’s the closest player in age to me in the entire league, so that makes him relatable to me."

Carton is not alone. Sales of Brady merchandise broke all records for the two-week period between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl, according to Fanatics, the NFL’s official e-commerce partner. While Tampa Bay is the top-selling market, New York is No. 2 and Boston has fluctuated between third and fourth.

Who could have predicted this lovefest? For nearly two decades since he won his first Super Bowl, Brady has been one of the least relatable of sports superstars. People may love Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning and Tiger Woods, but Brady has always come off as a little too patrician for the masses.

Part of it is his looks. Brady is tall and has a million-dollar smile and a perfectly placed chin dimple. He is that impossibly handsome jock who ignored you in high school, except that he didn’t grow up to be a loser. In fact, his glory days never ended. While the rest of us get older, Brady is the avocado ice cream-eating Benjamin Button of the NFL. Irritatingly, he seems forever young.

Then there’s his personal life. Brady is married to Gisele Bündchen, a rich supermodel who speaks five languages. The power couple looks as at home on the red carpet as he does on the green turf. He has appropriately cute kids, owns several Versailles-like mansions and currently rents buddy Derek Jeter’s $29 million crib on an exclusive island in Tampa Bay.

Of course, most annoying of all is what the six-time Super Bowl champ has done on the football field. It’s not just that he has passed for 79,204 yards and 581 touchdowns in the regular season and won more football games (230-69) than some of his teammates have watched. It’s that, unless you are a New England Patriots fan, Brady has ruined more than a few of your Sundays.

For an entire generation of NFL faithful, Brady has been the omnipresent villain, the guy who has regularly stepped up in the pocket and stomped on their dreams.

An outright loathing of Brady may be the only thing that Giants, Jets and Eagles fans have ever agreed upon. In fact, it may be one of the few subjects that have united NFL fans everywhere outside of New England. An entire generation grew up rooting against Brady and the Patriots, including some members of his current Tampa Bay Buccaneers team.

"He was always winning and always doing really good, so you don’t really like him that much,’’ said center Ryan Jensen, who grew up a Broncos fan. "People always seem to hate winners, for some reason. But obviously now playing with him and getting to know him on a personal level, so happy to have him on my team, that’s for sure."

Jensen is far from the only member of the Buccaneers who has had to deprogram himself since Brady joined the team.

Clyde Christensen mentored Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning with the Indianapolis Colts before becoming Tampa Bay’s quarterbacks coach. Both he and Buccaneers offensive consultant Tom Moore were in Indianapolis on the opposite sideline from Brady during his rivalry with Manning that spanned much of the last decade.

They were there to witness Brady’s first game as a starter in September 2001 when he replaced the injured Drew Bledsoe. He won that game, then proceeded to defeat the Colts in their first six meetings, including the AFC Championship Game after the 2003 season and a matchup in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs after the 2004 season. All told, including their meetings after Manning joined the Denver Broncos, the two quarterbacks faced each other 17 times, with Brady winning the head-to-head series 11-6.

"I think he’s always been such a good guy," said Christensen, who never met Brady before he came to the Buccaneers despite all the times they faced each other. "You won’t find a teammate [who’ll] say a bad word about him. I think he’s always been the same guy, but I just think if you weren’t a New England fan, there was some kind of anger if things didn’t go right. People didn’t like the Patriots ― myself included.

"I think everything surprised me about him. You kind of have this preconceived notion. You start to get to know him and you meet his family and just see what a wonderful human being he is. He’s a good man. I knew he was a good football player, but you get to know these guys and you see them interact with their kids and their parents and you see them interact with their spouses and teammates and how they treat people."

Brady the family man was on full display two weeks ago after the Buccaneers pulled out a win over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game.

Carton said the moment that won him over to the Brady camp was when the future Hall of Famer politely asked a security guard if he could say hi to his teenaged son in the stands at Lambeau Field.

Carton wasn’t the only one whose heart melted when Brady jumped to the fence, hugged his kid and then said with a laugh, "Love you, kiddo. How ‘bout that?" The scene went viral and was featured on everything from People.com to Business Insider to a website for a sports talk radio station in Pittsburgh under the headline "Is Tom Brady becoming likable?"

Sure, there still are some things about Brady that irritate some people. He never has owned up to Deflategate. And he continues to dodge questions about his complicated bromance with former President Donald Trump. But who among us doesn’t have a few flaws?

Brady is becoming more likable, and it’s because he’s becoming more real. He may not look like it, but he is a middle-aged man with middle-aged problems, responsibilities and dreams. And while most fans can’t relate to most parts of the charmed life he has led since recording his first Super Bowl victory in February 2002, they can relate to his desire to want to keep doing the job he loves for as long as he can do it.

Even popular culture seems to have done a 180 to the point that it is belittling the pettiness of the Brady haters instead of joining them.

Brady appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! on Thursday night for a special Brady edition of the talk show’s Mean Tweets segment. He laughed good-naturedly through most of the various insults, the cleanest of which was "Tom Brady seems like the kind of man who doesn’t know how to use a wrench."

"That’s kind of true," he admitted with a shrug.

Yes, there still are haters out there. But their numbers are dwindling.

"I wouldn’t say that people have flipped to loving him, but there isn’t the same level of vitriol as there was when he was with the Patriots," said Marc Sestir, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Central Arkansas who specializes in media psychology and has followed Brady’s career. "One of the reasons people like sports is because there is a level of uncertainty involved. When the same person wins over and over again, it starts feeling preordained. ‘Incredibly successful person succeeds again’ is not a compelling storyline unless you are emotionally invested in that person being successful."

There certainly is a degree of uncertainty in Sunday’s Super Bowl, which pits Brady, the best quarterback in NFL history, against Mahomes, the best quarterback of today. For the first time in 19 years, Brady’s team is not favored entering the game.

In a weird way, his career has come full circle from underdog to demigod to underdog.

In terms of quarterbacks, Brady already is considered the G.O.A.T, but like many great athletes, he always seems to find a way to convince himself he has something to prove, something he needs to work on harder. Tom House has had a front-row seat to observe that during the past eight or so years.

House, the longtime pitching coach who helped Nolan Ryan play until he was 46 (and the relief pitcher who caught Hank Aaron’s 715th home run), started working with NFL quarterbacks about a decade ago and counts Brady and Drew Brees among his NFL clients. When Brady declared in a Zoom news conference this past week that he wanted to play past the age of 45, House was not surprised.

"I would not bet against him," said House, who recently launched a phone app called Mustard that analyzes a player’s throwing motions. "Our research shows there’s no reason you can’t do at 45 what you did at 25, but you have to play by some pretty strict rules. Tom appears to be doing that."

Yes, we’ve all heard about Brady’s strict training rules, including an impossibly Spartan diet that is composed of 80% vegetables and a bladder-stretching 300 ounces of water a day.

Over the years, Brady has found he likes things to operate in a certain obsessive-compulsive attention-to-details way.

Jensen, his center, found that out in their first phone conversation shortly after Brady signed with Tampa Bay in March. After the predictable small talk about family and the weather in Florida, the call took a bizarre turn.

Brady told Jensen that he had a problem with butt sweat getting on his hands, so he expected his center to play with a white towel covered with baby powder and shoved down the back of his pants.

"That’s keeping his hands dry and keeping the ball dry," Jensen said. "At that point, he’s done it for such a long time and had so much success, you kind of got to listen to him . . . I mean, when Tom Brady tells you to do something, you usually do it."

House says Brady’s biggest strength, other than his work ethic, is his ability to convince others that they want to do what they need to do to be winners.

"Wherever Tom goes, when he walks into the room, he can move the room," House said. "What I believe he does is change settings. He sets expectations, reasonable expectations for everybody. And he forces them, pushes them, whatever it takes to have them do that. When everybody does their job and they have a leader like Tom that can push them in the right direction, it ends up with a Super Bowl run."

It was Brady’s commitment and enthusiasm that helped the Bucs weather a very rough first 2 1/2 months at the start of the season. Did anyone think after Brady’s three-interception performance in a 38-3 loss to the New Orleans Saints that the team would regroup, win its last four games of the regular season and capture three road games in the playoffs? Maybe only Brady.

For nearly 20 years, Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles was on the opposite sideline from Brady, including the four years when Bowles was the Jets’ head coach. He said the biggest thing he’s learned about Brady since he joined the team is his ability to make everyone around him feel like a winner. This is no small task on a franchise that before this season hadn’t won a postseason game since its Super Bowl victory in January 2003.

"He makes everyone else feel important and feel like superstars," Bowles told the NFL Network. "His people skills are outstanding. The way he includes everyone and everything that they do and channels it into football is like nothing I’ve ever seen . . . I think that’s helped a lot of guys on our team become professionals. I think it’s helped them train better, I think it’s helped them see the game better, I think it’s helped their focus better on both sides of the ball, and I think what he brings to the table from that you can’t pay enough money for."

This is something football fans are starting to realize — even Patriots fans who for the most part seem to be rooting for Brady despite the fact that he left them. An admittedly unscientific Twitter poll by Chris Gasper, who works for Boston’s ABC affiliate, WCVB-TV, found that roughly nine in 10 Patriots fans are rooting for a Tampa Bay win Sunday.

Yes, it’s just too much work to keep hating Brady.

For an entire generation of NFL faithful, Brady has been the omnipresent villain, the guy who has regularly stepped up in the pocket and stomped on their dreams.

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