Anticipating the unknown

As the 2019 season wound down and speculation about Tom Brady’s future ramped up, I spent a lot of time wondering how a team broadcaster should appropriately address the uncertainty surrounding one of the game’s greatest stars.

By Bob Socci

There’s an unwritten rule that sometimes goes unheeded when the doors to the Patriots locker room are opened to media interlopers like me.  When a reporter appears engaged in a one-on-one interview, it’s incumbent on others to stand clear and wait their turn.

Time, however, is short — 45 minutes a session in season — and available players can be few.  Particularly after a loss or on the eve of a holiday.

What’s there to say that either hasn’t been said or, frankly, can be said?  Who can blame the family guys for skipping Q-and-A’s for an early exit after practice on, say, Dec. 24?

So, left standing with camera, mic or recorder and in need of sound bites, many may be left with little choice but to turn a private conversation into a group discussion.  Before you know it, scribe and subject are at the center of a crowd.

I’ve been there; an inquirer encircled.  And done that; myself a space invader.  More than I can recall or care to admit.

Then there are rare times when even a respectful distance isn’t enough to avoid overhearing a reporter and player trade questions for answers.  Though their words may go unrepeated, it still feels like a breach of etiquette.  If nothing else, a colleague has unwittingly lost the exclusive he or she was seeking.

Tom after his run into “Brady’s Corner” before the AFC Wild Card playoff vs. Tennessee.

Personally, one such instance occurred in the final days of 2019.  Locker room space was limited by a midweek swell of media.  And while my back was turned to an exchange between a veteran on the beat and a young Patriots starter, I was still within earshot of what was being said just a few steps away.

The player explained how the weekly stressful mix of expectations, his own excitement and the physical risk inherent in the NFL made sleeping difficult.

His words piqued my curiosity.  What struck a chord were the words of the reporter, totally identifying with restless nights before game days.

Laying awake late into Saturdays thinking about Sundays was something they shared.

That’s when I tuned them out, stood there and thought to myself.

“And here I thought I was the only one!”

In my case, it was really one question I kept awakening to over the course of a couple of weeks; on the eve of the regular season finale and in the overnight hours preceding the Wild Card playoff.

Seven years earlier, I’d been hired to call games for the Patriots and entrusted with responsibilities that included chronicling milestones for one of the greatest players in NFL history.

Remember, that was when there were three Lombardi Trophies showcased inside Gillette Stadium.  Outside New England, conventional thought put Peyton’s place on par with TB12 and considered Joe Cool and his four titles to still be the bar setter.

But then, to cap my second season behind the mic Tom Brady led the Pats from 10 down against the Legion of Boom, enabling Malcolm Butler to burst onto the national scene and clinch Super Bowl XLIX.  Brady had tied Montana with a fourth championship.

Two years later, Brady and the Patriots completed an even more improbable comeback, reaching overtime after trailing Atlanta, 28-3.  James White’s game-ending touchdown in Super Bowl LI resulted in No. 5.

Five-hundred yards the following February weren’t enough to make it six, which had to wait another year.  Repeatedly converting on 3rd-and-10 at Kansas City propelled the Pats to Super Bowl LIII, where a perfect pass to Rob Gronkowski set up Sony Michel for the game’s one and only touchdown.

Six titles.  Unprecedented.

To go along with all the individual milestones, including in my play-by-play experience the 400th and 500th regular-season touchdown passes of a career winding toward the end of its 20th season at the close of 2019.

And doing so, as we’ve all heard and read almost ad nauseam, with the 42-year-old quarterback — by now beyond reasonable doubt the all-time best — playing the final days of his expiring contract.

So I wondered the same question as everyone else.

“Will this be Tom Brady’s last game as a Patriot?”

And I wrestled with a follow-up uniquely my own.

“How, as the so-called voice of the team, do I handle that possibility?”

Coming up with an appropriate response to the second was made especially difficult because nobody — not even Tom — knew the answer to the first.  We still don’t.  All we really know today is that retirement seems less likely than a return to New England.

Now it should be noted that I’ve learned to rest easier during the last seven seasons, suppressing the excitement and nervousness preceding each big game better the next time than the last time.  Sleep came more quickly before Super Bowl LIII, for example, then XLIX.  Of course, Benadryl and a cup of herbal tea — yes, Bigelow for me — have had something to do with it.

Also, as my career has evolved and I’ve expressed in numerous conversations, experience has made me less reliant on scripted remarks and mostly disinterested in signature calls.

Thirteen years later, I still regret the words I’d conceived the night before Navy ended its seemingly interminable quest to finally beat Notre Dame again.  For whatever reasons in November 2007, I had an inkling the Midshipmen stood a great chance of defeating the Fighting Irish; something that hadn’t been done since 1963.

Stirring in the night inside my Michigan City, Ind. hotel room, I wrote and re-wrote words in my mind like “futility” and “frustration,” adding alliteration to what I imagined a fitting punctuation to a possible outcome.  I may have even, at one point in the wee small hours, reached for the Holiday Inn pen and pad on the night stand to jot it all down.

The following afternoon, the Mids led in the third overtime.  They needed only a stop on a two-point conversion try to prevail.  There was a dubious pass interference call on an incompletion.  Neither the game nor the series skid were quite over.  Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis opted to keep the next play on the ground.

As it developed, I called it how I saw it.

Tight end motions right to left.  (Quarterback Evan) Sharpley pulls away, hands it to Travis Thomas.

Runs it right side.  He’ll be stopped!  And so will a 43-game losing streak for Navy against Notre Dame! 

I should have left it at that, and shut up.  Already I was struggling to be heard.

But no.  With nary a beat to collect my breath, I rambled on.

After four decades plus of futility and frustration, of lopsided losses and narrow defeats for the Midshipmen, all are forgotten…

(Blah, blah, blah…how do I transition back to impromptu now that I recited the written remarks?  And who is still listening at this point, when I can barely hear myself?)

Years later, those words lost in that moment sounded in my memory whenever I was asked about my Super Bowl preparation.

“No,” I replied when others wanted to know if I knew what I’d say in the event of a Patriots win.  “The best calls are born from the emotion of the moment.”

Okay, a bit cheesy.  Still, I think, pretty good words to broadcast by.

Of course, in my case, it was impossible to foretell Malcom Butler’s interception or White’s overtime score culminating the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.  That said, I do wish I’d stopped talking sooner on Butler’s pick.  I still cringe at my sing-singing “with 20 seconds to go…” which I bellowed while being bear-hugged by our jubilant producer, Marc Cappello.

Sometimes ideas and phrases reemerge — hopefully, at the right time — after being stored in the subconscious.  Like last February, when I ended up saluting the Patriots dynasty while paying tribute to the great Gil Santos.

During my stay in Atlanta, I’d seen recaps of the Patriots’ past Super Bowl victories and heard many of Gil’s iconic calls.  Among them his exclamation at the end of Super Bowl XXXIX: “Yes, it’s a dynasty!”  On game day my walk to Mercedes-Benz Stadium brought me past a fence lined with large photos of the previous 52 Super Bowl championship rings.  The three earned by the Pats of the early 2000s prompted me to stop and snap a photo.

Later, when a missed field goal try in a two-score game set up a Brady kneel-down in the final seconds, I needed something to say.  Glancing at my notes and with the Patriots about to capture a third title in five years, I heard Gil’s voice again.  Then I used my own.

In the early 2000s they won three of four.  Now they have won three of the last five.  Yes, it’s still a dynasty!

Commemorating previous rings earned along the way to Super Bowl LIII.

Feedback I’ve since received has been mostly positive.  Probably, in part at least, because I was clear and concise.  Largely, no doubt, because of the connection my words created to the dawn of the dynasty and its late Hall of Fame voice.

But how to handle this case of a common denominator linking all six championships possibly playing for the final time as a Patriot; it was the thought that kept me up at night.

Flashbacks of unforgettable throws witnessed in my seven seasons replayed in my mind’s eye.  Kenbrell Thompkins against the Saints.  Brandon LaFell versus the Ravens.  Third-and-10, from the nine, down eight in Super Bowl LI.  Sixteen yards to Chris Hogan.  The subsequent throw to Danny Amendola for 14 on the second play of overtime.  All those 3rd-and-10’s at Kansas City.  And one last time to Gronk; over two Rams and in front of a third, for 29 yards in LIII.

Stats and milestones started streaming through my mind until I thankfully put thoughts of those to bed.  I’d need a month of broadcasts to cover them all.  Besides, what else was there to cite beyond the mention of the six championships?

An essay of sorts started to formulate as well.   I considered Brady’s regional reach, growing from the kid in a backward ball cap celebrating in New Orleans into the dad holding his daughter in one arm and raising the Lombardi Trophy with the other in Atlanta.

Certainly the situation had to be addressed, but without overstatement and independent of the daily talk-show narratives.  Neither time nor priorities providing play-by-play allow it.  Once it kicks off the game writes the story you’re supposed to tell.

Ultimately, I settled on a simple strategy for Week 17.  I would broach the topic with Scott Zolak during our open and move on.  I figured that we’d revisit Brady’s future late in the game, which would likely by then be under the Pats’ control.

We went on the air, I turned to Zo and we began by discussing the playoff ramifications of the day’s outcome.  A win would result in a bye the following week.  A loss, hard as it was to imagine, would mean a Wild Card date the next Saturday or Sunday.

Only then was it time to touch on Tom.

Today is his 285th career regular-season game as a Patriot (and) his 141st regular-season home game here at Gillette Stadium.

We also know, given the state of his contract and his age and the uncertainty regarding 2020, this could be his last.

So much for my best-laid plan.  As fate and Fitzmagic would have it, we never really had time to delve deeper into the subject.

The game remained undecided until very last play.  Ryan Fitzpatrick’s go-ahead touchdown pass left Brady just 24 seconds with which to attempt a 60th four-quarter comeback.  But when his last completion to Julian Edelman unraveled into a succession of laterals and a case of ‘fumblitis’ netting just one yard, time had expired.

The lede — let alone the intended walk-off — was buried by the shocking outcome.  Brady talk, as we would say it, had to wait.

Then I acted against my own advice.  Not only did I pen a broadcast open on paper — something I’ve done infrequently in recent years in an effort to keep things conversational — I made a few notes with the end of game in mind.

I never got to the latter.

Regarding the former, I spoke to more than the Brady topic.  After all, he had plenty of company in the class of would-be free agents.

The Patriots find themselves where frankly none of us thought they’d be, hosting the Tennessee Titans on Wild Card Weekend.  

And confronting the conventional thought that collectively they’re playing to both extend this season and sustain their dynasty amid uncertainty about the future, individually, of men who’ve long made up the heart, soul and face of this franchise, on and off the field.

From Devin McCourty to Matthew Slater to the 42-year-old quarterback taking the field tonight for his 41st career playoff game.

After Zo shared his perspective, we were drawn in a different direction.  The earlier AFC Wild Card contest was in overtime, giving us extra time to fill.  We welcomed in host Marc Bertrand and recounted Houston-Buffalo almost as much as we previewed New England-Tennessee.

Talk of Tom was tabled.

When our game eventually kicked off, two primary story lines developed around the Pats’ main vulnerabilities that revealed themselves throughout the season’s second half.  An otherwise very good defense that struggled to stop talented runners like Nick Chubb and Joe Mixon couldn’t contain Derrick Henry.  And an offense that too often floundered in the red zone again proved inefficient.

The turning point occurred late in the first half.  New England’s 1st-and-goal at the Titans’ 1-yard line led to a field goal for a 13-7 lead.  Tennessee then traveled 75 yards — all on Henry’s legs, by way of five runs and a 22-yard screen reception — in less than two minutes en route to a 14-13 edge.

It remained that way well into the final minute of the fourth quarter.  The quarterback stood in his end zone, with the ball 99 yards from the opposite goal line.

We don’t know if these are the final 15 seconds in the Patriots career of Tom Brady…

Nor do we know if the pass that followed, a deflected interception returned by Logan Ryan for a touchdown, will be Brady’s last throw as a Patriot.  After teammates were unable to turn the ensuing kick into the Cal-Stanford band play — minus the trombone player — he never returned to the field.

With time to say goodbye — to our audience, if not the quarterback — Zo and I had to exit the booth fairly quickly for postgame press conferences.  And give way to the postgame show.  There were a few words specifically about Brady.  But none that I’d prepared; either on paper or in my mind.

From the outset of this opportunity to call games involving an all-time great, I’ve tried not to take it for granted.  At the same time, I’ve failed to fully appreciate it.  Mainly because I grew up picturing Hall of Famers in black-and-white highlights running across the outfield of the Polo Grounds or captured in grainy film filling the air with their steamy breath on the frozen turf of Lambeau Field.

But now men I’ve watched in living color as a grown-up are taking up residence in Cooperstown and destined for Canton.

Some of whom I’ve had the privilege of trying to describe on radio.  None better at his craft than the quarterback.

To date, I still haven’t come up with a satisfactory answer to my questions.  Hopefully I’ll get another year or two to work on a fitting on-air farewell, with Tom’s last game as a Patriot yet to come.

It’s entirely possible he ends up elsewhere.  If that’s the case, I’ll be grateful for the games I got to call.  Even as I think about words I left unspoken.

Either way, we won’t know it for awhile.  

In the meantime, I don’t intend to lose any sleep over it.

 

4 thoughts on “Anticipating the unknown

  1. Bob, fabulous writing…I so enjoyed your views and perspectives regarding your role, impact of 20 years of Patriots winning and losing and what possibly losing Tom could mean. Think about retaining this for the book I hope you publish someday in the future. I’ll be looking forward to it!

  2. Great article bob…i too am waiting for the book…remember those young days here in auburn…little league…games at falcon park…amazeing..seems like so long sgo…good luck on book…never forget were it started……mike loperfido…

    1. Hi Mike,

      Great to hear from you. Thanks so much your kind words. So long ago, yet I can still picture my first Pony League game at Stewart Field. Bases loaded, ground ball to me at second base, I step on the bag and throw home to Dave Iwanicki, our catcher, who tagged out the runner coming in from third. My Springsteen-like glory days with CI Post! Of course, I’ll never forget where it started for me a couple of years later on the mic at Stewart Field. In fact, it means much more and I appreciate it much more with every season I spend doing what I do. Hopefully, I can get to work on a book before too long. If and when, however, I’ll leave out my baseball playing career :).

      Thanks again!

      Bob

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