I originally wanted to write a whole piece on the subject of Tom Brady; his role in my life as a Boston sports fan, what he brought to the city of Boston, and the impact he leaves in many of our lives. I will keep this part short. Tom Brady IS the GOAT of the NFL and anyone would be unwise to deny it. The implications of what his status as the greatest means is what I want to talk about today, and the treatment some players of Brady’s stature get. Whether its a statistical or systematic impact on the game or world around them, or a combination of both, a very hallowed few athletes get chosen for their worn number to be retired by the entire league in which they played, by all teams. With Brady’s second, and seemingly final retirement on February 1st, 2023, discourse has opened up in sports circles everywhere: should the NFL retire Tom Brady’s famous #12?
“We should retire the number 12 for every team in the NFL. 🐐”
@TaylorLewan77 on Twitter
The practice of league-wide jersey number retirements is a rare event, to say the least. In fact, of the four major North American sports, each league has exactly one league-wide retired number, with the NFL being the only exception.
Jack Robinson’s famed #42 was retired across Major League Baseball on April 15th, 1997, though the New York Yankees lifer and undisputed greatest closer of all time Mariano Rivera held onto the number until he retired in 2013.
A few short years later, Wayne Gretsky’s #99 jersey was retired by the National Hockey League on February 6th, 2000.
Over two decades passed before the NBA joined in by retiring Celtics legend and winningest player in basketball history Bill Russell’s #6, which was announced shortly after his passing at the age of 88, announced on August 11th, 2022. Several players remain with the #6 jersey as of this writing, including LeBron James. Once these few players are off the court, the number will no longer be in circulation in the NBA.
Besides a league-wide number retirement, the common threads between these three players create almost a Venn diagram.
On the left side, we have Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier of the MLB in 1947 when he signed with the Brooklynn Dodgers, where he would go on to play 10 seasons, which included being National League MVP in 1949; a season in which he posted a 16 home run, 124 RBI, 37 stolen base season with a sterling .342 batting average. Robinson’s career was bookended by a World Series ring in 1955.
Robinson’s legacy lives on more in the social sphere; his very existence in the MLB and breaking of the color barrier was a key step in the integration of North American sports, though it took longer for other sports to catch on. Robinson’s legacy as a pure ball player on the Diamond, though successful, does not put him near baseball’s Mt. Rushmore in this respect.
On the right side of this Venn diagram we have Wayne Gretsky. Gretsky’s 20-year NHL career exists as the bar-none single best in the history of professional hockey. Even myself, who is not a gigantic fan of hockey, easily recognizes this. Four Stanley Cup wins, Nine Hart Trophies (MVP’s) and innumerable single season and total career records span a tremendous length and listing them all would take up the entire length of this article. Gretsky is the NHL’s GOAT. Moving on.
Bill Russell finds himself in the middle of this Venn diagram, meeting in the middle of social and progressive influence tantamount in nature to Robinson and leaving behind a statistical legacy along with a trophy case filled to the brim similar to Gretsky (though not as many stat records). In his 13 year career, Russell took home an unreasonable 11 NBA championships. His career-long compatriot Sam Jones is second on this list with 10, and nobody else has cracked double digits. Though not a statistical monster in the traditional sense, Russell’s impact on the court remains one of the largest ever. He ended his career a five-time NBA MVP (including taking it the year Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points per game), a 12-time All Star and with a clear-cut spot on the NBA’s top-10 list of all time, and arguably top-5.
Spending all of his years in the NBA amidst the United States’ Civil Rights Movement, Russell faced many challenges as a black man in professional sports, facing racism and systematic oppression at every corner; injustice in which he did not sit idly by and accept. Russell pressed on, maintaining excellence on the court, and leading protests and marches off of it. Russell himself broke a color barrier by becoming the first black Head Coach in NBA history, while still being an active player, in 1966.
With all of this, we find three men who have provided a long-lasting legacy to either their sport, culture, society as a whole, or all three. This brings us back to the man of the hour that we mentioned at the top of this piece, and the question that comes to light: does Tom Brady deserve to be in this discussion and be the first NFL player to have his number retired? I will go ahead and give my own milquetoast answer: I am not sure. Let’s analyze Brady by the numbers and impact on the game he left behind.
Over 23 NFL seasons, Tom Brady leaves as the single winningest NFL player of all time, with seven Super Bowl rings: more than any player AND any franchise. Like Gretsky, Brady’s records go on for a rather long time, but some notable ones speak to his on-field performance and his insane longevity. The most starts by a Quarterback in the regular and postseason, most career passing yards and touchdowns, both by wide margins. Three MVP trophies and five Super Bowl MVP’s. This is merely scratching the surface. Being picked at the back end of the 2000 NFL draft in round six, Brady proves that every single drafted player has a chance to provide tremendous value to their team, and to always bet on yourself.
One important aspect to touch on in regards to Brady, his legacy, and his potential claim to have his number retired lie in the myriad of controversies he faced in his career. The two I will touch on are the famed Spygate (2007) and Deflategate (2015), the latter of which Brady served a suspension for. I will admit my bias as a lifelong Boston sports fan, and at the same time state that Brady had at least some part in Spygate and was at the center of Deflategate. The exact extent of both are not entirely known. What is sure, however, is that these controversies are unique to Brady and over his entire career have made him one of the more divisive players in all of sports. This is without getting into the weeds of the “who made who” debate between he and coach Bill Belichick.
My own personal opinion on the matter is the retiring of Brady’s number would not be as universally accepted as that of Robinson or Gretsky or even Russell due to his several controversies on the field and other arguments against his legacy based on his generally safe pass scheme over the years and typically top defenses making his job, to some, easier. The fact remains that Tom Brady retires from the NFL as the greatest winner of all time, and the owner of a stupid amount of hardware and records. If the NFL were to retire a player’s jersey league-wide for the first time, from a purely statistical view, Brady likely has the strongest claim of anyone out there.
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You can follow Noah Drouin here: Twitter: @Endydoe