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Former New England safety Rodney Harrison likes to tell a story that explains Tom Brady.

When Harrison first got to the Patriots, he showed up at the practice facility one morning to lift weights at 6:30 a.m. As he arrived, Brady looked over and said, “Good afternoon.”

The next morning Harrison showed up at 6:15 a.m.

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“Good afternoon!” Brady said.

6 a.m.

“Good afternoon!”

Eventually, Harrison arrived at 5:30 in the morning, a time when roosters are still flat on their backs. Harrison ran over to Brady before he had a chance to say anything.

“I looked at him and said, ‘Man, I don’t give a damn what you say, Tom, I’m not coming in earlier than 5:30’,” Harrison told ESPN. “We both laughed at that.”

Of course they did, because Brady had won.

When people talk about Brady, now 41 years old and still playing quarterback in the National Football League, they concentrate on his alien physicality. A body this age is not meant to do this work, and yet Brady has rarely been injured over his 18-year career. By the eye test, he stopped ageing at 25.

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Tom Brady of the New England Patriots pictured on December 23, 2018 in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Brady didn’t have to address this sort of thing until recently, but now does it non-stop.

Last month, he upset a few of his colleagues by saying that his brain is “wired for contact” – suggesting that others aren’t.

This isn’t bragging. It’s marketing. Brady is monetizing his longevity through his TB12 brand – “a comprehensive approach to health and wellness,” according to the literature.

Amidst that comprehensive approach are “brain exercises” (I don’t know, brain in, brain out?) which don’t claim to mitigate concussions, but nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

“I’m never sore,” Brady said during training camp a couple of years ago. “I could practise every day. I could practise twice a day if they let us do that.”

(Brady forgot to mention that, as quarterback, no one is allowed to touch him during practice.)

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We once admired athlete’s for their effortlessness, even their loucheness. Smoking in the shower between periods, scoring the winning goal and then off to the bar. But as our society tilts once again toward puritanism, we’ve begun valourizing those qualities in our heroes. They ought to be in the gym at 4 a.m. and tucked up in bed before sundown. The more robotic this obsession, the purer it must be.

No one has shown himself more committed to the Holy Rites of Fitness than Tom Brady. As he ages without consequence, his place in the wellness firmament becomes more central.

As Harrison found out, Brady isn’t competing against himself or another team. He gets his pleasure from being better than you. You, personally, regardless of which side you’re on.

That’s why Brady keeps on keeping on. It isn’t money. He has plenty. It isn’t legacy or Super Bowls because ditto. Who could argue with a straight face that Brady – the sixth-round draft pick who won five titles – isn’t the greatest ever?

Since he’s achieved so much and is, you know, old, we think of Brady as at the end.

In fact, he is at a sort of beginning. He has recently become the greatest middle-aged team athlete in history. The longer he manages to do it, the more likely he will remain the best in perpetuity.

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For him, just continuing to play has become a species of winning.

Brady has already said he will “not only next year, but beyond that.”

Now that’s what we’re going to figure out in the next four weekends. Because while Brady may still see himself at the top of his game, some doubt is seeping into the minds of the proles.

Brady was good this past season. Occasionally great, and occasionally a lot less than that. He was a mess during the two-minute drill against the Steelers a month ago, chucking balls 10 feet over the heads of his receivers. It was the first time in a long time you thought to yourself, “Tom Brady is fidgety.”

The Patriots had two gimmes to end the year – Buffalo and the Jets – so we haven’t seen Brady needing to be trademark-Tom Brady since.

The Patriots meet the L.A. Chargers on Sunday. It’s an “end of an era” sort of game.

On the visitors’ side, Chargers QB Philip Rivers gets to relive the defining moment of his own long, frustrating career. In 2008, while suffering through an ACL tear, Rivers almost managed to get his Chargers through Brady’s Patriots in the AFC Championship game. Brady won. Rivers never got that far again.

One wonders if, despite all his money, Rivers, 38, ever looks over at Brady and thinks, “You’re living my life.”

Should Rivers lose, his somewhat fluid reputation becomes ossified – “great tactician, but not a winner.”

Brady’s reputation as a closer is unassailable, but his status as starter-for-life is, for the first time, in doubt.

Should New England lose badly, there will be extreme pressure on the team to identify Brady’s successor. The current back-up, 33-year-old Brian Hoyer, has thrown eight passes in the past two years. He’s about as likely to start for the New England Patriots as I am.

So the team has yet to draft whomever they want to replace Brady. There will have to be a lengthy period of transition. It’s not clear if Brady – the guy who expects you to show up so early it’s functionally the day before – has the ego-lessness necessary to groom his own heir.

This could all – and probably will – go pear-shaped. The only thing you can say with any certainty is that this will happen at some point. The questions yet to be answered are “When?” and “What say will Tom Brady have in all of this?”

In a perfect world, win or lose this year, Brady quits. What a statement that would be. The Rocky Marciano or Don Bradman of the gridiron; the one guy with the self-confidence to walk away without needing to take a victory lap around the league.

It would show that Brady is bigger than football. It’d be more legendary than any game he won.

Of course, that won’t happen. There are sponsors to think of.

The middle route is announcing an exit date and sticking to it, à la Derek Jeter. The NFL would absolutely love him for it. It would give the flailing league an entire year of inspirational headlines; allow them to prepare an orderly coronation for football’s current college obsession, Clemson University quarterback Trevor Lawrence; and give the game a sense of purpose beyond crushing skulls and cashing cheques. The only thing with more news value than a great entrance is a dignified leave-taking.

Since Brady has no love of the suits in charge, that all seems unlikely. Brady’s M.O. from the start has been showing up people who underrate him. Eventually, the only ones left were the men in charge of the league. Deflategate, driven by NFL boss Roger Goodell, has been the only sustained attack on his legacy.

Brady can still rhyme off without thinking the names of the six quarterbacks who were drafted before him. He hasn’t forgotten, so it’s doubtful he is in the mood to do favours.

The worst option is the Peyton Manning route. You play until you are broken and borderline incapable and then quit by necessity.

That’s where Brady’s headed. We all know it.

Losing Sunday’s game would set this all down one path. At that point, Brady’s decline can‘t be denied. His well-earned reputational forcefield gets shut off. People will begin coming at him, pushing him to think about quitting.

If it gets to that, we’ll see just how driven Tom Brady is to play professional football. Because nobody gets in early enough to beat his doubters to work.

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