Saturday 20 January 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Great sport doesn't get any greater

The Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady put in one of the greatest sporting displays of all time in last Sunday’s epic Super Bowl. Photo: Robert Deutsch-USA Today
The Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady put in one of the greatest sporting displays of all time in last Sunday’s epic Super Bowl. Photo: Robert Deutsch-USA Today

Eamonn Sweeney

With two minutes and 33 seconds left in the second quarter of last Sunday's Super Bowl and his New England Patriots trailing the Atlanta Falcons 14-0, Tom Brady had possession on the opposition 23-yard line. The Patriots were in dire need of a score but Brady's pass went to Robert Alford of the Falcons. Alford was 82 yards from the Patriots' end zone but with a practically empty field in front of him.

As he neared the line he slowed down as though overcome with the enormity of what had just happened before covering the final few yards with a joyous little skip like a child winning a game of hopscotch.

No team in history had come from more than 10 points down to win the Super Bowl - and now the Patriots were 21 behind. Brady trudged to the sideline, sat on the bench and looked at the ground. "I've never seen him look like that before," said the commentator. The image flashed around the world on social media. Half the hipsters of America seemed to regard it as proof that the god they don't believe in had punished Brady for his much-publicised support of Donald Trump. "This is what democracy looks like," said one tweet. "Belichick will have Brady shot at half time," said another. Someone else joined in the schadenfreudian fun by suggesting Trump might sign an executive order making Patriots points count double in the second half.

You wondered then what Brady was thinking as he hung his head low. Three years previously his great old rival Peyton Manning had suffered a similar first half, everything going wrong as the Seattle Seahawks ran up a 22-0 lead on the Denver Broncos, and seemed crushed by the weight of misfortune, resigned to the fact that sometimes it's just not your day.

You wonder now if at that moment Brady's self-belief wavered. Did he wonder if, after the greatest career enjoyed by any player in his sport, the game too far had finally arrived. It's tempting now to regard that moment as a turning point, a dark minute of the soul from which Brady recovered to begin the comeback.

But things were to get worse. Early in the third quarter the Falcons made it 28-3 and even when the Patriots scored their first touchdown late in that quarter their kicker Stefan Gostkowski missed the extra point. Going into the fourth quarter they were 28-9 down. In the history of the play-offs, 124 teams had trailed by this margin or greater at the start of the final quarter. How many of them had come back to win? None. The situation was impossible.

Brady was playing well and finding his receivers with regularity but when he brought the Patriots to within scoring distance with 10 minutes left, he was sacked twice by Falcons tackle Grady Jarrett. Jarrett, whose three sacks equalled the Super Bowl record, was probably the MVP designate at this stage. But he was just one member of a defence which throughout had harassed, pummelled and clobbered Brady to an utterly unforeseen extent.

The pressure was increased further because the Patriots' running game had collapsed entirely. Their longest rush of the day was a 15-yard lope by Brady, looking like a baby giraffe trying to sprint. It was his longest run of the season. Brady is not one of those quarterbacks who can dodge away from his pursuers; as they arrived he had to plant his feet, stand his ground and take his punishment.

Gostkowski kicked a field goal to make it 28-12. The Patriots would need two touchdowns with a pair of two-point conversions to tie the game while holding the rampant Falcons offence scoreless. Yet suddenly there was that sense, familiar to all fans of a team about to blow a lead, that the Falcons were beginning to wish the game was over instead of carrying on doing the things which had put them ahead. They fumbled the ball deep in their own half and Brady found Danny Amendola in the end zone. Two-point conversions are difficult, the Patriots had lost the previous year's AFC Championship game by not making one. But running back James White ran this one in with ease. Five minutes and 56 seconds remained and the Patriots were just eight down.

Yet all the Falcons needed was a field goal to finish the game off. Their outstanding wide receiver, Julio Jones, made a tremendous catch and they were on the New England 24-yard line, easy field-goal territory. This was the game here. The key thing was not to lose ground. But their quarterback, Matt Ryan, was sacked and lost 11 yards, a holding penalty lost them another 10 and they had to punt. There were three minutes and 30 seconds left and Tom Brady took the ball on his own nine-yard line. Ninety-one yards to go.

Brady was taking risks now. Still 64 yards from the end zone he put up a pass and his nemesis Alford pounced once again. This was the game here again. But the ball bounced free, Brady's favourite receiver Julian Edelman dived and, as it bounced off a defender's arm, caught it a couple of inches off the ground while lying down. It was a catch so incredible the TV people seemed reluctant to believe the evidence of their own cameras.

A pass to Amendola, two more to White and the Patriots were in position for White to get over from one yard: 28-26. Brady to Amendola for the two-point conversion. There was still a minute left for the Falcons to win it but by now Matt Ryan looked like your man in Airplane trying to land the jet with the fake sweat pouring off him. He and everyone else knew it was over. Into overtime and the Brady-led Patriots' march downfield for White to score the winning touchdown of the game was a formality.

Brady had passed for more yards than any quarterback in Super Bowl history. White, hardly mentioned in the match previews, had caught a record number of passes, though he is a running back rather than a receiver. That is pretty typical Patriots. Edelman was a quarterback rather than a receiver in college. Chris Hogan, star of their AFC Championship win, was a lacrosse player. Alan Branch, who recovered the crucial fourth quarter fumble, had been laid off by the lowly Buffalo Bills when the Patriots snapped him up. And Brady was drafted 199th, leaving his house in tears as he saw player after player picked ahead of him, convinced he was destined for a life selling insurance.

American football's policy of allocating the draft picks to the weakest teams first means the Patriots, always near the top of the standings, don't get the college stars. But they follow the advice of Danny Amendola's fellow Texan Stephen Stills - "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with". The manager their coach Bill Belichick brings most to mind is Alex Ferguson and it's no coincidence that their miracle comeback is reminiscent of the 1999 Champions League final, and similar Manchester United rescue operations.

But this one topped all. Statistically and rationally, the Patriots were in an impossible position. Yet Brady defied logic by sheer force of will. It was the finest exhibition of bloody-minded greatness I've ever seen in a sporting arena. Most of us, I think, regard the comeback which snatches victory from the jaws of defeat as the ultimate expression of sporting worth. There is something uncanny and providential about it. It requires an act of faith, an act of absolute belief. Not in some outside power but in yourself, your team-mates and the system you play by. The belief is that if you keep doing the right things, no matter how impossible the situation is, things will turn your way and an opportunity will be presented which you are equipped to seize. We have seen Manchester United do it and the All Blacks do it and Kilkenny do it. It is the highest form of victory.

Sunday's story all started many decades ago when a Brady decided to leave Ireland and take his chances in America. That Irish connection made me think of the finest bit of sportswriting to ever come out of this country. It's a short story, 'The Reaping Race'. Only a few pages long but written by a genius, Liam O'Flaherty.

It tells of three men, aided by their wives, who compete in the titular contest. Two of them, Considine and Bodkin, set off at a great pace as Matt Ryan and the Falcons did last week. The third, Gill, is so far behind that the crowd mock him, as the Twitterati did Brady at half-time. But in the closing stages, "The Gill couple resumed work at a great speed. Their movements were mechanical and regular as before but they worked at almost twice the speed . . . Until now the excitement had not been intense because it seemed a foregone conclusion that Bodkin would win because he was so far ahead. Now, however, Bodkin's supremacy was challenged. He still was a long way ahead of Gill but he was visibly tired and his hook made mistakes."

Bodkin, like Matt Ryan, wilts under the pressure and Gill, who has the winner's confidence that working at his own pace will get him there, prevails. The power of the story lies, I think, in its expression of something we all know deep down to be true, that sticking at things no matter how tough they get is the only way to succeed. O'Flaherty was writing about people, our ancestors, who knew a lot about hard times and tough tasks and hanging in there.

They were Tom Brady's ancestors too. And if I'm being sentimental in thinking that the Irish in him did the Patriots man no harm at all last Sunday, so be it.

Great sport can do that to you. And sport never got greater than this.

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