Thanks to this tweet, I learned that NFL quarterback Tom Brady played in 10 Super Bowls in 20 seasons — not counting 2 seasons where he only attempted 14 passes (his rookie year in 2000, and an injury season in 2008). That means that half the time that Brady got on the field, his season didn’t end until the championship game! And while I’ve never been a fan of the New England Patriots — the team where Brady won 6 of his 7 Super Bowls — how can I not be impressed?

Brady was more likely to make a Super Bowl than Ted Williams was to get a hit when he batted .406 in 1941 — the last player to hit at least .400 in major league baseball. Brady was more likely to reach the Super Bowl than Phil Mickelson is at finishing in the top 3 or even the top 10 in a major golf tournament (39 top tens, including 24 top threes, in 115 majors). And Brady was almost as likely to make a Super Bowl as Shaquille O’Neal was to make a free throw during his career (averaging 4.9 makes in 9.3 attempts each season, at 52.7%). So, even though I’ve never been a Patriots fan, or much of a Brady guy, as he rides off into retirement, you gotta give him his due.

Brady began his retirement announcement with these words:

I have always believed the sport of football is an “all-in” proposition — if a 100 percent competitive commitment isn’t there, you won’t succeed, and success is what I love so much about our game. There is a physical, mental and emotional challenge EVERY single day that has allowed me to maximize my highest potential. And I have tried my very best these past 22 years. There are no shortcuts to success on the field or in life.

This is difficult for me to write, but here it goes: I am not going to make that competitive commitment anymore. I have loved my NFL career, and now it is time to focus my time and energy on other things that require my attention.

It’s hard to deny that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback who has ever played — and will likely have success no QB will ever match. He has thrown 710 touchdowns in his career, with 97,569 yards of passing. That’s over 55 miles of pass completions! This past season, he led the league in passing completions, yards, and touchdowns. He did all that at the age of 44 — by far the oldest player in the NFL.

But coming out of the University of Michigan, Brady didn’t have superstar potential. At least, his draft status gave no indication of it, as 198 players were picked ahead of him in the 2000 NFL Draft. Only the New England Patriots gave him a shot — but even they had him 4th on the depth chart as he started his first season. Very few, it seems, thought Brady could be what he wanted to be — an NFL QB. But clearly Brady was “all-in” — and he was for 22 years. It’s hard to imagine anyone ever matching his accomplishments.

With all that in mind, I’m reminded of a phrase we often say to young people: You can be whatever you want to be. Tom Brady might seem like a perfect example of that phrase — but I would suggest the opposite. In fact, I believe that when we tell kids they can be whatever they want, while our intentions are good, we’re leaving out some really important things.

Why? Because while Brady turned out to be Brady, it’s just not true that everyone can be. At 6’4″, Brady is like every other top 25 NFL QB in history — he’s 6′, or taller. And while Brady may not be the most athletic of those 25, you’d be hard-pressed to keep up with him, or any of them, in any sport.

But even with all that ability and all those athletic accomplishments, there’s a good chance that Brady wouldn’t dominate in the NBA, or even make a team — no matter how hard he worked. And I can only imagine how he’d do if he were competing in the current Winter Olympics — no matter what sport he entered. Outside of sports, it’s very likely, based on this clip, that Broadway will not be in Tom’s post-football future. So, as Tom plots out his retirement plans, maybe it makes more sense for someone to say to him: You can be whatever your abilities and hard work and opportunity lead you to be.

Tom wasn’t guaranteed to be a sports superstar. He took his talent, worked hard, and made the most of the opportunity he was given — and the rest is history. The truth is: he needed all three. He needed some natural ability and genetics. If Brady were 5’4″ instead of 6’4″, we wouldn’t know his name — at least, not for football. If he didn’t work hard for 20+ years, he might have had an NFL career, but likely as a 2nd-stringer. And if Drew Bledsoe hadn’t gotten hurt, or the infamous “tuck rule” play had been called the other way, he might not have had the same opportunity to use his skills and sweat to change NFL history.

If it’s true that Brady had to have a lot of things line up for him to be pro football’s GOAT — and maybe the goatiest of all goats — then why wouldn’t that be true for the rest of us? Maybe saying to kids You can be whatever you want to be is not the most helpful thing to tell them — not because we don’t believe in them, but because we do. And because we recognize that their “want to” is only part of the equation.

Perhaps it would be better to tell them something like this: You’ve got a big future ahead of you. You are something special, and you can do some amazing things with your life. Find something you love, something you’re made to do. Work hard. Go after it. Take opportunities that come your way. Keep at it. Don’t give up, and you will be able to do some wonderful, life-giving things. You already ARE a gift. Now go use what you have to be a gift to others.


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