The once and future quarterback is returning to the NFL after a 41-day “retirement.”

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Photo by Cian Leach on Unsplash.

In the long history of professional sports in America, most legends have run into trouble at some point.

In their personal and professional lives, publicly and in private; iconic athletes struggle like anyone else. Some have trouble holding on to what they have in the sports world; some have trouble letting go.

Michael Jordan, Mario Lemieux, Rob Gronkowski and others have officially retired from their sport…only to change their minds and return a short time later. To this distinguished list, sports journalists can add Tom Brady.

Can anyone blame him? Love of the game is a powerful thing. Most professional athletes have spent their entire lives, often from childhood, honing a very limited, very specific set of skills to do that thing they love.

They have honed these special skills very well. As the great Bruce Lee once said, “I don’t fear the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once; I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

Sport is their field and their identity; it is also their livelihood.

Professional sports players are a profitable franchise unto themselves. They are a brand, with market viability and a limited shelf-life in their chosen field.

Nor do most professional athletes, especially once they reach a certain level, make their career decisions in a vacuum. It takes a village. Employees, employers, accountants and public relations people, lawyers and financial planners; all play a critical role in decisions like, “retire or play one more year.”

That is to say nothing of family. Professional athletes like Brady aren’t sole-proprietorships; at best they are a family-owned franchise of very popular, profitable and influential company.

Mothers and fathers, partners and children, siblings and dear friends, near-relatives and extended family members; professional athletes have many people who care about them and depend on them.

Like any family business, family members and friends tend to work at that business.

Legendary athletes, professional and Olympic, frequently credit a strong support system for their long-term success. Witness the induction of golf icon Tiger Woods into the Golf Hall of Fame last week.

Woods, like so many others, spoke of the strong commitment his parents and mentors made to his early education in golf. Woods has enjoyed such a long, lucrative and storied career as to eventually support and mentor his grown children. That is the quintessential nature of the professional athlete: On and off the field, they can’t go it alone. Even in a solo sport like golf, Woods noted, have been tat support system standing behind him.

“These past two months I have realized my place is still on the field and not in the stands,” the once and future quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wrote on Instagram yesterday. “That time will come. But it’s not now. I love my teammates, and I love my supportive family. Without them, none of this is possible. I’m coming back for my 23rd season in Tampa. We have unfinished business. LFG.”

With the return of Brady, Tampa Bay plans to, “‘Reload’ For Another Title Run.”

In returning, Brady joins other time-tested leaders on the field like Aaron Rodgers, who recently became the NFL’s highest-paid player in history when he was re-signed by the Green Bay Packers to the tune of $200 million dollars for four years.

Rodgers, in spite of courting some controversy off the field this year, was also voted last season’s MVP.

It possible that seeing those dollar signs inspired Brady to reprioritize his love of the game. Tom Brady signed a two-year, $50 million dollar contract in 2020 with the Buccaneers, on which he has one more year. After that, Brady will certainly be in the running to replace Rodgers as highest paid player.

Before Aaron Rodgers claimed the crown, quarterback Patrick Mahomes of Kansas City Chiefs fame was the highest paid player, averaging about $45 million a year.

Popular, charismatic players attract new fans to the sport of football and new customers to the NFL. They often become celebrities in their own right, if they play the game long enough and/or inspire enough with their talent, brains and grit on the field.

Watching celebrity athletes like Tom Brady give interviews and attend events on television, playing football seems like nice work, if you can get it. Watching players on the field gives another, much harder perspective.

Next time you watch a football, pay no attention to the ball for a play or two. Watch what all the other players on the field are doing. It is a bit like turning your attention to the background actors in a movie…if all the background actors were physically fighting each other with every ounce of force each one could muster.

There are half a dozen UFC fights going on at any given moment during your average attempt at yardage. There is punching, kicking, plus body-slamming, slapping, grappling, and what sometimes looks a bit like Brazilian Jujitsu.

Seeing it, we are suddenly reminded that, “Oh, yeah; football is a very dangerous sport.”

Tom Brady is taking no small risk. Besides the concussions no one in the NFL cares to discuss anymore, career-ending injuries happen all the time. Athlete’s endure surgeries, painful rehabilitation, intense physical therapy.

Injuries suffered by a young athlete in his prime at 22 can come back to haunt him much later. Limited mobility in forty years may be the least of what former NFL players face.

Like soldiers in a battlefield, most professional athletes acknowledge that any foray onto the field of conflict could be their last. It gives rise to a mentality outstanding athletes are generally prone to anyway; that they will never quit, never give up, never be outworked. No matter what.

Knowing that one’s life and livelihood hangs by such a translucent thread sometimes turns promising young athletes into never-say-die stalwarts. Many, like Tom Brady, aren’t likely to leave the field until they are carried from it.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)