• The Star Staff

Tom Brady, Florida man in full

By Ben Shpigel

Some months back, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers star cornerback Ronde Barber heard from an acquaintance who had just moved near him, to Tampa, Fla., and wanted to get together. They played a round at the exclusive Pelican Golf Club, where Barber raved about the climate, the culture and the city, mentioning how even with more than 3 million people the region still feels small, chill, manageable.

It’s why, Barber said, he has never felt overwhelmed by his fame there. Recent Florida transplant Tom Brady, the most recognizable football player in the world, nodded along.

“You know,” Barber said he told him, “this town’s ready to love you, man.”

Brady replied: “I’m coming here to work.”

Brady spent two peerless decades with the New England Patriots before bringing that ethos to Tampa Bay, as the Buccaneers seized on his late-career wanderlust in a brazen attempt to restore honor and playoff berths to a bedraggled franchise. Brady trusts in the process, that if he trains hard and leads others, he will win lots of football games, and spoils will soon follow.

The spoils have come first for Brady in Florida, where, as Barber suggested, fans have already fallen in love with him even if all they know of him is a caricature: the 43-year-old quarterback with a supermodel wife, Gisele Bündchen; an affinity for UGGs and clean eating; and a desire to imprint his winning brand on everyone and everything he touches.

Brady was signed in the nascent stages of a pandemic that, six months later, has yet to lift, ensuring that the most important acquisition in team history — an international phenomenon who chose to play in Tampa — will make his Buccaneers home debut in an empty stadium. Without the traditional buildup of open practices and preseason games, fans have expressed their adoration mostly from a remove — which, in this age of social distancing, might just be best.

Shannon Greenwood, 20, encountered Brady in the wild twice in seven weeks, snapping a selfie with him in April after he played golf in nearby Tarpon Springs and then spotting him in June as he rode an electric scooter while walking one of his dogs around Davis Islands, the community south of downtown where he lives. Rolling down the car window, Greenwood asked if he was indeed Tom Brady.

I said, ‘I met you at the golf course.’ He said, ‘Oh my God, it’s so good to see you again,’” Greenwood, of suburban Trinity, said in an interview. “I was like, ‘Yeah, you too.’”

Many (many) others have made pilgrimages to the gated 30,000-square-foot mansion he rented from another famed Michigan Man with a supermodel wife, Hall of Fame New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. The curious come by land, cramming the quiet street, and by sea, docking boats on the bay abutting Brady’s home, straining for a glimpse.

On that street, Bahama Circle, bicyclists and dogs tend to outnumber cars. But one morning in April, soon after Brady moved in, a steady stream of traffic crept past the home, compelling a neighbor, John Hotchkiss, and his wife, Karin, to head up to their roof deck to survey the scene. In 20 minutes, they counted 163 cars or golf carts crawling past.

“I wasn’t sure what everyone’s expectation of Mr. Brady was,” John Hotchkiss, 46, who has lived on Davis Islands for 21 years, said in an interview. “Were they expecting he’s going to come out and be their best friend? Maybe they were trying to get pictures of Gisele.”

It is from a place of love and, really, disbelief that Matt Algeri — decked in red-and-black face paint, wearing a Bucs jersey — found himself on a boat behind Brady’s house a few weekends back, filming a segment with friends for a hype video.

“This whole thing,” Algeri said, “is still absolutely surreal.”

A six-time champion, Brady has won as many Super Bowls as the Buccaneers have playoff games over their 44 seasons. They have finished last in the NFC South seven times in the past nine years. And their general futility since winning their only title, after the 2002 season — two playoff appearances, both losses, and the fourth-fewest victories over that span, according to Pro Football Reference — has instilled a deep longing within fans like Algeri.

Not for dominance. For competence.

To Algeri — and Barber, too — Brady conjures the arrival in 2002 of Jon Gruden, who that season coached Tampa Bay to its lone Super Bowl victory. On a team already brimming with defensive talent, and that had upgraded its offense during free agency, it was Gruden, Barber said, who provided the “absolute spark” that propelled the Bucs to a championship.

“If you win right away,” Barber said in an interview, “you give everybody a reason to believe that just your presence alone pushed us over the edge.”

Just as Gruden declared at the first team meeting that he was there to win a Super Bowl that season — “first words out of his mouth,” Barber said — Brady is governed by a similar urgency. He treasures each of his six Super Bowl wins. But his favorite, he likes to say, is the next one.

Brady’s pursuit of a seventh title impelled him, with the pandemic shuttering facilities and canceling official activities, to improvise. With teammates to learn and a new offense to master, Brady arranged, through intermediaries, to use a practice field at Tampa’s Berkeley Preparatory School as his de facto home base.

The headmaster, Joseph Seivold, promised him privacy and discretion even though, he said, Brady conveyed no such demands.

“It was not a diva situation at all,” Seivold said.

When in mid-May the Tampa Bay Times broke the news of Brady’s workouts despite social distancing restrictions, he was not angry. Rather, he deemed it inevitable, considering that he had already been training in secret for about seven weeks. He showed up before dawn for his first session April 4, joined by his longtime trainer Alex Guerrero and three teammates: receivers Chris Godwin and Scotty Miller and tight end Cameron Brate. They didn’t need much more than a field and a ball to get to work.

Only Brady knows what drives him, whether he feels he must prove anything now that he is untethered from Bill Belichick and energized by a fleet of superlative receivers. For a man whose football legacy is winning championships, it stands to reason that a Super Bowl hosted in his new city would be an added enticement.

Not long ago, Barber went to Buccaneers headquarters to watch Brady work. He spent much of practice mesmerized by how the ball left Brady’s hand and how he operated the offense — put another way, how Brady always seemed to make the right decision. He fled the Northeast for a better opportunity elsewhere, entranced by the prospect of professional satisfaction and personal fulfillment, the makings of a magnificent sunset.