Some of the greatest athletes seem to feel so lost without competing that they push themselves past their bodies’ limits. After he had shattered baseball records, Babe Ruth kept playing even as his broken-down body left him hobbling around the field, barely able to contribute. After his fairy tale retirement on the heels of a championship-winning shot, Michael Jordan returned in diminished form four years later. Even Muhammad Ali, who was willing to risk his boxing career to stand against the Vietnam War, continued to strap on the gloves after his body was too slow to protect him from hits and his brain showed signs of severe damage.
As a football fan, I have watched Brady for two decades and found little interesting about him outside of his football obsession. His interviews are boring, filled with clichés and platitudes. When reporters asked about the Make America Great Again Hat in his locker in 2015 — possibly the first real glimpse into his off-field interests — he said that Trump had sent it to him through New England Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft, who placed it in the star quarterback’s locker. Brady noted that he and Trump had played golf together, and that “he always gives me a call and different types of motivational speeches at different times,” but wouldn’t say whether he planned to vote for him. The hat was gone from the locker the next day, and Brady never again expressed any public support for Trump. It was unclear what he really thought, but if anybody was capable of living under a rock, it was Brady, a man who has subsumed his entire personality into being a great football player. (While he has avoided openly discussing his politics, his name is again linked to a controversial Republican: the New York Times reported that Brady has been texting with Florida governor Ron DeSantis.)
I’ve never liked Brady, but growing up with football dreams, I reluctantly respected his pursuit of excellence. When I was in high school, during Brady’s early championship runs, I too had tunnel vision. I asked my coach for a key to the weight room and showed up at 6:30 a.m. every morning to get in a lift before first period. In the off-season, I organized workouts with the few teammates who were willing to give up their afternoons, and on the days nobody joined, I pushed through sprints and footwork drills on my own. I refrained from alcohol and all the other intoxicants my friends consumed at parties. I shaped my identity around being an athlete, walking into class with a proud limp of soreness, wearing T-shirts bearing the names of the colleges I hoped would offer me a scholarship.
I kept the mentality even after I quit playing football during my second year of college, transferring my obsessive energy into the journalism career I was pursuing. Over the first decade of my career, I worked 60 to 70 hours most weeks, juggling day-job reporting with book projects and other side hustles, rarely sleeping more than five or six hours, regularly pulling all-nighters. During that time, I went on just two proper vacations that lasted a week or more. On weekends, I developed a routine that I called “workbrunch,” which entailed posting up at a restaurant for four hours of writing over mimosas and egg sandwiches. I allowed my work to take up every inch of space available, and created as much space as I could for it, because I felt like any inch it didn’t cover was a missed opportunity. Like Brady, I was willing to set aside anything that obstructed that pursuit of productivity. I often took days to respond to texts, rarely picked up the phone for non-work calls, and put off quality time with people I care about, deluding myself into thinking that my schedule would eventually clear up after reaching some imaginary horizon.
It was easy to project a greater purpose onto that grind. I was exposing injustices in my writing. I was earning money I could share with my mom. I was ascending to a professional standing that would allow me to help elevate other journalists of color. But those were collateral benefits from what was actually ego-driven ambition. I lived that way because I enjoyed the work, took pride in putting in long hours, and measured my worth through the quality of my published stories. By projecting a righteous cause onto my work habits, I could justify, or better yet ignore, the damage my decisions wrought on other aspects of my life — the relationships I wasn’t giving attention to, the body I stopped taking care of, the mental health obstacles I compartmentalized. I lost the ability to disconnect. In every moment of free thought, my mind reflexively swung back to the projects I’d voluntarily piled on my plate.