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Tom Brady's Patriots Career Defies Perspective, But Let's Try Anyway

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- Where were you?

On the night when Tom Brady led the game-winning drive, delivering a stunning upset of the historically favored Rams and thus forever altering the course of the Patriots franchise and the entire scope of Boston sports, where were you?

Or, perhaps the better question is this: Who were you?

For its historic impact on the sport, this is a game that remains fresh in all of our memories now. Yet it sits a lifetime or two away. An entire generation has been raised in a post-Patriots era. Adults who will cast presidential votes in November were raised by their parents on tales of three titles, only to end up seeing three more for themselves in their formative years.

And in the wake of the news that Tom Brady will be taking his football journey elsewhere, THAT will always be his lasting legacy, in New England and beyond.

His Patriots tenure is ending, and that change will stir a wide range of emotions. Some will be mad at him for jumping ship. Others will be mad at Bill Belichick for forcing him out, or at Robert Kraft for not stepping in to save the day. The gamut will be run.

An emotional reaction is only natural, of course -- but it's worth attempting to try to capture the perspective on what has been the most remarkable career any quarterback has ever had.

The length itself is something to behold. Lasting 20 years in the NFL at all is something that, really, only a kicker or punter can accomplish. Anyone who makes a living by getting hit by the strongest, fastest, most powerful men on the earth can only last so long.

And lasting for 20 years with the same team? In today's game, that's unheard of. Peyton Manning had to move on. So did Brett Favre. And Joe Montana. Even Johnny Unitas had to move on as a 40-year-old.

Manning played 13 years for Indianapolis. Favre had 16 seasons in Green Bay. Montana had 14 in San Francisco.

Some Hall of Famers -- Dan Marino, John Elway, Troy Aikman from the modern era come to mind -- spent the entirety of their careers with one team. None lasted 20. Marino made it 17 years, Elway had 16, and Aikman lasted just 12 seasons.

Had Brady made it to Year 21, he would have tied former kicker Jason Hanson for most seasons by any player ever with one organization. Not reaching that mark, though, is hardly a failure.

And then there's the success. As Bill Belichick said on Tuesday, "He didn't just perform. He didn't just win. He won championships over and over again."

Really, if you can, try to go back to that moment: February 3, 2002. Your feelings heading into the game that night. Did the Patriots have any chance to win? Would the game at least be more competitive than Super Bowl XXXI? Should Bill Belichick roll with Drew Bledsoe?

Tom Brady
Tom Brady celebrates his first Super Bowl victory, and his most recent Super Bowl victory, 17 years apart (Photos by Jeff Haynes/Al Bello/AFP/Getty Images)

That was a lifetime ago. Who were you, in that moment?

It's a personal question, so I might as well share.

That night, I was -- for all intents and purposes -- a child. A sophomore in high school eagerly awaiting my 16th birthday and the freedom that came with it, I watched Super Bowl XXXVI in a friend's basement. It was, as much as anything, an excuse to have a party and eat some garbage. Never in a million years did any of us that night have even the slightest inkling that the first chapter of the greatest NFL dynasty was about to be written.

I look back to that night, and then I look to now.

I am -- for all intents and purposes -- an old man. I am married with two children. I have a mortgage. Car payment. I've had back surgery. My gut seems to expand freely, despite my gentle recommendations. A healthy lawn is quite literally the only thing I care about.

From a legitimate child, to a legitimate old man. And all along the way, Brady has been lining up under center with a Patriots helmet strapped to his head. Super Bowl after Super Bowl after Super Bowl ... after Super Bowl after Super Bowl after Super Bowl. Brady has been the one constant in New England, outlasting careers, relationships, and even lifetimes.

Year 21? That would have been unprecedented. But instead of lamenting that which did not happen, it's worth making the effort to take a deep breath and try to really comprehend the rarity of what actually did take place.

It was, in the true sense of the word, incredible.

It lasted longer than anyone could have ever reasonably hoped.

It brought about the most successful stretch of winning the NFL has ever seen.

And, to a franchise that entered the new millennium with zero championships, it delivered six Lombardi Trophies in less than two decades' time.

It was absolutely incredible.

You'll never see anything like it again.

Tom Brady
Tom Brady holds the Lombardi Trophy while wearing a shirt displaying all of his Super Bowl wins. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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