By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Most of us remember the mayhem and near hysteria that came during the week of the 2017 AFC Championship Game. Tom Brady abruptly left a practice, then missed a press conference, then showed up with his hand covered up. Everybody worried about the status of Brady’s throwing hand and its mystery injury.
But then Brady looked fine in the game, and Bill Belichick downplayed everything after the win by saying, “We’re not talking about open-heart surgery here.” And that was that. Or so we thought.
In an excerpt from the new book “The Dynasty,” written by Jeff Benedict, some new light has been cast on Brady’s injury. And the details are kind of incredible.
As a refresher: Brady injured his thumb in a botched handoff to Rex Burkhead during practice in the week leading up to the AFC title game. The injury involved Brady jamming his thumb, to the point where it bent back so far and so violently that the base of this thumb actually ripped through the skin on his palm. (Gross!) (Barf!) Disgusting!) (OK, moving on.)
The book excerpt explains that Dr. Matthew Leibman — the Patriots’ hand and wrist surgeon — fully expected Brady to undergo surgery upon hearing of the injury, as “99 percent” of the time with this injury, a fracture or dislocation takes place as well.
Brady avoided that somehow, but Leibman could still “see down to the bone and tendon” of Brady’s hand. (Gross, barf, disgusting, OK, moving on.) You can look at the picture of the injury here, but as a warning, it’s still nasty to see.
This injury took place on a Wednesday, and the doctors came to the conclusion that the best outlook for Brady playing on Sunday would be to consider him a true game-time decision. Everyone — from the coaches, to the doctors, to backup QB Brian Hoyer — was prepared for the possibility of the Patriots playing against the league’s best defense without Brady.
According to Benedict, “Brady figured his season was over.”
As we now know, it was not. Brady played that day, throwing for 290 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions while absorbing three sacks from a rather ferocious Jacksonville defense. He then went ahead and threw for a Super Bowl record 505 yards, with three touchdowns and no picks a couple of weeks later in a losing effort in Super Bowl LII. (Malcolm Butler didn’t play in that game; has anyone mentioned that before?)
That performance — plus Belichick’s heart surgery comment — led us all to believe that the initial hysteria that ensued was an overreaction. The book shows that it really wasn’t.
Some people went so far as to say Brady was being overly dramatic while wearing a glove during his media responsibilities during the week leading up to Super Bowl LII.
Suffice it to say, showing the world a gaping wound before a football game would certainly be considered an inadvisable strategy.
Anyway, back to January 2018: Brady’s hand got patched up with 25 stitches, and he was told to not throw at all or move his thumb at all if he wanted to have a chance to play. Brady being Brady, he of course ignored those orders and tested out his hand by firing some throws on Friday.
While he may have ignored doctor’s orders for that, it did give him confidence that he’d be able to play Sunday. But not before a bit of a dramatic scene that apparently took place just minutes before the game kicked off.
Here’s that particular excerpt, courtesy of the New York Post:
Brady closed the door behind him, drew the blinds, and took a seat on a stool. Then he rested his chin on the training table. Staring ahead with a diabolical gaze, he extended his arm across the table, opened his hand, and calmly said: “Will you trim the tails of the sutures? I don’t want them touching the ball.”
Bewildered, Leibman sat on a stool on the other side of the table and faced him. The game was about to start. Everyone else was already on the field.
“Tom, I don’t want to touch the sutures.”
Brady explained that he didn’t like the feel of the suture tails pushing against the bandage and pressing against the ball when he gripped it.
“Tom, my biggest concern is that the sutures are going to unravel and it’s going to split open.”
“I trust you,” Brady said.
“I really don’t want to touch them.”
“You need to do it.”
It was a negotiation that Leibman knew he was losing. He reached for a pair of suture scissors and peeled back the bandage over Brady’s wound.
“Tom, we really shouldn’t do this,” he said.
“No, you need to do it.”
There were two minutes to kickoff.
One by one, Leibman delicately snipped a millimeter off roughly twenty sutures on the exterior of the wound. Then he redressed Brady’s wound.
Brady stood and gripped his ball. It felt much better.
“Thanks, buddy,” he said.
“Good luck, Tom.”
Brady walked out, his cleats click-clacking as he headed to the field.
The Patriots received the opening kickoff, meaning Brady’s stitchwork would get put to the test immediately. He completed all six of his passes on the opening drive for 57 yards, including a couple of true beauties:
Couple of throws from the opening drive of that game: pic.twitter.com/L5pmkkHq3o
— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) August 30, 2020
The Patriots eventually won the game — with Brady hitting Danny Amendola for the game-winning touchdown with just under three minutes to go. Brady also ran two QB sneaks in that game, willingly accepting the physical punishment that comes with them, because Brady will do anything to win football games.
For most of us, this was just the latest case of Brady being Brady. But those who knew what was going on behind the scenes knew that this was a whole lot more.
“I still don’t understand how he played. It doesn’t make any sense to me,” Leibman said in the book. “He played with a surgical incision on his throwing thumb.”
For Brady, the concern went far deeper than just playing in that game.
“I thought this injury was going to be the end of my career,” Brady told Leibman.
As we surely know now, it wasn’t. Brady’s hand has recovered fully, and he and the Patriots won the Super Bowl a year later.
The story is rather fascinating, on several levels. From a sheer football player perspective, the image of Brady demanding a suture touchup while his teammates are already on the field is a gripping narrative. From the Patriots dynasty perspective, it makes the 2018 Super Bowl run all the more incredible. Not many teams could recover from the infamous Malcolm Butler decision, and not many quarterbacks would feel inspired to return to work after playing through that kind of injury, only to have the one of the team’s best defensive backs benched for the biggest game of the year.
But really, above all else, it’s a testament to Tom Brady’s unrivaled desire to play and win football games. It is a concrete example of how and why he has started and played every single game since 2001, except for the one season when his knee was literally torn apart.
Combining the regular season and postseason, he made 128 consecutive starts from 2001-08. From 2009-19, he made 196 starts, without missing a single game due to injury. (He did serve a sham four-game suspension to start the 2016 season, but that’s a story for another day.)
That Brady was able to play in nine Super Bowls and win six of them during that span speaks to his greatness. That he was able to almost never miss a snap speaks to his toughness, as aspect of Brady’s overall character that all too often gets overlooked or dismissed.
As more and more stories like these emerge in the years to come following that brilliant 20-year stretch, that false narrative is sure to be adjusted.