Tom Brady Is the Batman of Football

Older athletes can still dominate like the Dark Knight.

Posted Feb 07, 2021

Tom Brady just quarterbacked the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a franchise second and his seventh Super Bowl Championship. Tom Brady is 43. This is not old by any stretch but it is on the older side for a professional football player. While watching him play, I was struck by comparison to Batman. An older Batman who is still good at, well, kicking ass and taking names.

My first exposure to an Oldman Batman was with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Many folks have read this as the graphic novel collection, but it was originally published in 1986 as a 4-part series as The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Triumphant, Hunt the Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Falls. A lot of Dark Knight, in short. 

The basic story is that Bruce Wayne retired as Batman at age 45 after Jason Todd’s Robin was murdered by the Joker. Bruce has a change of heart a decade later when he finally has enough with the cesspool of crime and corruption Gotham has become since he stepped away. Bruce returns as Batman to great effect but the work is much harder on him than it used to be.

In one panel we see Batman climbing a rope while onlookers wonder if it’s him “If it IS him...he’s got to be pretty old.” Bruce’s thoughts while ascending are shown as “old enough to need my legs to climb a rope…” Later, while scaling a building in Gotham, Batman says, “Pain that’s three days old crawls across my back. I kick the dust from my joints and climb. It used to be easier.” Frank Miller’s version of Oldman Batman is one of ability and agency despite aging. 

This raises the question of whether aging really has to mean decreased ability. If you watched SuperBowl LV, you’d have to really doubt the common assumption that it does. In 2015 Ross Pollock and collaborators at King’s College London and the University of Birmingham in the UK reported something incredibly interesting. Their paper published in the Journal of Physiology points out that we don’t have really good biological markers of aging and that many of our measurements are confounded by the different health, activity, and nutritional factors that are present across generations.

This makes comparing large groups from different epochs (as is often done in cross-sectional studies) problematic. In a way similar to how comparing sports performance of, for example, quarterbacks from different eras, difficult and problematic. This is particularly the case for differences in levels of physical activity which has such a powerful and pervasive effect on health and ability.

Right now while you read this you are aging. Biological aging is a steady, continual process that begins pretty much as soon as life has begun. When we think of aging we think of getting older. And when we think of getting older we often think of things we can’t do as well as we used to do when we were “younger.” For sure we do have some decline in function that occurs after a certain age. 

But losing function and performance decrements with aging don’t have to be the default. It’s possible for destiny to include a dynasty. Tom Brady’s Hall of Fame career is a testament to human ability and achievement across the lifespan.

Taken together with other lifestyle modulators like diet and mental activity, physical activity seems critical to healthy aging in the body and brain. A physically and mentally active lifestyle, which certainly comes with high-performance professional sports, along with a good diet maintain cognitive performance well into older ages. 

Muhammad Ali talked about the psychology of belief and confidence in ability and performance when he said, “Champions aren't made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them—a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have the skill, and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.” Certainly both skill and will have been on display throughout Tom Brady’s incredible career.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not a huge fan of the teams that Tom Brady has played for. Hate is a strong word, and despise makes me sound petty, but I can say I’m not fond of his teams. For good or bad (mostly bad) I’ve been a Chargers fan forever, and he’s certainly tormented my team many, many, many times. Yet, you have to respect his longevity, determination, drive, and high level performance across an incredible career.

Without a doubt, Tom Brady on the gridiron reflects the skills, abilities, and will to succeed we see in the fictional Guardian of Gotham, the Dark Knight Detective Batman. Tom Brady is an example of where truth truly is stranger than fiction and we have to marvel, sometimes begrudgingly, at the capacities on display.

© E. Paul Zehr (2021)