No jersey disappearance this year, just disappointment for Tom Brady in Super Bowl LII

MINNEAPOLIS — The New England Patriots equipment assistant checked the box and checked it again, flicking through each jersey, one by one.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) walks off the field after being defeating by the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII.

The man finished his count and closed the lid, satisfied. Tom Brady’s Super Bowl jersey was not going to be stolen. Not this year.

Not like last year. But, then again, everything felt different to last year.

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Back then Brady had stood at his locker postgame, a buzzsaw of energy. Yes, he stopped at intermittent moments to voice frustration at the loss of the top in which he’d won a fifth title, but in between he was bouncing from one hug to another, calling everyone “baby" and beaming from ear to ear.

This time he sat at his small stall at U.S. Bank Stadium after the Patriots' 41-33 defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles, rested his forearms on his knees, and stared at his feet. His jersey was placed in his equipment bag, not discarded but not carefully tended to either. His cleats were pulled off and were on top of the jersey. It was the sort of thing you’d do with an ugly T-shirt that you wear when you’re low on clean clothes. You don’t want it stolen, but it’s not exactly a cherished possession either.

Earlier in the week Brady had said his jersey would end Sunday night in a bin if he didn’t win the Super Bowl. He was wrong. Before long it was collected by the equipment guy, and stuck in that box with all the others, locked away and forgotten, just like his hopes of winning a third title in four years.

Brady ended the game on his backside, knocked over as his final Hail Mary pass fell incomplete and that bitter, unfamiliar taste of defeat washed over him. His teammate, offensive lineman Joe Thuney, reach out a hand and pulled him to his feet as madness, mayhem, fireworks and confetti erupted from everywhere.

Brady walked slowly as a sea of humanity spilled onto the field, tugged off his helmet, then broke into a trot and headed into the offseason.

“I’ll be back,” he would say later. “I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t be.”

As the Eagles were hoisting the Lombardi Trophy he was by his locker and deep in conversation with Jack Easterby, the Patriots’ “character coach” who has become a personal friend. Easterby has a never ending supply of positive snippets to offer and was whispering some of them in Brady’s ear, the pair just a couple of inches apart. Brady nodded, told Easterby he appreciated him, and sighed.

Brady didn’t look angry like he does sometimes on the sidelines, nor distraught as he was in 2012 when the New York Giants beat him in Indianapolis. He looked spent, exhausted.

He stood up once and then sat back down, then rose again. He was clad in a dark blue Patriots sports undershirt and his football pants and socks. He yanked on a hoodie and stopped briefly at the media podium outside. He didn’t say much. There wasn’t much to say.

“It sucks,” he said. “It’s tough to lose these games. You play to win and sometimes you lose. Disappointed.”

The only time he showed emotion was when he got to see his family, his wife Gisele Bundchen and his three children. The two youngest kids had been crying, unused to seeing Daddy lose when it mattered, but his presence and smile soon quieted the tears. It was a private moment but there were people and cameras around — there always are if you’re Tom Brady and you’re in a football stadium.

Brady is a celebrity, one of the most recognizable men in the country, and his actions are scrutinized over and over. It could be his choice of receiving target or even something as simple as a kiss he gave his son in his Facebook documentary series, which was ludicrously the subject of social media speculation about its appropriateness. Coincidence or not, this time he pulled his son close and gently kissed him on the cheek instead of the lips.

On this night it was Tom vs. Time too, with him unable to mount a late fightback with the few ticks remaining when he got the ball back at the end. It was an unsatisfactory conclusion for a man who doesn’t do consolation prizes. To him, coming second is the same as coming last.

He had his chances and had his moments — with three touchdowns and a Super Bowl record 505 yards. At the end, he had his jersey too, or knew where it was at least. But, this time, it was of little comfort.