Ryan: In Tom Brady, Boston sports fans found an underdog, a savior and a legend that won’t be forgotten

(Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The numbers speak for themselves.

Three MVPs.
Four Super Bowl MVPs.
Five All-Pro seasons.
Six Super Bowl titles.
Nine Super Bowl appearances.
14 Pro Bowls.
17 AFC East titles.
541 touchdowns.
74,571 passing yards. 

A lofty resume, to say the least, for the greatest quarterback of all time.

And yet, on the day in which Tom Brady opted to chart a course elsewhere after 20 seasons in New England, the numbers don't seem to hold much weight to me — a kid from Southie that has only seen two regular starting quarterbacks under center for the Patriots in his lifetime, the latter holding court since 2001.

No, for me, the lofty numbers, factoids and career totals pale in comparison to the memories forged over the last two decades.

Growing up — back when Boston was a sports town rooted more in "Why Us?" than "Who Not Us?" — it was the memories that my parents and grandparents passed down to me when harkening back to the sports heroes of old. 

Three Harts and eight consecutive Norris Trophies didn't register all that much to 5-year-old Conor at the time. But the story of the Bobby Orr taking flight on May 10, 1970? Now, that manages to stick with an impressionable young sports fan.

Such was the case when hearing the tales of Bird and Magic battling through the '80s. Williams and DiMaggio setting the record books in the summer of '41. Yaz and the Impossible Dream of '67. The Russell-era Celtics.

All tales that have passed into legend. All anecdotes from a bygone era in this town that many in my generation thought we'd never grasp beyond what fleeting stories were told to us huddled together in the parlor, around the TV set or on the drive to little league.

That is, until a 24-year-old quarterback — who, just 658 days prior, was taken 199th overall in the 2000 NFL Draft — closed the curtain on "The Greatest Show on Turf" and helped lead New England to its first Super Bowl title.

Like many in the Commonwealth and across New England on that chilly February night, I remember the sequence like it was yesterday — huddled with the rest of my family around my grandmother's TV.

A dump-off pass to J.R. Redmond.
Another completion to Redmond.
And another one.
A 23-yard completion to Troy Brown underneath the Rams’ zone defense.
A 6-yard feed to Jermaine Wiggins to cap off the drive — and put the game in Adam Vinatieri's hands — err, feet.

As I celebrated Boston's first title since Bird and the Celtics dispatched the Rockets in '86, the exuberance and revelry gave way to a feeling of the unknown. I mean, this wasn't supposed to happen to us, right? The Patriots — Super Bowl champions?

For 8-year-old Conor and many others my age, Brady's triumph in Super Bowl XXXVI was also our first taste of a championship with our hometown club, our first memories of sports glory that were truly our own — and not passed down from those that came before us. It as something that we had never seen before, and something that we weren't sure we'd ever seen again in our lifetime.

And yet, year after year, Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots delivered. What followed was indeed something we might never see again in our lifetime — but not in the same vein as we all thought back on Feb. 3, 2002.

Less than two years after Brady hoisted the Lombardi Trophy at the Superdome, the Patriots QB clinched his second title — and second Super Bowl MVP — by besting the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII. A year later, the Patriots clipped the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX win to cement the NFL's first dynasty since the Cowboys of the early '90s.

By that point, Boston had shifted from a town of lovable losers into the sporting Mecca it is today. Along with the Patriots' string of success, the Red Sox and their lovable group of "Idiots" managed to erase an 86-year curse and finally reach baseball immortality.

Many of us thought that it couldn't get much better than this. Sure enough, things turned bleak for a time.

Most of us collectively held our breath and feared the worst in 2008, when a 31-year-old Brady was robbed of an entire season when Bernard Pollard tore his ACL in New England's season opener. Just a year removed from a 16-0 regular season and 50 touchdowns from Brady himself, many worried if this season-altering injury would close the door on another cherished era of Boston sports history.

Those concerns felt validated in 2009, when a recovering Brady and the Patriots "slumped" to a 10-6 record before getting trounced by the Ravens in the Wild Card round. By that point, many of the foundations of the Patriots dynasty  — Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest, Ty Law and Richard Seymour — were either long gone or playing elsewhere. The following year, the Patriots opted to deal Randy Moss in October, cutting loose a star wideout that had hauled in 50 touchdowns over 52 games in New England.

Sooner or later, all dynasties erode and weather away. Boston fans are all too familiar with such a reality. Orr was only 27 years old when he played his last game for Boston, with knee issues forcing his eventual retirement at 30. Bird was only 30 when he won his third NBA title with the Celtics, but back issues limited him to 262 games over the next five seasons before he too opted to step away from the game he loved.

And yet, Brady — some way, somehow — continued to deliver.

As Brady continued to defy Father Time, so too did the Patriots defy conventional thinking when it came to how long their time at the top would continue.

We all know what followed:

Three more Super Bowl titles.
The arrival of Gronk.
Picking apart the "Legion of Boom."
Butler's pick.
The final clashes with Manning and the Broncos.
Deflategate (sigh).
505 yards against Philly in Super Bowl LII.
An MVP at 40 years old.
The final pass to No. 87 in Super Bowl LIII.
And many others.

And now, after 20 years, Brady's time in New England has come to an end. Bostonians already stuck into their houses (on St. Patrick's Day, of all days) have already unleashed their full gamut of emotions online in wake of Brady's announcement. Pain, despair, anger — you name it.

For me, the prevailing sentiment this afternoon is one of appreciation.

Appreciation for a dynasty that will we likely never see again in the NFL. Appreciation for the fact that, whatever bad news or trials we all faced, we could all turn to our TVs every Sunday afternoon for the past two decades, surround ourselves with our friends and family and watch Brady and the Patriots take to the field.

Appreciation for the fact that, much like those that have come before us, we each possess a tome of memories to pass on to the next generation — a scrapbook in our heads chronicling the era in which we saw the greatest quarterback of all time carve his legacy in New England.

And as those memories turn to legend — much as the tales of Orr's flight, Russell's leadership and more did before them — they, like Brady himself, become immortal.