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Tom Brady
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in a photo from GQ. (GQ / Bruce Weber)

Two-point conversion

Tom Brady: Star quarterback, style icon

Yes, that is Tom Brady, staring out at you from the cover of the 50th anniversary issue of GQ, his mouth slightly open, his stubble spread just so around his dimpled chin. The portrait shows a hint of football player - the guy probably looks this intense in a huddle - but it doesn't conjure the helmeted hero who drove his team downfield to victory Sunday.

No, this version of Brady has everything to do with style: a pressed collar, a brooding gaze, an image aimed far past the classic sports faithful. This is the man who favors Zegna suits, who topped Esquire's list of best-dressed men this year. This week's GQ goes so far as to name him one of 50 historical "icons of cool" and to say that his bearing imparts a lesson for the ages: "Pay as much attention to your hair as to your suit."

It caps a remarkable trajectory over Brady's mere six years in the public eye. When he first emerged as the Patriots' accidental quarterback in 2001, the guy was an oversized puppy dog, all eagerness and wide-eyed wonder. Sports Illustrated put him on its cover fairly frequently but usually in helmet and grease paint. True, in one early cover, he was naked from the waist up, alongside the headline "The Natural." But he faced the camera head-on, clean-shaven and grinning, looking almost nerdily all-American.

Not so in the photos that have appeared this summer and fall, in a remarkable series of spreads in glossy men's magazines. This Brady is suave and sophisticated, calculatedly cool. In GQ, he posed for fashion photographer Richard Burbridge with grease paint on his face, but a pinstriped suit below. In the magazine Best Life, he stared stonily into the distance in a high-end coat. In the fashion glossy VMAN, he posed in a wet T-shirt and let someone pour water on his head.

He's offered enough images, in other words, to appeal to nearly everyone. And calculatingly or not, he's expanded his brand and his fan base into some unlikely quarters. There's money at stake, of course: Brady lately signed on as a spokesman for Stetson cologne and high-end Movado watches. But Brady also has succeeded in cultivating love. Many on the VMAN staff didn't know who he was before he posed for the spread, said executive editor Julie Anne Quay. Now, she said, her office is filled with Patriots fans.

That's the sort of cross-cultural feat that only a few sports stars can manage, says sociologist Michael Kimmel, author of "Manhood in America: A Cultural History." He compares Brady to soccer superstar David Beckham: "Somebody who can in some way stand in for athletes so that men will like him, but is handsome enough, rugged enough, and softened enough that women will like him. . . . You want a kind of heartthrob he-man."

That's Brady, and partly, that's the luck of genetics. He has the build, the chin, the hair, the natural ability to get the girl, even if the girl is a Brazilian supermodel. He's also comfortable in his skin, effortlessly handsome - and, apparently, as unflappable in front of photographers as he is on the gridiron. Magazine editors say he was good at taking pictures long before he was romantically linked to supermodel Gisele Bundchen. Those come-hither VMAN shots were taken in January, just as the Brady-Bundchen relationship began, Quay says.

"This is all Tom," she says.

Indeed, Quay and other editors say Brady is an eager participant in photo shoots, asserts a few opinions of his own, and arrives with a firm sense of self. "He knows his light, he knows his angle. He has a certain amount of trust with the photographer," says John Mather, the fashion director of Best Life who arranged September's spread, which features Brady in a new line of Tom Ford clothes.

To some degree, he has extended that trust to magazine writers, who accompany the photos with gushing interviews. With the local sports press, Brady tends to be circumspect, never treading far from his team-player script. When Globe Magazine writer Charlie Pierce proposed a book about Brady in 2005, the quarterback declined to take part. And when the Patriots' videotaping controversy broke, the quarterback offered typical platitudes: "You come out here, and you try to play the best that you can." (Patriots spokesman Stacey James declined, on Brady's behalf, a request to be interviewed for this story.)

In magazine interviews, Brady shares specifics, some light, some fairly deep. He told Best Life that he listens to U2 and Jay-Z. He told Details in May that he was nervous about his impending fatherhood. He told VMAN that he had soured on the dream of entering politics, and that he roots for the Yankees as well as the Red Sox.

Granted, magazines are posing different sorts of questions. But they're also far more likely to support the Brady brand, to dwell on the underdog nature that he still cultivates, three Super Bowl victories later. (Quay says one reason her magazine wanted to feature Brady was "that he wasn't the first draft pick." Brady was picked in the sixth round, and was the 199th player chosen in the 2000 draft.)

The sports press deals in tough love: its archetypal stories are of heroes knocked off pedestals, legacies questioned, fans demanding more. In fashion circles, everyone wants Tom Brady to look good.

Third Super Bowl the charm
If one act of photography converted Brady from eager athlete to style icon, it might have been the GQ spread in the spring of 2005. The Patriots had won their third Super Bowl, and GQ wanted to highlight Brady as "the all-American guy," recalls Jim Moore, the magazine's creative director. They chose Bruce Weber - "the all-American photographer," Moore says - to take the shots. And they decided that, to play off Brady's movie-star looks, they would dress him in various costumes. He'd be an admiral, a cowboy, a ranch hand cradling a baby goat. Implication: The guy could do anything.

The process took time, Moore says. A fitting one day took a couple of hours. Then came a daylong shoot, with six or seven locations and some 14 costume changes. Brady "was totally game for it," Moore says, and gracious throughout. He introduced himself to everyone on the set, and bade them goodbye by name. At one point, Moore recalls, Brady was in the middle of a field, due for a clothing change, and didn't flinch when he couldn't get back to a van for privacy. "He said, 'I'll just change here. Don't worry,' " Moore says.

That lack of diva-ness, widely reported, has earned Brady enduring fans in the fashion press. It also helps that Brady is truly interested in clothes. Mather, of Best Life, says Brady loved the idea of appearing on the cover in a tailored suit.

"It's something he and I talked about," Mather says. "He's done enough T-shirts and casual kinds of shootings."

The Best Life shoot took place at a Boston studio in June, Mather says, and Brady took a liking to the Tom Ford clothes that were specially fitted for him. At one point, he asked if he could buy a leather jacket to wear on an upcoming trip to Las Vegas. Best Life called Ford's company, which said he could go ahead and keep it.

Brady is hardly the first sports star to develop a sense of style as his star rose. GQ's "Icons of Cool" spread features a range of athletes, from Bjorn Borg to Michael Jordan, Arnold Palmer, and Olympic skiing champion Jean-Claude Killy. Still, it's rare to find football players so involved in the fashion world, says Michael Oriard, a former NFL player and author of "Brand NFL: Making and Selling America's Favorite Sport."

For one, most NFL players are built like large appliances; they don't have the physique to carry off the standard menswear. But football also peddles a particular brand of masculinity, which doesn't encourage a man to be seen as a sexual object. A few players, historically, have bucked the trend, Oriard says. In the 1970s, players Jim Brown and Fred Williamson posed for Playgirl. And the famously stylish Joe Namath donned pantyhose for the sake of an endorsement, posing suggestively in a 1974 TV ad for the hosiery brand Beautymist.

That commercial came with a message for old-school football fans: The last shot was of Namath being kissed by a woman, as if to confirm his heterosexuality. Brady doesn't seem to require such reassurances. To Oriard that suggests an expanded view of masculinity - and expanded opportunities for Brady to peddle himself.

If anything, Kimmel says, the fashion shots make Brady look unguarded, almost vulnerable, and reinforce a sensitive persona that appeals to female fans. That image, Kimmel says, might be helping Brady weather other public relations challenges - particularly the baby drama that has played out so prominently in gossip magazines.

When US Weekly reported that Brady wept at a Santa Monica, Calif., hospital, where he visited his new son and ex-girlfriend Bridget Moynahan, Kimmel says some women probably read the news and swooned. If a star doesn't have "this chiseled, gritty masculinity," Kimmel says, "that enables [him] to actually move beyond it."

Still, it can be tricky business, appearing in magazine glamour shots while reporting to work in a locker room. Moore said Brady knew, going into the 2005 GQ shoot, that the results would earn him a certain amount of razzing. Indeed, when the magazine came out, some Patriots players taped its pages to their backs during a public practice. "The one with a goat," offensive lineman Dan Koppen recalled last week. "We sort of have to regulate his status in the locker room."

But if Brady's pinup history draws wisecracks from his teammates, the humor tends to be good-natured and resigned. In football these days, nobody frowns on self promotion.

"What he wears probably wouldn't fit me," jokes Patriots linebacker Rosevelt Colvin. "My wife would probably laugh at me. My kids would probably laugh at me. But for him, it works well.

"He has the face for it, man. You got the style, you got the opportunity, I say go for it."

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com

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