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Draw Lenten discipline from the unprecedented story of the great Tom Brady — Elise Italiano Ureneck

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady celebrates with the Vince Lombardi Trophy after Tampa beat the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., Feb. 7, 2021. (CNS photo/Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports via Reuters)

Tom Brady has retired. Even as I write these words, I can still hardly believe it. The “greatest of all time” NFL quarterback’s career began when I was 16. I’m now nearly 38.

Since he was drafted, I graduated from high school, college and graduate school. I’ve had two different careers, gotten married and given birth to two sons. From what I can tell, I have more gray hair than he does, and I’m without any doubt in worse physical shape than he has ever been.

I’ve been reading a good deal about his career these past few weeks, marveling at his longevity as well as the many records he set over 22 years in the league. As has been noted by many, his skills not only didn’t diminish over two decades, but improved as time went on.

For all of the seemingly miraculous moments Brady gave sports fans — even those like me who were conditioned to root against him by virtue of loyalty to home teams — there was no mystery as to how he pulled off what seemed like the impossible: Brady was single-minded in pursuit of his goals.

Elise Italiano Ureneck writes the “Finding God in All Things” column for Catholic News Service. (CNS photo/courtesy Elise Italiano)

From what I can tell he had two of them: winning and being the best quarterback while marching his team down the field to victory.

There was also no mystery as to how he succeeded — in fact, all of those come-back-from-several-scores-down-in-the-fourth-quarter moments he attributes to self-discipline. Brady has been the first to admit that if he didn’t work hard at his craft, he’d naturally be an average player.

In 2021, sports columnist Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post broke this down for readers: While Brady’s restrictive diet and demanding physical training program are well known and widely marketed, self-discipline really comes down to the choice to delay instant gratification for a later reward, and to continue to do it over an extended period of time.

“The more good behaviors you have, the better things turn out,” Brady has remarked. “It’s just, do people have the discipline to repeat those behaviors? That’s the tricky part.”

Brady’s throwing coach Tom House shared that “what separates … elite athletes, the Hall of Famers, is that they try to get better every day not by 20% but just 1 or 2%.”

Brady dedicated himself to small, incremental improvements, not growth by leaps and bounds. The broken records and Super Bowl rings might seem to the average sports fan to be feats of great strength, but they were, in the end, goals that he inched toward.

To my mind — and I can’t believe I’m writing this as a Philadelphia Eagles fan — this is Brady’s lasting gift to everyone out there who feels average but who has big dreams.

It’s also a lesson for people trying to kick bad habits, addictions or negative behaviors. Virtue is cultivated day in and day out, through small choices made over and over again. Practice doesn’t always make perfect, but it does make things more permanent.

And it’s certainly helpful for us Catholics to take this aspect of the “TB12 Method” into Lent, a season marked by the three disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

These disciplines are not corporal punishments, though they should hurt a bit. That pain, delayed gratification or absence of something good all help us to remember through our body what we are pursuing with all our mind, heart and strength — heaven.

What we fast from should remind us of the bread for which we truly hunger. The time we give to prayer instead of activity, recreation or work should help us to better enter into that which is eternal. And by giving not from our surplus but from our poverty, we make room not to consume more goods but to receive the One who wants to occupy our hearts and homes.

What we choose to do for our Lenten disciplines should help us make incremental progress toward holiness. In other words, they should be things that we can do for 40 days, over and over.

But they should be just the first step in building habits that we want to continue well beyond Easter. That’s the method for the ultimate victory, the race well run.

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Elise Italiano Ureneck is a communications consultant and a columnist for Catholic News Service.