The first time I met Tom Brady was almost three years ago. It was at the coffee shop of a hotel just up Route 1 from Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. He walked through the dining room looking not quite like just another Boston guy in a baseball hat, but close. The waitress asked if he wanted the usual “ahtichoke hahts” on his salad. The Patriots had just taken the second of three Super Bowls they’d win in four seasons. Brady, then 26, had ascended from sixth-round pick to one of the greatest playoff quarterbacks of all time. He and his Hollywood-actress girlfriend had just returned from Europe. He talked about the trip like a breathless college sophomore clutching a copy of Let’s Go. He pulled out a laptop filled with pictures: Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the Mona Lisa. A whole series of shots were of a Monet painting he’d seen at the Musèe d’Orsay in Paris. The painting showed the Houses of Parliament shrouded in fog with a burst of sun just breaking through the clouds.

As Brady pulled out of the parking lot that day, I had a sudden fantasy that went like this: He would win two, maybe three more Super Bowl rings. After the last, he would make the obligatory trip to Disney World, but something would go terribly wrong during the celebratory parade. Amid the charred mouse ears and the contorted princess tiaras, Brady’s body would never be found. Years later, Londoners would whisper about how every day, down at the bridge overlooking Parliament, a tall, bearded man would appear to watch the sun rise.

It’s fair to say that Brady decided against such an escape.

He didn’t exactly go into hiding, either. As he puts it when we meet again—this time at a restaurant in downtown Boston where the only accent is Yankee Brahmin: “Maybe some people can wake up and play PlayStation all day, but that’s never been me.” After the Patriots lost this year’s AFC Championship game, Brady put his apartment in the Time Warner Center in Manhattan on the market for $16 million. He went to a Dolce & Gabbana party in Milan with his new girlfriend, Gisele Bündchen. He toured Africa with Bono’s consciousness-raising campaign DATA. Somewhere in there, he bought a share of a racehorse while playing guts with Jay-Z and LeBron James.

No longer just a football player, or a pitchman, or a squire to beautiful women, Brady has become something else altogether: a full-fledged citizen of that borderless, transnational state known as celebrity.

Consider that trip to Africa—in the age of Brangelina, a mandatory pilgrimage for those in the perma-A-list ranks of celebrity. For eight days, in Ghana and Uganda, Brady squeezed his six-foot-four, 225-pound frame into rickety vans, visiting aids clinics and refugee camps. “You really have to be there to smell what it’s like to walk in a slum with 150,000 people living in basically the size of our stadium’s parking lot,” he says. “The sewage. The garbage. The burning shit.” The kid who, three years ago, was going on about how “neat” it was to see the Venus de Milo at the Louvre can now discourse about antiretrovirals.