Tom Brady's out of New England, but his kindness leaves lasting impression on this reporter

Stephen A., Damien Woody get heated over Belichick, Brady talk (2:58)

Tempers flare between Damien Woody and Stephen A. Smith when debating whether Bill Belichick could win a Super Bowl without Tom Brady. (2:58)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- After 20 seasons covering quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, a lot of things come to mind about the experience.

A moment outside the players' parking lot at Gillette Stadium, on Christmas Eve 2018, sums up what was appreciated as much as anything. It was quiet that Monday, in the wake of a 24-12 win over the Buffalo Bills the day before, and two visitors had joined me -- my then 9-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son. They were on school vacation and would be my filming assistants for a few hours.

The family van was parked, and as we walked to the entrance, a car with tinted windows was turning in that direction. It had the shiniest door handles. It ran so quietly you could hardly hear it coming. I had caught it out of the corner of my eye, told the kids to move out of the middle, before it stopped to our left. The tinted window rolled down to reveal the identity of the driver.

"Hey, guys. Are you ready for Christmas?" Tom Brady asked.

What unfolded from there was something I was quite familiar with in Brady's presence -- a wide-ranging interview. But this one was different. He was asking the questions. To my kids.

"What are some activities you like? What is your favorite subject? Excited for vacation?"

We don't truly know the athletes we cover; we can only draw an impression of them through our mostly limited interactions. Those usually take place in front of lockers or with the athletes behind lecterns. Brady was often gracious with his time, although as the demands on him grew as his stardom did, those moments occurred less often.

When they did, they mostly focused on family and kids, which is why the parking-lot encounter highlighted something I later shared with him: As much as his excellence on the football field was a pleasure to chronicle, it mattered that the person accomplishing those feats seemed to be someone with high integrity, a superstar on the field who also cared greatly about being a supportive husband and father when no one was watching.

Brady was always so polished when the cameras were rolling, but there was one notable time -- maybe the only time -- when the shield came down and it showed that side of him for everyone to see.

Jan. 31, 2017, was an emotional period in his life. His mother, Galynn, had been through extensive cancer treatment and hadn't attended a game all season. His father, Tom Sr., had attended only one game all season. But they were planning to be there in Houston for Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons.

That was on Brady's mind when his good pal Trent Dilfer lifted a 7-year-old on his shoulders in hopes that he could ask a question on opening night: "Who is your hero?"

Brady began his answer as if he were talking to his own kids.

"That's a great question," he said smiling, providing a confidence boost for a youngster who was surrounded by much older media members. "I think my dad is my hero, because he's someone I look up to every day, and ..."

Brady's voice began to crack. His eyes glistened. He looked away briefly, then nervously repositioned the microphone in front of him before composing himself.

"My dad," he said with an affirmative nod.

Brady didn't allow himself to be so vulnerable when the cameras were rolling, but another time that I vividly recall being different was May 28, 2009.

Spring practices. He was coming off a torn ACL that cost him all but 15 plays of the prior season. A post-surgery infection had complicated his recovery, and he seemed humbled by it all.

"When you sit on the sidelines for an entire year you realize how much you love it," he said as part of one of his longest interviews ever, which seemed to keep going and going and going ... in part because he might have missed the interaction with reporters. "Not that you need that to happen to be grateful to play, but you experience things in a much different way, and a way that I never experienced as an athlete."

Brady said he wouldn't complain about the grind of a season again, especially in November and December, when it's easy to become worn down. It was an altered perspective that he carried with him through the second half of his career.

His return in 2009 coincided with other major changes in his life -- marriage to Gisele Bundchen and the birth of his son Jack. He'd later welcome another son and daughter.

"It's a great part of my life and so is work. I'm excited for all those things coming together," he said. "I think I'm a happier person when I'm working."

He worked longer than most, with 41 career postseason games practically adding two-plus seasons to his career résumé. Playing in nine Super Bowls, and winning six, meant those covering him became accustomed to regularly working into late January and early February. And chronicling the biggest of big games.

There was also controversy. Deflategate. Brady's return from a four-game suspension in 2016, in Cleveland, was one of the rare times when warm-ups almost seemed bigger than the game. It was the type of moment that only Brady's star power could create. Around that time, filming his arrival to the stadium became a thing.

So different from how it all began, as an unheralded sixth-round pick living in cornerback Ty Law's old condo in nearby Franklin, Massachusetts, in the pre-dad years.

Now, fighting off gray hair and Father Time, and with his growing business empire, there's much to reflect upon. It seemed he spent more time reflecting in recent seasons, at one point relaying how he enjoyed an ESPN.com collection of stories from those close to him to acknowledge his 40th birthday. A 21st season, and perhaps more family encounters in the stadium parking lot, would have been nice.

Instead, those final chapters will unfold somewhere else.

Which only heightens the appreciation of what came before it.