Sunday, February 04, 2018

The New England Patriots...A Love Story.

With the Patriots playing in the Superbowl again tonight, looking for their 6th ring, I find myself reminiscing about how much things have changed since I started cheering for them as a kid. Growing up in New England - especially so close to Boston - you cannot escape the pro sports scene. Sports is practically a religion back home. I can't remember a time when I wasn't rooting for the "Big 4"; Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins and of course the New England Patriots. For most of my youth, the Patriots were awful, ranging from bad team to the laughing stock of the NFL. Our QB was a tough-as-nails journeyman named Steve Grogan who is perhaps best remembered for the big horse collar neck roll he wore during games because of neck problems. We had no superstars. Our best player was an offensive lineman, John "Hog" Hannah (seen by many as the best o-lineman of all time). We were so devoid of talent that for many years my favorite player was a little known Samoan running back name Mosi Tatupu. 

The Patriots of my youth: Grogan, Hog Hannah and Mosi Tatupu

The Patriots were so bad when I was growing up that many kids my age became fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys or San Francisco 49ers. But not me. My local teams were my local teams and I supported them through thick and thin. Of course, with the Patriots it was mostly thin...

In the 1983 draft, which became famous as the "QB Draft" with such names as Dan Marino, John Elway and Jim Kelly, the Patriots selected Tony Eason from Illinois. He turned out to be a bust but he did provide us Pats fans with one magical season in 1985 when the Patriots finished 11-5, made the playoffs as a wildcard and won three games on the road en route to their first Superbowl appearance. Unfortunately they had to play the '85 Bears who many consider the best team of all time. The 1985 season was the one that really cemented my love of our local football team. I was a freshman in high school and Patriots fever was at an all time high. The Miami Dolphins were our arch enemies at the time and we could never seem to beat them, especially in Miami. And so playing them in the AFC Championship game - in Miami - seemed an impossible task. But we believed. We adopted the motto "Squish the Fish!" and to our great delight, they did just that, winning an improbable AFC Championship in Miami's Orange Bowl. We were on such a high that we honestly thought we could upset the Bears and the battle cry turned from "Squish the Fish!" to "Berry the Bears!" (the play on words being that our head coach was Raymond Berry). I'll never forget starting the Superbowl with a fumble by the great Walter Payton which we turned into a field goal and a quick 3-0 lead. My dad's friend yelled "YEAH...WE'RE GONNA DO IT!"....then it was all downhill from there as the Bears Superbowl Shuffled all over the Pats 46-10, the lone Pats touchdown coming from Steve Grogan in garbage time. (The Bears beat the Pats on field but also off the field - their "Superbowl Shuffle" video became legend while this embarrassment was the best the Pats could muster).

The Patriots made the playoffs again the following year and quickly got booted by John Elway's Broncos. It got worse each year after that and by 1990 the Patriots hit rock bottom with a 1-15 season, the worst in franchise history. That was definitely the low point for me as a Patriots fan. The only bright spot was that the Pats had the #1 pick in the draft and "Rocket" Ismail was coming out. And then, in true Patriots fashion, it all fell apart again as Ismail ended up signing with the Canadian Football League and the Pats traded the #1 pick to the Cowboys for basically nothing. Typical Patriots. In 1991 they hired popular college coach Dick McPherson who wasn't much a coach but he brought enthusiasm, they rebounded to a 6-10 record and for a second we actually started thinking that the Pats were on their way back to respectability but then they completely self destructed again and finished the 92 season 2-14. Once again we were the worst team in the NFL and had the #1 pick in the draft. Even worse, the owner at the time, James Orthwein, was planning on moving the team to St. Louis and renaming them the "St. Louis Stallions". Sigh. Two major things happened that year (three, if you include the logo and uniform change); the Patriots hired Bill Parcells and they drafted gunslinger Drew Beldsoe with the first overall pick. These two events pumped excitement back into us fans but we watched the '93 season under a dark cloud as we all thought the Patriots were moving to St. Louis. I went to the last game of that season, an overtime win against the hated Dolphins, and I'll never forget it: after the game nobody left, we all stayed and cheered and cheered and cheered because we didn't know if it was the last Patriots game we would ever see. Parcells was so impressed that he walked around the stadium waving and shaking hands with the fans to thank us for being so loyal through all the bullshit. It was a great moment. Little did we know that fate was about to intervene on our behalf...

Hiring Bill Parcells and drafting Drew Bledsoe brought plenty of excitement

As I mentioned, Orthwein was planning on moving the team to St. Louis. There was one problem - and one person - who stood in his way. That person was Robert Kraft. Kraft was a lifelong Patriots fan and season ticket holder since 1971 (the year I was born. Coincidence? I think not) who had tried to buy the team a couple times in the past before getting outbid each time. Since he couldn't buy the team, he did the next best thing and bought the stadium. When Orthwein tried to move the team, Kraft refused to let him out of the lease which was locked in for almost 10 more years (Orthwein even offered him a whopping $75 million to let the team out of the lease yet Kraft refused, such was his devotion to keeping the Pats in New England). After trying to fight it, Orthwein finally threw his hands up, gave up and sold the team to Kraft for $172 million. At the time it was the most ever paid for an NFL team and we couldn't believe anyone would pay that much for the lowly Patriots...but we sure were glad he did! 

Things got better immediately. The Pats made the playoffs in 1994 (ironically losing to the Cleveland Browns who were coached by Bill Belichick) and then made another improbable Superbowl run in 1996. Of course the Superbowl was ruined for us fans by two things - the Brett Favre led Green Bay Packers and the fact that in the weeks leading up to the Superbowl word leaked that Parcells was leaving after the season to take over as coach of the New York Jets. It seemed like every time us Pats fans would start to get excited about the team doing well, something horrible would happen. It was like we were snakebitten, cursed by the NFL gods. Parcells left, they hired Pete Carroll who nobody was excited about, and they got progressively worse over the next 3 years. It was during this time that I re-enlisted active duty Army and left for Germany (1998). I flew down to Columbia, SC to do all my in-processing before going overseas and during a flight layover in Charlotte, NC I just happened to run into Drew Bledsoe in the airport. I actually got to chat with him for a minute or two, he was wicked friendly and told me I'd love Germany because of all the great beer (he was right!). It was quite a thrill for a lifelong Patriots fan like only regret was that I wasn't wearing my Drew Bledsoe jersey at the time.

In 2000, the Patriots hired Bill Belichick as coach, drafted Tom Brady in the 6th round of the draft and things were about to get a whole lot better for us Pats fans. We went 5-11 in 2000 and nobody expected us to do any better in 2001. How shocked we all were when Bledsoe got hurt and some guy named Tom Brady came in and led them to a divisional title and a first round bye! I was stationed here in Italy at the time and had to go to a field exercise in Germany for a couple weeks so I missed the divisional playoff game against the Raiders, famously remembered for the 'tuck rule' that saved the Patriots season. I remember waking up the next morning and calling down to the operations desk back in Italy on my cellphone just to get the score and how stunned I was that they'd actually won. I was able to watch the AFC Championship game against the hated Pittsburgh Steelers the following week in an MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) tent and even though the Steelers were heavy favorites I knew we were going to win because their QB was Kordell Stewart. The Superbowl that year was a great memory for me. I HATED the fact that I wasn't back home watching it with my buddies but I made the best of it. I was working in the operations center of the base at the time and among other things, was in charge of setting up the videoteleconferences in the Commanding General's 'war room'. The game came on at midnight when the only person working was the operations NCO on duty so I went in and wired the VTC suite to AFN (Armed Forces Network), sat in the general's chair with a six pack of Sam Adams and watched my Patriots pull one of the biggest upsets in Superbowl history over the St. Louis Rams. I could not fathom that the Patriots had actually won a Superbowl. Little did I know it would not be their last.

2001: Beginning of the greatest dynasty in NFL history

Everyone knows the story from here. The Pats won three Superbowls in four years and became a juggernaut. As a fan it sucked being in Italy because I had to get up at midnight to watch the games but I dutifully did so. We were in the US for the last two Superbowl victories over the Seahawks and the Falcons last year. But here we are back in Italy for this year's game. Being back here getting ready to wake up again tonight at midnight to watch the Patriots in the Superbowl has me nostalgic and remembering how much things have changed for us Pats fans. Younger fans will never know just how tremendously awful the Patriots used to be. For us older fans, it has made us appreciate this current dynastic run that much more. What the Patriots have done in the last 17 years is unprecedented and may never be seen again. Bill Belichick is the greatest coach in the history of the NFL and Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback in the history of the NFL. Eventually the Pats will be bad again. Belichick and Brady will retire and the dynasty will end and the rest of the world will rejoice. I'm just glad I was able to witness it and will enjoy it until comes to an end.

The Greatest of All Time

Win or lose tonight, I will always be a Patriots fan!

No comments: