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