END OF AN ERA: TOM BRADY LEAVES THE PATRIOTS
The first professional football game I ever attended was on September 19, 1971. It was the first game of the first season for the New England Patriots, which had just changed its name from the Boston Patriots when the only land they could find to build a stadium on was located in Foxboro, thirty miles south of Massachusetts’ capital city. The Patriots had been a perennially underperforming team and never had a home field of their own, playing at Fenway Park and Boston University, among other venues. But my father was a fan and when they built what was originally named Schaefer Stadium, he bought season tickets and for the next eight or nine years he took me to as many games as possible, in spite of the fact that doing so required me to skip Sunday School.
Oh but it was well worth it for an eight-year-old who already was a four-team sports fan, collecting cards of the Bruins, Celtics, Red Sox, and Patriots, and idolizing my favorite players (Phil Esposito, Dave Cowens, Carl Yastrzemski, and Jim Nance, respectively). I think I had been to a Red Sox game and a Bruins game that young, but this was the first time I was going regularly to a sporting event, and from that September day forward, the Patriots – no matter how bad they might be any given year – became my favorite team.
That first game in Schaefer Stadium, they gave out ceremonial plastic coins to fans and I still have mine and my father’s. The Patriots faced the Oakland Raiders and, with first-pick Jim Plunkett (the previous year’s Heisman Trophy winner) at quarterback, beat them 20-6. Plunkett soon became my new favorite Patriots player (on defense it was lineman Julius Adams, also a rookie that year). Win or lose (mostly lose), I sat in all kinds of terrible weather watching the team I loved. We never had many good coaches but we did have lots of good players, and over the years I had numerous favorites, such as Steve Grogan, Sam Cunningham, John Hannah, Mack Herron, Russ Francis, Steve Nelson, and Daryl Stingley.
We had good teams in 1976 (which lost a playoff game against the Raiders on a bullshit roughing-the-passer call on Ray Hamilton against Ken Stabler) and 1978 (the only home playoff game I attended, and we got killed by the Houston Oilers), but sometime after those happy seasons – one to three years after, my faulty memory supposes – they returned to mediocrity and my father canceled his tickets. Just as well, I left for college as the 1981-82 season got underway (they won only two games that season), but they remained my favorite team. We somehow made it to Super Bowl XX in 1986, getting embarrassed by the Chicago Bears, and then again reverted to loserdom until 1993, when the arrivals of Bill Parcells and Drew Bledsoe reignited hope. That promise reached its zenith with another Super Bowl berth in 1997, but again we were cut down by a more talented team, the Green Bay Packers led by a young Brett Favre.
Personally, I never took to Bledsoe. He had a cannon for an arm, but he threw a lot of picks. He wasn’t good under pressure and he had a habit of telegraphing his passes. We won with him but we were never going to win it all with him. Not to brag but there was another person who felt the same away about him: Bill Belichick, who took over as head coach in 2000, the same year the Patriots used the second of their three sixth-round picks on Tom Brady. The first chance he got – when Bledsoe was injured in an early-season contest against the New York Jets in 2001 – Belichick made Brady the starter, and everything changed.
Though it took a while for the Patriots that year to gain the cohesion and momentum that would lead to their first Super Bowl victory, there was an excitement about Brady, the young kid who didn’t make many mistakes, who always rebounded from a bad play or game, and who exhibited true leadership. In the previous several years, I didn’t have a favorite Patriots player. I’ve sort of always been drawn to tight ends so I definitely like Ben Coates a lot, but until Brady I hadn’t had an emotional investment in any individual Patriot player.
When we won that first Super Bowl in 2002 against the St. Louis Rams (I watched the game with my father, for old times’ sake), it simply wasn’t enough to say that Tom Brady was my favorite player. He was everything to me. He was an idol who didn’t rust. He kept getting better and the Super Bowl victories came one upon the other. I even loved that there were haters; after all, no one gave a shit about the Patriots throughout the Seventies, when I was an avid young fan. For me, it was payback time and the more people around the country threw shade and name-dropped one “-gate” controversy after another, the more I smugly relished my favorite team and adored our Greatest Of All Time quarterback, Tom Brady.
Today, March 17, 2020, Tom Brady announced he was not returning to the Patriots. Where he goes, no one yet knows. To me, it’s like a son leaving home. You wish he’d stay but you know you can’t keep him home forever. For as long as he plays, I’ll be cheering for him and wishing him the best. I’ll still be cheering for the Patriots, too, even if they suck again. It’s been a long time since my favorite team sucked but I loved them when they were bad and I’ll love them if they’re bad again. In Bill I Trust, but I’ll continue to wear my Brady jersey with pride.
Thank you, Tom.