If you had gone back in time, to a period where the Patriots were, well, awful, and if you had looked me straight in the eye and told me that the Patriots would be one of the most hated and most successful teams in the NFL from 2001 onwards, I would have looked at you as if you had four heads.
Then I would have exclaimed, ''Wait a second, you say they get good eventually?!''
How fast people forget. The Patriots are now in a position the 49ers and Cowboys were in during the eighties, there is a large group of clowns who hate them for no other reason than their recent success.
The Patriots have been a big part of my life since roughly 1984, I fell for them then, and followed them through thick and thin. It was, and is, a passionate long distance relationship. They have been a part of some awful nights, personally speaking, and a part of some of my best memories. They are also the feature aspect of one of the strangest nights in my life.
At the turn of the year, 2008, I found myself in Mexico, in a large, dark theatre with a huge screen for the game, settling in for the Superbowl. There were hundreds packed into the theatre and there was a fantastic atmosphere. Amazingly, I was the only person rooting for the Patriots in the entire building. To my left there were a group of Jets fans, completely understandable that they would root for the Giants, on a couple of levels. Behind me was a raucous group of Dallas Cowboy fans.
Seriously, I have absolutely hated the Dallas Cowboys ever since. Not just for the fact that they are a joke of a team. A spineless, bad joke who will never see any success in their current make up, but mainly because that night, those Dallas Cowboy fans showed me everything I needed to know about their ilk.
First things first, how can Cowboys fans root for the Giants? It just does not make sense. They hate each other! This group though, this group of brainless Seal like gimps, you would have had to have seen them to believe them. There were about twenty of them. Half of the guys were wearing beige slacks and had their cell phones clipped externally on their belt, you know, in case something important came up during the superbowl, obviously. Their fake blonde, fake breasted and learning-disabled wives formed the single most annoying group of women I have ever seen. Clearly their two Coors Lites had gone to their heads, as they 'whooped it up', screaming, shouting all game long. One of them kept drunkenly screamed 'Go Cowboys!' every few minutes until she finally went outside to vomit, I assume, never to re-appear.
That night, that game, had such a surreal 'feel' to it. As Tyree caught the ball against his head, as Manning threw that final touchdown pass, the night started to spin for this Patriots fan. I started looking for the exit as fast as I could, only to walk into two of the group of Cowboys fans. They started teasing me and I 'lost the head' as we say here in Ireland, screaming expletive laden abuse at them, to the point where a hotel staff member had to ask me to leave. As I slipped out into the inky black Mexican night, I heard one of the Cowboys fans mumble in an injured tone, 'Man, what's his problem, it's only a game!'
See that's the thing, it wasn't only a game. It was decades of watching an awful team turn into a great team, turn into a dynasty team, and watching as that team slowly became hated by so many. It was watching the incredible '07/'08 run come to a crashing halt against a mediocre team that hit the right note at the right time. It was having to listen to Dallas Cowboy fans rooting for a team they would hate 364 days of the year.
Maybe it had to happen thought. Maybe that loss, that night, followed by Brady getting injured last season, followed by a major house cleaning of defensive veterans, maybe all that had to happen so we could reach this point, and, basically, start again.
It kind of feels like the Patriots are starting over tonight against Buffalo.
Taking a step back, what does it actually involve? Supporting a team from the distance of Ireland to the United States. Well, first of all it involves spending fifteen years of your life supporting a team that seems like it is going nowhere slow. Try that and see how you like it. The Patriots were so, so, so bad for most of the eighties and nineties. Functionally speaking, in the days before the Internet it involved snippets on late night English sports shows, which graduated in the early nineties to flashy reports off the new fangled Internet, and the new glossy Sunday night coverage on Sky Sports TV. Now It involves daily visits to the Boston Globe for the latest news on the boys from the Razor, and wearing a throw-back 'Grogan' jersey to the cinema on a Friday night before a big game on the forthcoming Sunday.
It all started in 1985. I was on holidays with my parents and my Aunt from Connecticut, Essie, and she gave me a present of a stat book from the '84 NFL season. It wasn't much to look at, small, red, with a picture of a San Francisco player on the front, but it was stacked full of statistics, results and hundreds of pages of ways of clogging up my fertile teenager's imagination.
I devoured it. I would check every statistical category and hope that a Patriots player was in the top ten. Having been actually born in New England they were the obvious choice of teams to root for, and besides, I kind of liked their logo, Pat the Patriot, and they had cool players like Steve Grogan, Mosi Tatupu and Stanley Morgan.
The old Patriots logo, 'Pat the Patriot', doesn't exactly strike fear into the hearts of opponents, but looked pretty cool to a 13 year old..
Mosi Tatupu became something of a legend even after his career with the Patriots was over. Always a charismatic, interesting guy, he achieved global notoriety status when his name was invoked by some South Pacific tribes peoples on the Simpsons. I remember I was watching a video of the episode when I heard one of them shout 'Mosi Tatupu, Mosi Tatupu' and I rewound a few times wondering if I was hearing things.
Sure enough Tatupu was mentioned on the The Simpsons during Treehouse of Horror III. His name, said twice, was intended to be translated "The blue-haired woman will make a good sacrifice!"
They were a hard nosed, working class team and had a good '85, a time when American Football was covered pretty comprehensively by the new, chic, Chanel 4 of the UK. C4 had lots of new drama and some pretty controversial shows, you were pretty much guaranteed a couple of topless shots in some show or another late at night, which, at the time, caused pickets in Ireland with people protesting that C4 was allowed on Irish TV.
Sunday night C4 had highlights of the early games, extended highlights of one game and some decent commentary and analysis. It was exciting stuff, long before the Internet, WAP. Long before sitting at dinner on a Sunday night following the Patriots on wap with a phone hidden between my legs, watching every play in text format.
At mass in my early years I would close my eyes and visualise Tony Eason dropping back to throw a touchdown. I would construct whole drives in my head, then dash home to see if the Patriots could do it that night.
Along came the '86 season, and the wonderful Patriot's run to the Superbowl. They were underdogs every week but the Patriots won three road playoff games on their way to Super Bowl XX and a date with the Bears.
Everyone knows what happened next. It was, at the time, the worst Superbowl loss ever.
The team then floundered a good bit, splashing around uselessly for a few years, years where Chanel Four lost it's right to cover the game to then new station 'Sky' (Think Fox, slightly less inane) which in those days was essentially pay per view.
Working in Cape Cod for the summers of '93-'95 I got a first hand look at the rebirth of the Patriots, after the drafting of the amazing Drew Bledsoe. People are so quick to forget. Bledsoe was basically the catalyst that gave birth to these new Patriots that all of New England loves and calls their own. He was a superb passer and a class act to boot. The Superbowl run of '96 was a lot of fun
I'll never forget what Bledsoe did for the Patriots.
One of my favourite Patriots memories was the AFC Championship game in '01 where Brady, the new guy at the time, twisted his ankle and Bledsoe came off the bench to quite literally lead the Patriots to the Superbowl, throwing two touchdowns, one an absolute beauty. And that was all she wrote on the Bledsoe era. With the incredible drive to set up the winning field goal Brady announced his arrival.
I was watching the Super Bowl in Dublin at home with my brother and Father, and best friend Paul, the same people I watched the 1986 slaughter with. I'll never forget watching as Brady spiked the ball with just a few seconds left, it was like it was all in slow motion, the ball bounced back up, he twirled it on his finger for a second and flipped it to an umpire. How unbelievably calm and poised for, basically, a rookie.
As the winning field goal split the uprights my brother and I literally jumped off he sofa and hopped around the living room hugging. The unbelievable, upset win over the Rams in the 2001 Superbowl was the first Championship any team I had supported in my early teens, from 1987, to adult life had won. I simply had no clue how good that felt!
That signalled a bizarre period of five years leading up to today where the Patriots suddenly became the class of the NFL. Winners of three Superbowls and the team no one ever wants to cross paths with.
Brady just gets the little things, like turning up at several Red Sox games and wearing the cap to press conferences. Basically he knows how to appeal dorks like me who should know better. Call him the 'anti LeBron'
Brady completely epitomized this sudden transformation from also rans to NFL Champions. The best part was he did it the hard way and the right way. From a difficult College career where he had to share time with a lesser player because of shady insider team politicking, to standing on the sidelines his first NFL season, to being the first player at training every morning Brady became the hard working face of the Patriots. Coach Bill Belichick awards a prime parking spot to the player who is most dedicated to the offseason conditioning program. Brady has earned that coveted piece of real estate in all five years since the Patriots moved to Gillette Stadium. Call him the anti T.O.
Allot of Brady's appeal is he is not a incredible athlete like Michael Vick, he doesn't have Brett Favre's arm, but he has a little bit of all the good qualities that make a terrific Quarterback and he has something 80% of them don't have, the most unbelievable will to win. This guy just despises losing. His focus is shockingly concentrated.
Brady throwing a golf club after a bad drive. School report: Possibly too competitive, may struggle to make it in future life
I will never forget settling in to watch the 2004 AFC Championship game, having been reading the last couple of days that Brady had a debilitating flu, and watching the Patriots slide from 3 to 5 point underdogs going into the game against the powerful Steelers. The pundits said Pittsburgh were going to get revenge for 2001, the Patriots, with their QB sick and probably wishing he was in bed, would be swept aside.
As Brady stepped under centre I saw it immediately. The same look Ali had the night he beat Foreman. The same look Wade had against Dallas. The same look David Callaghan had against Serbia in the 2004 European Baseball Championships. He just was not losing that game. Flu be damned.
''Brady played his best game of the year in Pittsburgh despite requiring IV treatment the previous night when he had a temperature of 103 degrees.'' The Patriots torched the Steelers 41-17.
Back in '01 Brady was the darling of the NFL. Now, on the cusp of the new season, what is he? Adored still by Patriots nation, he has become hated by a large portion of 'the masses', somewhat in the same way Bono is hated in Ireland, for being too successful. Begrudgery, I believe it is called.
When I first wrote this piece a few years ago, I wrote;
Just remember though, before you label the Patriots boring and call them the new Yankees. This didn't come easy, all this success. There were plenty of sour years before the sweet. Go easy on us Patriots fans. We had dozens of years in the wilderness before we could enjoy this, this absolute steam train that's rolling through the NFL right now.
That rings very true right now, I am guessing if you polled 100 people what their least favourite NFL team was, 80% at least would say the Patriots.
Now, at this stage, that has simply become part and parcel of being a Patriots fans. People, like those imbecilic Cowboys fans that night in Mexico, love taking shots at them. That's just how it is. It means nothing to them that ten, fifteen years ago Patriots fans were wondering if they would ever come close to touching success, even for a day. We imagined a sneaky Superbowl success which we would have gladly taken. Then came the three championships, and everything changed.
Now, more so than ever, the Patriots stand at an unusual cross-roads. And for that reason most of all, amongst the dozens of others, tonight's game is going to be absolutely fascinating.