Taking the Pulse of Patriots Nation
BOSTON — Rob Gronkowski scored a touchdown in the second quarter of Super Bowl XLIX, and within the colony of sports bars near TD Garden, one fan’s bellow was heard above the raucous celebration.
“F--- EVERYONE ELSE!”
To tell the truth, we’re not sure who said it inside Tavern In The Square. Was it the tall bearded guy wearing a Brady jersey and khakis? The one in the sleeveless message T-shirt that referenced balls (though not the football kind)? Really, it could have been any of the countless fans peeved over Deflategate. So said the tall bearded guy in the Brady jersey and khakis. His name is Cameron King, and he’s a 25-year-old ad exec from Somerville, Mass.
“The fact that everyone hates on the Patriots and says it will ruin Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s legacies, that has infuriated all of Boston,” King said. “And it’s fired us up even more than all of the last 15 years combined. Everyone’s talking about it, and they’re [ticked] off. Of all the things Tom Brady has done, people choose to home in on this? W. T. F.”
Some version of “WTF” is what Brady, Belichick and Robert Kraft have been saying to the NFL for the last two weeks, just in less colorful terms. Like it or not, Deflategate was a story before the Super Bowl, and a cloud of suspicion will hover over New England until Ted Wells concludes his investigation into whether the Patriots willfully deflated their footballs to illegal limits before the AFC Championship Game.
What’s developed is a showdown between the NFL and 1) its newest champions, 2) one of its most influential owners who wants an apology, and 3) a corner of the country that’s so passionate about its sports teams that one fan watched the second half of the Super Bowl at a bar across the street from Massachusetts General Hospital while his wife was in the early stages of labor.
Just show us The Lombardi, right?
With a win over the Seahawks in XLIX, the Patriots won their fourth title in 13 years and prevented Seattle from becoming the first repeat champion since New England won back-to-back titles in Super Bowls 38 and 39. Between then and now, the Patriots saw two other Super Bowl titles slip away and had their integrity impugned by Spygate and Deflategate. On Super Bowl Sunday, as the world tuned in to the game in Arizona, The MMQB went to the heart of New England to capture the pulse of Patriots Nation.
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Four hours before kickoff at The Harp, one of those bars clustered by TD Garden, a group of electricians passed around a phone after finishing their shifts at a nearby building. On the screen, via social media, was a map of which team was favored in each of the 50 states. Blue states were for Seattle; red states for were the Patriots. Only the six New England states were marked red.
The Patriots-vs.-the-world mentality is nothing new. After their run of three championships in four years in the early 2000s, they became the NFL’s equivalent of the 1990s New York Yankees—a truth that a few very honest New Englanders would only admit to in hushed tones. ESPN’s SportsNation dropped another color-coded map of the U.S. late last week, showing the states in which people believe Brady and Belichick’s explanations of Deflategate versus those that don’t. You guessed it: It’s the six New England states vs. everyone else.
“There’s been more people this year saying, we want this, as if we’re on the team,” said Louie Berger, a 25-year-old Rhode Island native who was in town to pull a Celtics-Super Bowl doubleheader. “Damned if we win, damned if we don’t, so we might as well win.”
Broaching Deflategate at any sports bar in Boston was like offering a free therapy session. Take Kevin Hayes, 39, from Allston, Mass. He grew up 10 minutes from the old Foxboro Stadium, attended the Tuck Rule game and his sister, he offered up unprompted, was friends with Ben Coates.
“That’s not a story! That shouldn’t be a story!” he said. “The NFL has zero credibility anymore. Roger Goodell is a puppet, and a joke. They don’t know how to handle things in an orderly fashion. The shield is taking a hit, and it stinks, because the NFL is the best sport in the world. They look like idiots. That’s on the NFL.”
His venting was backed by some logical questions: Why wasn’t the investigation wrapped up before the Super Bowl? Was it a sting operation by the NFL, acting on a tip, to catch the Patriots red-handed? Why has the league allowed conflicting information to trickle out instead of offering concrete answers?
Olivia DeMartini, a 30-year-old restaurant consultant seated a few feet away, had a different bone to pick with the NFL. “As a human being, and as a woman,” she said, “I’m more mad that the NFL drew more attention to this than the Ray Rice incident. They swept everything under the rug with Ray Rice, but this has been treated like a congressional hearing. Why is that? It shows where the priorities are.”
Even if most Patriots fans are questioning the validity of Deflategate, there’s no escaping the fact that the 2014 NFL season was bookended by controversies. That’s why a special event—perhaps the first of its kind—was being held across the Charles River in Cambridge. Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, was hosting a Super Bowl/I Hate Football party.
Epstein calls himself a Patriots fan. But when his suggestion of throwing a Super Bowl party at the Humanist Hub was met with opposition from members of his congregation, the 1999 Michigan grad—same class as Brady—found himself struggling to explain the merits of football. After all, there was the recent Boston University study showing a higher risk of cognitive impairment linked to youth tackle football; there was the Aaron Hernandez murder trial; and, yes, there was Deflategate.
“Now, I don’t know what to think,” Epstein said. “If Tom Brady and Bill Belichick did something only a little bit wrong, and then they get up in front of the entire country and every kid who ever loved them, and they just sort of wink and smile and say ‘Eh, I didn’t do anything,’ isn’t it at least a little bit legitimate to ask whether that’s a good influence on kids?”
On Monday, Epstein reported back that they showed the Super Bowl and the Puppy Bowl on separate screens, and that a group composed of all ages spent a large portion of the evening debating the pros and cons of football. But as the final seconds ticked off the clock, he found himself sitting just a few feet in front of one of the big screens, high-fiving Malcolm Butler’s game-clinching interception.
“It was a genuine moment of joy,” Epstein said, “and how often do any of us have such moments of joy and connection as adults, when sports aren’t involved? Doesn’t that count for something?”
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That same feeling of genuine joy was felt throughout Boston and throughout all six New England states on Sunday night—especially after it seemed as if the Patriots would once again lose a Super Bowl because of a fluky catch. This generation’s Patriots fans understand that they’ve been spoiled, even if they’re not old enough to remember the years spent in the AFC East basement in the late ’80s and early ’90s (though most do fondly remember the last real time they had America behind them, in 2001, when their team name and colors resonated post-9/11).
Experiencing that joy is why Adam Crossman’s wife, Meghan, allowed him to go across the street to the Hill Tavern in Beacon Hill. Rather than watching the Super Bowl on a tiny TV inside a hospital room at Mass General, Crossman, 31, drank four beers and cashed out as soon as Butler got his mitts on the football at the goal line. A former high school football player at Bridgewater-Raynham in Massachusetts, he’d been pining for another Lombardi—especially after the Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins had all won titles more recently than the Patriots.
“Now I’m good,” said Crossman, whose son was born late Monday night. “After the first, second, third, you still wanted another football championship. I know this is one of Brady’s last hurrahs, and I can savor this. I’m good to go.”
Around 10:30 p.m. on Boylston Street, waves of fans took off racing down the middle of the road, some screaming with joy and others waving middle fingers in the air as they headed toward Boston Common. There had been tenseness throughout the evening, the stakes monumental for Brady’s legacy. Overheard inside Forum, the bar just steps from the marathon finish line that reopened last summer …
• When the Patriots knocked their 10-point fourth-quarter deficit down to three, on a touchdown pass to Danny Amendola: “That’s his J.D. Drew grand-slam moment!”
• When Jermaine Kearse’s circus catch led to NBC showing the footage of David Tyree’s helmet catch from seven years earlier: “S---, I lived it. I don’t need to see the replay!”
• And at the exact moment when Brady and Belichick won their fourth ring together: “This is so much better than last time!”
Nate Tenczar, a 22-year-old software developer who made the J.D. Drew comparison, had wondered aloud earlier in the night if Deflategate was a witch-hunt. Now he raised both hands in the air in triumph.
“This is validation,” he shouted, “for all the bulls---!”
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