The New England Patriots are so shrouded in secrecy that no one can say for certain where they play. They used to play in Foxboro Stadium, in Foxborough, Mass., whose town square is called Fox Borough, which creates a problem for sportswriters filing Patriot game stories, whose datelines alternate between FOXBORO and FOXBOROUGH. No other NFL city has this problem. Buffalo is never depicted as BUFFALOUGH.
It's reason enough to avoid the press box in Foxborough -- or Foxboro, or Fox Borough -- but it wasn't my reason for doing so on Sunday, when I joined the happy congregation of Patriots and Giants fans in a corner of the north end zone at Gillette Stadium to witness firsthand -- and occasionally first-nose -- the NFL fan in his natural habitat.
I say "his" because the combination of profanity, insobriety, high-fiving of strangers, AC/DC songs, musket-firings, flyovers, and urgent restroom heckling ("Hurry it up bro, this is game day!") was manifestly male in spirit if not always in fact, for there were women at the game.
Still, the crowd was overwhelmingly male and pointlessly competitive, even before we got there, when we our party of four was idling in traffic on Route 1, behind FTBALFAN1 and MY SOX1 and other devotional license plates, each declaring its owner the number one fan on the road.
In the hour it took to inch seven or eight miles off 495 and down Route 1 to the stadium, we passed a guy selling "Pat's Magnets," a lot welcoming "Pat's Parking" and other apostrophe catastrophes that left us wondering who Pat was, though we were never in doubt as to Pat's gender.
No, the NO KEGS sign at the entrance to the parking lot (where an attendant divested us of $40), the crowd sword-swallowing cheddarwurst outside Chickie Flynn's bar, even the 50-year-old gentleman who reportedly shot himself in the leg in the stadium parking lot before the game -- accidentally, while unloading his registered handgun, while sitting in the car with his wife -- all suggested that a Homer Simpsonian world lay ahead.
After a brisk frisking -- a "Pat's Patdown," in the vernacular of Route 1 -- I took my seat and was abruptly slapped on the back by the guy behind me, who said: "There's my regular!" I had to tell him, regrettably, that mine was not the back that regularly sat in front of him -- indeed, that we had never met before -- which did nothing to slow his intimate game-long monologue about the despicable nature of Cowboy fans, the recent frustrations of work and the conundrum presented by injured Giants. "I don't want to see anyone hurt," he said in a pensive moment. "Unless it helps my team win."
The scoreless first half was about as exciting as watching paint dry. It was exactly as exciting as watching paint dry, for there was little to look at beyond the silver paint shining on the face and neck of a middle-aged fan who was three parts Tin Man, no parts Thin Man, but a fascinating study in our collective desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves.
Competing for our attention was a man covered in green Lycra from head to toe, face included. (Oh how I pity his dry cleaner.) He wore, additionally, a foam tri-corner minuteman hat and waited grimly -- like Gumby at a bus stop -- for the in-stadium camera to project his image onto the scoreboard, at which time he'd spring wildly to life.
What united all 60,000 of us -- man and woman, Pats and Giants fan, the soberly dressed and the unsober-and-undressed -- was a shared abandonment of the day's cares, plus a common belief in the many inadequacies of Pats' receiver Chad Ochocinco. When a ball intended for Ochocinco was ruled uncatchable, negating the possibility of pass interference, a guy in the row in front of me spoke for the first and only time during the game. "Any pass intended for Ochocinco," he said, "is by definition uncatchable." We all nodded solemnly at the wisdom of the statement.
A man seated in front of me, I couldn't help but notice, wore jeans bedazzled on the bottom with metal studs. I said a silent prayer that no one else would notice, but in the third quarter the guy behind me suddenly shouted: "Hey bro, nice rhinestones!" Bro was the favored form of address at Gillette, so common that I began to think of the place not as Foxborough or Foxboro or Fox Borough but as Foxbro.
To his credit, Rhinestone Man did not rise to the bait. Indeed, he said nothing at all the whole game, except whenever Danny Woodhead carried the ball for the Pats, at which time he would shout: "Hey Woodchuck, keep chucking that wood!"
The young man to my left had a mantra of his own, saying at least eight times, "This is the biggest play of the game right here." His occasional efforts to high-five me went unrequited, as I averted my gaze to the scoreboard's video replays, presented by Cooked Perfect Meatballs.
In the fourth quarter, as the game grew more intense, and the Pats took a 13-10 lead, and the man in the green Lycra body stocking was whipped into an overheated frenzy -- talk about cooked meatballs -- my seatmates grew concerned. There was profundity in their profanity, a lyric quality to their F- and S-bombs. If the game were an episode of Sesame Street, it would have been brought to us by the letter F and the number 2.
You know how the story ends. In one of the great finishes in recent NFL history, the Giants regained the lead with 3:03 remaining, the Pats took it back with 1:36 left, and the Giants scored the game-winning touchdown with 15 seconds on the clock.
By the time 77-year-old Gino Cappelletti called it, "Absolutely one of the craziest games I've ever seen," we were on the Mass Pike, listening to the former Patriot on the radio, and taking his word for it.
We'd left with four minutes remaining to -- forgive me, my regulars -- beat the traffic.