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It Happened One Night: Remembering the Snow Bowl and the Dawn of the Patriots Dynasty

On the 20th anniversary of the Snow Bowl, Patriot Maven’s Mike D’Abate offers his unique reflections on the game, as well as a chance encounter in 1996 which brought the night full circle for him and his family.

For most of us, wintry weather often comes too soon. Winters in New England often do. While some bask in the picturesque quality of a snow-covered bridge, others lament the sound of shovels and machinery removing that snow from their roads and driveways. Living with winter precipitation is a love-hate relationship that native New Englanders know all too well.

However, for one night in January 2002, the snow was every New Englander’s friend. The falling of the flakes in Foxboro, Massachusetts provided more than just arctic weather conditions for an impending playoff game between the New England Patriots and the Oakland Raiders. It would come to symbolize the genesis of one of the most successful eras in professional sports.

On January 19, 2002, an NFL dynasty was born, along with a two-decade love affair between the Brady-Belichick era New England Patriots and their fans.

The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship

For this particular sportswriter, the story began a bit earlier. During the summer of 1996, a visit to Patriots training camp led to a chance encounter. It would be an experience which would come full circle during one of the most memorable nights in Patriots’ franchise history. It would also spark my desire to make a living through telling the stories of professional sports.

At that time, Patriots training camp was held on the campus of Bryant College (now, Bryant University) in Smithfield, Rhode Island — a mere fifteen-minute drive from my house. As we did each summer, my grandfather and I would visit Bryant’s nearby campus, hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the region’s star players such as quarterback Drew Bledsoe, running back Curtis Martin, tight end Ben Coates, among others. As a young high-schooler at the time, the task of seeking autographs seemed a bit past my age. However, my grandfather was adamant about keeping tradition intact. Despite some previous (and futile) attempts, he remained steadfast in extending our junior-sized football, in hopes of obtaining the signature of a player on his route to practice.

With nearly the entire roster having found its way to the practice field, it appeared that my grandfather’s signature streak had come to a close. However, making his way along the outer end of the Bryant campus, came a seemingly youthful player, mostly unrecognizable to the crowd in attendance. Carrying his helmet, the player approached with a slight jog, indicating a greater sense of urgency than that of his teammates to reach the field. Despite a clear need to beat the clock, my grandfather once again extended his arm, holding a football and seeing a signature for his somewhat embarrassed 15 year-old grandson.

“Oh man, I can’t…I have to be on time, Coach [Bill Parcells] is gonna kick my butt if I’m late.” the player replied as he slowed his jog to a pace.

“C’mon, Paisan…one minute…for my grandson,” my grandfather once again asked.

“Ok…less than a minute, let me have that pen,” the Patriot hopeful said as he granted the request. He scribbled a signature on the blank side of the ball before hastily handing it back to my grandfather and taking off in a slow sprint to the practice field.

As my grandfather handed the ball to me, I attempted to make out the signature; unfortunately to no avail. To be honest, the name looked less familiar to me than the player’s face. Knowing we were struggling to determine his identity, a member of the security staff came over holding a roster card. Able to make out a capital “A” and “V” from his signature, the security guard pointed to the corresponding name on his roster sheet.

“It’s this guy,” he said. “He’s a rookie kicker out of South Dakota State…supposed to be pretty good,” he remarked with a shrug before returning to his detail.

My grandfather then looked back at me saying: “Keep this one [as he handed the ball back to me]…I got a good feeling about him.”

The player’s name, as you probably guessed, was Adam Vinatieri.

“The Quarterback’s Arm Was Moving Forward…”

Despite having enjoyed a solid career to that point, Vinatieri’s legend was about to blanket the New England landscape as the falling snow on January 19, 2002. The then 29-year-old had put New England's first points of the night on the Foxboro Stadium scoreboard, a 23-yard field goal with 8:39 remaining in the fourth quarter, cutting the Raiders’ lead to 7-3. After a pair of Sebastian Janikowski field goals gave Oakland a 13-3 lead, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady led the Patriots on a 10-play, 67-yard drive in the fourth quarter. Brady completed nine consecutive passes for 61 yards; finishing it with a 6-yard touchdown run with 7:57 left that made the score 13–10.

With less than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Brady was hit during his pass attempt on his right side by Raiders’ cornerback Charles Woodson. The ball came loose and was recovered by the Raiders. Though it appeared that Brady had tucked the ball back towards his body, the officials were unable to definitively rule whether or not his arm was moving forward at the time. They ruled it a fumble in an attempt to review the play.

The Patriots 2001 season was hanging in the balance.

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With the exception of the fortunate few holding a ticket in the final Patriots game at Foxboro Stadium that night, I remained glued to my television, alongside my father and grandfather. Three generations of Patriots fans who, to date, had known nothing but disappointment. Between the three of us, there was little knowledge of a scarcely-known rule that was about to change the fate of the franchise forever. Like most fans watching that night, we had assumed that the Patriots season had just come to an end.

Suddenly, New Life!

Amidst the triumphant reactions of near-euphoric disbelief in the D’Abate household that night, the officials would offer an explanation of what was to be forever known as the ‘Tuck Rule.’ Brady did not fumble the ball. Because his arm was moving forward, the play was ruled an incomplete pass. As such, the Pats would retain possession of the ball, with a chance to tie the game.

Despite the frustrating decree of legions of silver-and-black wearing fans, the officials made the correct call, based on the written rule at the time, enacted in 1999:

NFL Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2. When [an offensive] player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his arm starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body. Also, if the player has tucked the ball into his body and then loses possession, it is a fumble.

With a new lease on their playoff lives, the Pats would not be denied in their quest to even the score. Brady completed a 13-yard pass to David Patten, advancing to the Raiders' 29-yard-line. After two pass incompletions and a Brady scramble, Vinatieri was about to seize the moment, which would make him a folk hero. He hit a game-tying 45-yard field goal through the snow-covered night sky with just 27 seconds remaining. It is a kick, considered by many, to have been one of the most difficult kicks in NFL history. New England had tied the game at 13, taking the Oakland Raiders to overtime.

“That’s my guy,” my grandfather exclaimed as we watched the kick sail through the inclement weather and over the crossbar. He and I exchanged a knowing look, remembering that summer afternoon in 1996. “I knew that kid was gonna be something special, when he stopped to sign your football” he said.

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The Pats won the toss and chose to take the ball to start overtime. They drove 61 yards in 15 plays, with Brady completing all eight of his pass attempts for 45 yards, including some clutch catches from receiver Troy Brown, running back J.R. Redmond and tight end Jermaine Wiggins. On fourth-and-4 from the Raiders' 28-yard-line, Brady hit Patten for a six-yard completion. Three plays later, running back Antowain Smith picked up eight yards for a first down deep in Oakland territory.

Attempting to center the ball, Brady dove to the Raiders’ five-yard-line. With 6:35 left in overtime, Vinatieri once again connected on a 23-yard field goal, giving the Patriots a 16–13 victory; advancing them to the AFC Championship Game and validating my grandfather's words from earlier in the night. He was something special…and thanks to my grandfather, I possessed his autographed football.

As we celebrated the Patriots victory, my father glanced over at me saying “I think that football of yours just got a bit more valuable.”

Epilogue

Much has been written about the significance of January 19, 2002 and its impact on the history of the franchise. Tom Brady ended up completing 26 of 39 passes for 238 yards in the second half, providing a glimpse into the greatness that would lead to his ascent in becoming the NFL’s greatest to play the position. The Patriots went on to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 24–17, in the AFC Championship Game, before beating the St. Louis Rams, 20–17, in Super Bowl XXXVI on a last-second field goal by Vinatieri. The Super Bowl championship was the first in team history and began a period of dominance for the Patriots in the 2000s and 2010s that included eight additional Super Bowl appearances and five more Super Bowl titles in Super Bowls XXXVIII, XXXIX, XLIX, LI, and LIII.

The football historian in me marvels at the reversal of fortune that took place on January 19 in Foxboro Stadium; not just in Patriots history, but also in Boston sports. The era of blown-leads and tough-luck losses gave way to a twenty-year run of being the envy of every fanbase in the sports landscape.

Still, for me, the Snow Bowl has a greater significance, a personal one. I often think fondly of that night, watching the game with my father and grandfather. I recall their smiles and excitement, and how our shared love of sports led to my becoming a sportswriter. Being taught the game by my father gave me an appreciation for a game which I knew was to be a part of my life, even if I did not possess the athletic prowess to play it professionally.

Often, I find myself wondering how my grandfather knew that Adam Vinatieri was indeed a ‘paisan’…a fellow Italian-American, before learning his name; simply from one look at the rookie during 1996 training camp. He knew Vinatieri would be special, and he was right. For that reason, I will always glance at our aforementioned football and think of the shining example of positivity given to me by my grandfather. I say ‘our’ because it is as much his, as it is mine.

Lastly, I still think of January 19, 2002 whenever the snow falls in New England. Like all of my fellow New Englanders, the greater the snow accumulation leads to a greater lamenting of my having to shovel and commute through it. However, there is a part of me which acknowledges the snow as “football weather”…specifically “Patriots football weather.” Despite the work, there is a part of it that remains fun. We remember the delight of Tom Brady falling over as he spiked the ball in the endzone, as well as Vinatieri being carried off the field by his teammates. The images and memories will last a lifetime. 

It may have been twenty years since it happened one night…But, if you are a Patriots fan, it never gets old.