I like to wear my Patriots hat when I travel. Typically, it’s a means of figuring out who else at a given airport is a fellow New Englander, with the mere fact of shared geographic dislocation turning us into friends. “You’re from New Hampshire? I’m from Maine! And I’ve been to New Hampshire! Imagine that, and both of us all the way out here in Philadelphia.” It’s harmless fun.
But this one guy was different. I think I was in Detroit, and he noticed the hat. “Patriots fan, huh?” he asked. (Non-New England fans never say “Pats,” just as an angry parent administering a reprimand uses your full name to underscore the weight of your misdeeds.) I said yes, adding the hint of an apology to the tenor of my reply — the way you would if someone said, “You went to Harvard, huh?” or “That Dirk Diggler character was based on you, right?” You’ve got to act a little bit modest, a little embarrassed at how great this situation is for you.
This was last month, before the Wells report, and I expected the guy might follow up with some good-natured ribbing on Deflategate or UGG modeling, but he went on a tangent that I didn’t see coming. “So, are you really a Patriots fan,” he asked, “or do you just like the hat?” Whoa, sir. In another age, those words would’ve been accompanied by the slap of a white glove, followed by a contest of swords or pistols. But the Pats are now like the 1990s Chicago Bulls or the turn-of-the-millennium New York Yankees — they’re so famously successful that New England apparel is worn by people who aren’t really fans at all. People who just like the hat. It’s a reasonable question.
On the spot, I launched into my personal biography, my catalog of reasons that I’m entitled to wear the hat. I grew up in New England. As a kid, I watched the 1986 Super Bowl against the Bears, and even though I didn’t grasp the import of the game, I knew enough to hate The Super Bowl Shuffle forevermore. I was in Boston when the Patriots somehow beat the Rams to win the first championship, and I called in sick to work about 30 seconds after Vinatieri hit the field goal to clinch it. I was at a sports bar in Tokyo when David Tyree made the catch that ensured we’ll keep having to hear from the loathsome 1972 Dolphins every time a team threatens to run the table. I care enough about the Patriots that David Tyree ruined my day in Japan, as I stepped out of a dark bar into the bleak Monday afternoon. Everyone back home got to sleep off the sour shock of fallibility, but I had to stew in it. So anyway, yeah, it’s more than a hat.
The rise of the Belichick-Kraft football juggernaut coincided with my early adulthood, a phase of life that forms the inspiration for Comedy Central’s Workaholics. With no real responsibility, there was plenty of time to go to games and get way too invested in the outcome. I’ve never had season tickets, but I made it to enough games that I began to discover tricks for optimizing my football experience. For instance, did you know you can park for free at a cell tower in the woods behind one of the lots? Well, you could. I haven’t tried that recently.
I learned the hard way that you can never be too warm at a Patriots game. Dolphins fans might go to a game just to spend a nice day outside, but in New England those pleasant afternoons are gone by Halloween, replaced by a wan sun and then outright winter. I’ve spent the better part of a December game huddled under an overhang, standing because my seat was freezing its way through my snow pants. And while I’m not saying that’s as fun as an early season game on a nice September Sunday in the mid-70s, there’s something perversely compelling about joining a crowd of 60,000 people and collectively deciding to sit outside in the snow. Those people at home in their nice warm houses, they don’t c-c-c-are as m-m-m-m-uch as we do. Mush, Sitka! We’re off to the concession stand!
For many years, all this effort, all this caring was for naught. The Patriots teased us with a couple Super Bowl appearances, but they were never the overdogs. In 1986, the Bears were favored by 10, and in 1997, the Packers were favored by 14. Both times, the oddsmakers read it right: Our teams just weren’t that good. Then Kraft rattled sabers about moving the team while the Red Sox, Bruins, and Celtics did nothing to change our low self-regard. So in 2002, when our backup quarterback somehow vanquished St. Louis and Kurt Warner — a man who had his own Chunky soup commercials, by golly — it was like Mardi Gras broke out on the streets of Boston. Suddenly we were winners, a condition that came as a shock to a generation of fans accustomed to psychic pain and chronic disappointment.
I had Boston friends who’d moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, and around the moment I was banging in — cough, cough, I think I just caught the Super Bowl flu — they were jumping in the car and blazing up I-95 to find out what Boston looked like with a smile on its face. By the time they arrived it was past midnight, but the streets were still packed. It was a melee without menace — when the Boston Fire Department removed a guy from a tree in Faneuil Hall, the extraction proceeded with an attitude of cheerful resignation on both sides. This is what happens, apparently, when the Patriots break a wicked dry spell. People climb trees. Horns honk. Bars might stay open a touch later than they’re allowed, and everyone buys everyone drinks. It was like a throw-down wedding reception that extended from Maine to Rhode Island. Monday, February 4, 2002, might go down as one of the least productive days in New England history. And it was worth it.
I was bummed out when the apparel companies brought back Pat Patriot. The Flying Elvis logo took over in 1993, and for a while there was no such thing as a throwback jersey. So in the early 2000s, a Pat Patriot jersey was a signifier that your loyalty predated Brady, Belichick, and rampant success. My own Pat T-shirt, ’80s-tastic with its white-striped sleeves, dates to when I was 12. It was way too big then, but my parents bought clothes with the idea that I’d grow into them, and the shirt still fits — a little short, but not bad for an item that predates MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This.” These days I break it out only for special occasions, when the team really needs me to wear it, because Pat can only take so many more trips through the washing machine before totally falling apart. I like to save the shirt until the AFC Championship. If I’m lucky, I’ll wear it twice in a season.
I was wearing it a few months ago, when Marshawn Lynch was surely about to destroy Tom Brady’s legacy with a 1-yard run. I really wrestled with the idea of bailing on the end of that game, sparing myself the sight of it. And yet, in a fit of desperate delusion, I thought Maybe something great will happen. And then you’d miss it. I didn’t want to be outside the room and suddenly hear cheering. So I stayed on the couch, Pete Carroll called a pass play, and Malcolm Butler made Brady 4-for-6 rather than 50-50 on the almighty important Super Bowl ledger.
It is strange that anyone not named Brady or Bundchen should care about how history remembers Tom Brady, but this, too, has become part of Patriots fandom — the instinct to stick up for our handsome millionaire, as if he needed our help. When some Giants fan brings up the Super Bowls That Shall Not Be Named, asserting that our beloved quarterback is inferior to their plodding giraffe-man, we say, “Yeah, well, Eli Manning is a potato-faced mouth breather, and Plaxico Burress shot himself in the butt.” We get angry on Brady’s behalf, even though at this very moment Brady is probably on his jet playing strip Ping-Pong with Gisele on the way to the party on Diddy’s submarine. We’re protective of our heroes.
And we have a right to be defensive. It’s one thing to have a persecution complex and quite another to confront the reality that everyone outside New England hates your team — including, lo and behold, the NFL commissioner himself. When your MVP quarterback is suspended four games, when you lose two draft picks and rack up a million-dollar fine, all based on conjecture and measurement procedures unfit for an eighth-grade science fair, you have pretty solid evidence that the haters are gonna do more than hate. They’re going to use your team as a smokescreen to obscure the real problems, the concussions and domestic violence and legions of bankrupt ex-players. As a PR move, it’s genius. Brady’s lawyered up, and we could be looking at further months of argument over a complete and total nonissue. As a fan, what’s your recourse? It’s hard to argue a negative, so you just get your hackles up and roll with the outrage.
Maybe you agree with Kraft’s decision to accept the punishment and move on, just put the whole thing behind them and shut up about it. After all, we did just win the Super Bowl. And maybe sitting Brady for four games wouldn’t be the end of the world — perhaps one of those games is the one where a Bernard Pollard would’ve come in low with a hit to the knee. But the draft picks are huge. That’s the NFL saying: “Your persistent excellence has undermined our narrative of league-wide parity, so we’re going to hamstring your future teams in a manner that would be otherwise unavailable to us. People are sick of the Patriots.” The Deflategate penalty feels vicious not just because it’s arbitrary, but because there’s a legitimate chance that it could poison the delicate football alchemy that leads to championships. The sun sets on every empire, fate is fickle, and Brady is mortal. How many more of these are we going to get?
My view of a modern Patriots post-season is shaped by the knowledge that Brady is two months older than I am. If my left knee hurts for no apparent reason, without 300-pound men regularly trying to pile-drive me into the turf, then what must Brady feel like by mid-January? Yes, he has superhuman reserves of willpower and industry, the likes of which no Manning brother could dare conceive, but still he’s 37 years old. Eventually, the carnie pushes the button and tells you to get out of the Gravitron, because the safety inspector’s here and there was that problem last week with the bolts falling off. But you might get a lot of rides before that happens. You might have so much fun you throw up. That’s where we’re at with the Patriots. Every time they win a post-season game, I’m happy because that means the party keeps going for one more week. Friends will have another excuse to get together and hang out for a few hours, eating chili and saying mean things about the Broncos or the Ravens. Look, after four championships, you get a little sanguine about an early exit from the post-season on those off years when it doesn’t all click. Any team that falls short of a championship preaches the mantra of “Wait till next year,” but with the Patriots we have actually believed it. You know, in those years when we didn’t just win a championship. So, not right now, all you other losers!
The Patriots are an NFL anomaly, a team that seems dominant yet won its four Super Bowls by a combined total of 13 points. We lost an offensive linchpin to a life sentence for murder. We regularly make stars out of castoffs and unheralded draft picks. This is a weird team. Does the 2015 Super Bowl victory, especially with what came after, presage a down year? That’s happened before. Or does it set up back-to-back titles? Because that’s happened, too. You just don’t know. So take nothing for granted. Go to a game and take it all in, because you can’t know how long this will last. Go in December, when an arctic front comes down from Canada and the playoffs are locked up. And next time you’re asked about your hat in the Detroit airport, apologize for nothing.
Ezra Dyer is the automotive editor at Popular Mechanics and a columnist for The Improper Bostonian. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.