WEST BRIDGEWATER — He was there when Patriots fans fled as the stands burst into flame, and when they tore down a goal post and hauled it out of the stadium. He cheered at the Snow Bowl, gaped in wonder at the Snowplow Game, and claimed victory in a snowball fight with the Minnesota Vikings. He has sat through more losing seasons (16) than recent arrivals on the Patriots bandwagon would imagine possible.
Long before “New England” became a synonym for “perennial football juggernaut,” Charles Underhill of West Bridgewater stayed true to a hapless team that bounced from venue to venue like a barnstorming vaudeville act. Underhill, 73, became a season ticket holder in 1966, the franchise’s seventh season. In those 47 seasons, Underhill says, he has attended every playoff and regular season game played at home — save one, for reasons beyond anyone’s control.
And on Sunday, as the Patriots host the Houston Texans for a divisional round playoff matchup, Underhill will don his team apparel and take his seat in section 109, row 27, in time for kickoff. He will stay, no matter what the score, until the final whistle — just as he has for hundreds of Sundays, in defiance of the blizzards, downpours, and lackluster play that might have deterred a lesser devotee.
“To me, it’s like a birthday every time I go to the game,” Underhill said Wednesday at his home on Route 106, where he showed off the Patriots jackets, T-shirts, yearbooks, tickets, and accessories he has accumulated over the decades. Underhill, who keeps fit playing full-court basketball, recalls feeling under the weather on a few given Sundays over the years, but never sick enough to miss the opening kickoff.
“I probably went to the game quite a few times when I should have stayed home,” he said.
Longtime Patriots fans are a notoriously hardy lot. Back when the franchise was infamous for producing some of the most unintentionally laughable moments in NFL history, its faithful followers braved teeth-rattling cold, parka-piercing winds, and the worst traffic jams in the history of organized sports to watch the Pats fall short time and again. (In the first 10 seasons of Underhill’s attendance streak, the team went 45-92-3.)
“It really was a test of faith to have been a fan of this team,” said Richard Johnson, curator of the Sports Museum, a nonprofit educational organization at TD Garden, who often refers to the Patriots’ “weird, surreal history.” Of Underhill, he said, “My hat’s off to this gentleman.”
Underhill, who is retired after a career in the computer and financial planning businesses, acknowledges the impossibility of verifying his claim to near-perfect attendance (“You would need a picture of me entering the stadium for each game,” he said. “But I am 100 percent honest.”)
He does pass this test: Ask him about any game, and he can describe what it was like to be there. Say, for example, the Aug. 16, 1970 preseason matchup with the Washington Redskins at Boston College’s Alumni Field. That was the day when a fire broke out in the stands, forcing spectators to wait on the field while the blaze was extinguished.
“I can still feel the heat rising up from my backside,” said Underhill.
A more joyous event on Dec. 22, 1985, led to mayhem at Sullivan Stadium in Foxborough. After the Patriots clinched a wild card spot with their 34-23 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, fans stormed the field in celebration. Some ripped down a goal post and carried it out of the stadium.
“I thought the end of the goal post was going to jam somebody in the face or in the body and cause real serious injury,” Underhill said. (Instead, the uprights got tangled in power lines, giving five of the celebrants the shock of their life.)
“The fans back then in many cases were unruly and kind of destroyed the family atmosphere,” Underhill said.
Although he is the only one in his family to attend nearly all the games, he has always brought along loved ones. He has cheered the team with his wife, Janice, 73. His father, Frank, frequently accompanied him until his death in 1994. His youngest son, Timothy, 42, went to every game for 15 seasons, until he moved out of state. Underhill has rooted for the Pats with his two brothers, his sister, all three of his children, two of three grandchildren, and various in-laws. He keeps a chart of his family fan club, divided into membership levels, gold for those who have seen at least 40 games with him, silver for at least 20 games.
One of his sons, Daniel, 45, a silver member who now lives in Florida, recalls attending a game during the Patriots’ lackluster 5-11 1993 season, against the Bengals, who would finish at 3-13. The temperature was 10 degrees. The son recalls his father bringing him a hot chocolate to warm him up. It froze. Even so, they stayed until the last play of the game, when the Patriots sealed a 7-2 victory. Charles Underhill would never let the temperature dictate an early exit.
“I’ve always stayed to the final gun no matter what the weather was or what the score was,” Underhill said. “I only had one exception and it wasn’t my fault.”
That was a matchup with the Miami Dolphins when, after the final play had ended and fans had left the stadium, the officials noticed that the game clock was wrong, and called the teams back onto the field to replay the final seconds. Neither was it Underhill’s fault in December 1995, when his flight home from Colorado was canceled because of snow, and he missed a 31-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints.
Before the Patriots found a home in Foxborough, the team played at fields across Boston. Underhill first bought season tickets when the Patriots shared Fenway Park with the Red Sox. The venue was better for baseball than football. “I was so far from the game I probably only understood half of the plays,” he recalled.
Underhill was also at Harvard Stadium on Sept. 20, 1970 for the season opener against the Dolphins, when the public address announcer asked Bob “Harpo” Gladieux, a former player who was in the stands, to report to the locker room so he could join the team. Those 1970 Patriots finished 2-12, and fans sought moral victories wherever they could. In December of that year, fans exchanged volleys of snowballs with the Minnesota Vikings players. The Pats lost, 35-14, but Underhill says the spectators won the snowball fight.
“I think I hit more bull’s eyes than anybody,” he recalled.
Snow also played a role in Underhill’s two favorite home games.
On Dec. 12, 1982, as the Patriots lined up in a snowstorm for a field goal attempt to break a 0-0 tie with Miami, an inmate on work release was sent onto the field with a tractor fixed with a brush to clear the turf for kicker John Smith. Although Smith later disputed whether the act helped him, he nailed the kick, the Patriots prevailed, 3-0, and the legend of the Snowplow Game was born.
“I don’t think that’s ever been tried again,” Underhill said.
His other all-time favorite is the “Snow Bowl” — the dramatic, 16-13 overtime playoff victory against the Oakland Raiders on Jan. 19, 2002, on the way to the franchise’s first Super Bowl win. A referee called back an apparent Tom Brady fumble, kicker Adam Vinatieri made game-tying and game-winning field goals, and long snapper Lonie Paxton celebrated by making snow angels in the end zone.
On Sunday, Underhill will sit at the 45-yard line behind the Patriots bench. Four seats cost him around $7,000 this season, a far cry from the $48 he paid for a season ticket in 1966. He predicts a Patriots win, but either way, he will stay until the end.
“Should be a good game,” Underhill said. “Can’t wait to go.”