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Final

Champion Patriots were once the NFL’s laughingstock

Team endured long, embarrassing path before tasting glory

Former Patriots owner Victor Kiam

AP

Former Patriots owner Victor Kiam

NEW ORLEANS - Of all the improbable things that have happened in Patriots history, nothing was more improbable than what happened here Sunday evening. Nothing was more enjoyable, either.

No team in the National Football League has as zany a history of miscreants and missteps as the Patriots, but Sunday in the Superdome every ghost was exorcised from their star-crossed history. With one fiery night of passion and victory, the Patriots rewrote their story, becoming the first Boston professional sports team in 16 years to win a world championship when they dismembered the supposedly unbeatable St. Louis Rams, 20-17, on a last-second field goal so long it seemed a fittingly improbable end to 42 years of events going awry.

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With Adam Vinatieri’s long-range blast, Tom Brady’s short-range passing, and New England’s bone-crushing defense, pro football fans in these parts were given the opportunity to forgive all the past sins that so often made the Patriots a laughingstock among pro football franchises.

Gone were Clive Rush, John Charles, Bob Gladieux, and the man in the trench coat. Erased forever was the dark shadow of Victor Kiam. Forgotten was the memory of Chuck Fairbanks acting like Bill Parcells on the eve of his team’s 1978 playoff run long before Parcells was ever heard of in New England.

One night of football. One long kick with no time on the clock and 42 years of oddball events were forever changed. But that doesn’t mean anyone will ever forget them, and who would want to?

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Who would ever forget seeing a man in a London Fog trench coat suddenly emerge in the end zone and knock down a pass intended for a Dallas Texans receiver named Chris Burford at the end of a game in 1961? No one ever learned who that person was, including the officials who never saw him make that play, but he was part of the first ‘’sellout’’ crowd ever at a Patriots game.

The overflow crowd was even lined up around the field that day because anybody who wanted to buy a ticket to watch the upstart American Football League in action could do it. Ron Hobson, the longtime Patriot Ledger sportswriter, recalled the crowd that day.

’’It was like a high school game,’’ Hobson said. ‘’People were seven deep on the sidelines. Then this guy comes out and bats a pass down in the end zone and nobody knew what happened.’’

That included the Texans’ coaching staff, who didn’t figure out they’d been beaten by the ultimate 12th man until they watched the film of the game a day later. They wanted to protest but didn’t quite know what the grounds would be. Illegal use of a topcoat? Patriots win!

How about the Patriots’ first appearance in a world championship game, the 1963 AFL title game at Balboa Stadium in San Diego? Who wouldn’t want to have the memory of that afternoon erased?

The Patriots had been barely a .500 team, finishing 7-6-1, but they upset the Buffalo Bills, 26-8, to win the Eastern Division title in the league’s only season-ending tiebreaker game. Fans around New England were giddy until their team landed in San Diego to play the powerful Chargers of Paul Lowe, Keith Lincoln, Tobin Rote, and Earl Faison.

Lincoln ran wild that day, rushing for 206 yards and catching seven passes for 123 more as the Patriots gave up a club-record 610 total yards in a 51-10 massacre in front of 30,127 fans and a national television audience that began shutting its old black-and-white TVs off early.

Who could ever forget the brief, unhappy tenure of Rush, a head coach who was also a head case? Rush was hired to take over the team Jan. 30, 1969, and had been relieved of his duties by the following November after an odd tenure in which he did so many strange things it’s difficult to pick one out.

One of the strangest involved a starting defensive back named John Charles, who was released while getting his ankles taped before the season-opening game in 1969 when he refused to sign a contract thrust at him by owner Billy Sullivan.

That led to a memorable moment when a friend of a Notre Dame running back named Bob Gladieux came up to his seat to bring them a few hot dogs and drinks only to see Gladieux was missing. Next thing he heard was ‘’tackle Gladieux.’’ While he was gone, Gladieux had been called on the loudspeaker to come to the locker room.

He did, and replaced Charles on the roster in that game and made the tackle on the first kickoff of the day. Gladieux always claimed thereafter that he had already imbibed too much and came to the sideline and got sick. Either way, he did what the Patriots’ defense did Sunday against the St. Louis Rams. He made the tackle.

Then there was the emergence of New England’s first great team, the mid-1970s Patriots that were built by Fairbanks. Fairbanks turned around the long-suffering Patriots and by 1976 they were arguably among the most talented teams in the NFL. But they never got to a Super Bowl in part because of an official named Ben Dreith, who made a roughing-the-passer call in favor of the Oakland Raiders that remains in dispute to this day.

That call gave life to a dying Raider drive that won them a playoff game in ‘76 and led to Oakland’s first Super Bowl victory. It is a memory that would not go away for Patriots fans until, fittingly, New England got its own call to help eliminate the Raiders in the Divisional playoff game this season when an apparent Brady fumble was overturned by replay and New England not only retained possession but sent Oakland home in overtime.

All is forgiven

What goes around comes around and what came around this season was not only a Super Bowl championship Sunday, but forgiveness for all past football sins by the Patriots or against them.

What other team but the Patriots could claim that twice its coach walked out the door in the midst of a playoff run? What other team? No other team.

The first was Fairbanks in 1978 when he secretly had decided he couldn’t stay in New England because of the meddling of Sullivan and his son, Chuck. The final straw came when Fairbanks thought he had the holdouts of All-Pro offensive linemen John Hannah and Leon Gray settled only to have Chuck reject the deal.

With his authority undermined, Fairbanks secretly made a deal to leave the team for the University of Colorado before the season was over but the information leaked and Sullivan declared, ‘’You cannot serve two masters.’’ He suspended Fairbanks before the final game of the season against Miami and installed Hank Bullough and Ron Erhardt as co-head coaches. So on game day, they both gave pregame speeches as Fairbanks sat on a trunk in the locker room, silent and glum.

A week later, Fairbanks was reinstated but his team was ill-prepared for the opening of the playoffs and was destroyed by the Houston Oilers, 31-14, to end the Fairbanks Era on a sour note.

Nearly 20 years later, the same thing happened at Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans when rampant speculation surrounded the team all week that Parcells would quit after the game because of a growing personality clash with owner Robert Kraft.

The two tried to do a two-step during a contentious Super Bowl press conference that turned into a verbal free-for-all with the disbelieving media. The team was beaten, 35-21, by the Green Bay Packers and Parcells didn’t even fly back to Foxborough with his beaten team. Five days later, Parcells resigned and three days after that Kraft named Pete Carroll Parcells’s successor. That was as successful as his successor would be as the team Kraft and Parcells built spiraled steadily downhill until this remarkable season, the second in the tenure of Parcells’s former defensive coordinator, Bill Belichick.

This time the scene was the same but the only crime was the assault and battery New England’s secondary put on the Rams’ supposedly unstoppable receiving corps. Belichick, who was supposed to have replaced Parcells with the Jets two years ago had instead replaced the legacy of his former mentor in New England.

Finally a coach had come along who not only won as often as Parcells had, but had exceeded his performance. He not only got the Patriots back to New Orleans and Super Bowl XXXVI. He won the game. End of The Curse of the Tuna.

More lowlights

But there is no end to the stories. There was the firing of Rod Rust and then the firing of his boss, Ron Meyer, for firing him in 1984, and the hiring of Raymond Berry to replace Meyer at a time when his team was 5-4. A year later Berry took another Patriots team to the Super Bowl in New Orleans only to be crushed by the Chicago Bears one day and by the revelations that more than a dozen players had flunked drug tests during the season the next day.

Two years later, Kiam bought the team from the financially strapped Sullivan family, which had lost millions promoting the ill-fated Michael Jackson ‘’Victory’’ tour that Don King had brokered. Never was there a greater mismatch at a negotiating table than King and Chuck Sullivan, whom the bombastic boxing promoter labeled ‘’Charlie the Tuna.’’ That made Sullivan the first of two Tunas in Patriots history, and probably the least successful.

Kiam’s reign was brief and stormy, the lowlight being the incident involving a Boston Herald reporter named Lisa Olson and several members of the team who were accused of harassing her in the locker room. Kiam fumbled the handling of that incident every step of the way and it nearly bankrupted his company, which made razors that were particularly popular with women.

A boycott put his company in jeopardy and after a seemingly endless string of losing seasons he sold out to James Busch Orthwein, a St. Louis businessman who wanted to move the team to Missouri.

Therein lies another connection to Sunday’s game. Busch was unable to do it, in part because Kraft refused to accept a $75 million buyout of his stadium lease, so in the end, Orthwein sold to Kraft, the Patriots stayed in Foxborough, and the Rams moved from Los Angeles into the new stadium already approved in St. Louis.

Lawsuits followed, but Kraft had saved the Patriots for New England until he himself flirted with the idea of uprooting the team whose season tickets he’d owned for 25 years. Kraft signed a tentative deal to let the Patriots move to Hartford, where a plush new stadium was promised. But in perhaps a bigger upset than Super Bowl XXXVI, the state legislature did the right thing at the last moment and approved enough funding for new stadium infrastructure that Kraft could abandon the people of Connecticut and stay where he wanted to be, and where the Patriots belonged.

Just off Route 1.

It is there that they began this season’s improbable run to the Super Bowl and it is where they will open a new stadium, CMGI Field, next fall as the world champions of professional football. As improbable stories go in sports, the saga of the Patriots ranks right up there with any bizarre thing you can think of.

And probably a few you can’t.

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