GLENDALE, Ariz. – This was different.
Owner Robert Kraft pronounced that the Patriots’ unprecedented 28-24 comeback victory in Super Bowl XLIX “absolutely” belonged on the same pedestal as the franchise’s first Lombardi Trophy 13 years earlier. Those who had been there through all four of the titles understood the sentiment. It showed on the faces and in the conversations that transpired between the occupants of a championship locker room.
Head coach Bill Belichick admitted that he experienced “ecstasy” at the sight of Malcolm Butler’s game-saving interception. He smirked after Jermaine Kearse’s falling, juggling circus catch that, yes, he had seen before twice, in Super Bowls XLII with David Tyree and XLVI with Mario Manningham. He recalled that the last time he wore Gatorade, his father Steve shared the ablution, months before he passed away.
Shortly after holding court in his postgame press conference, Belichick entered the locker room with the sly smile of a Cheshire Cat. The coach’s face revealed the trick that had just been pulled about 30 minutes earlier, the game that still felt like an inexplicable sleight-of-hand.
Eight minutes later, stone-faced Seahawks stars Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman passed that same locker room where euphoria was taking hold, the proximity to the celebration offering a cruel echo of the game.
Some members of the Patriots, no doubt, could empathize with the gutted feeling of the Seahawks who came so tantalizingly close to a second straight title. Among them was running backs coach Ivan Fears, the lone coach or player in the organization whose tenure predates the Bill Belichick era.
Fears joined the Patriots in 1999 as the running backs coach under Pete Carroll. Now in his 17th season as a coach in New England, as he made his way through the victorious locker room to celebrate with his players, Fears understood the magnitude that made this championship different.
The victory over the Rams to top off the 2001 season? An unexpected magic carpet ride of disbelief. The Lombardis to cap the 2003 and 2004 season? Those came as anything but surprises, a championship-caliber core in its prime that bulldozed the rest of the NFL with ruthless efficiency.
But 10 seasons and two impossible-to-forget heartbreaks separated this title from the previous one. The decade of unfulfilled ambitions and expectations, that brutal margin that twice separated an eternal triumph from a vast emptiness at the end of the year, restored perspective to the achievement of a title. Fears knew it.
“I’ve had two shots at feeling the worst you can feel after this game. It carries on for months,” Fears said as he celebrated in the locker room. “To be on the other side of another close game like this – it feels like all of ours have been close down to the end. It’s been hard to settle down. I can’t stop sweating. I’m trying to slow my heart rate down. That was special. … How do I feel? It’s kind of hard to put it into words. There’s been a lot of work to get to this.”
For others who’d experienced neither past triumph nor heartache, there was less perspective. The moment itself was enough, the markers of accomplishment measured not in years but instead mobile phone activity.
“How many texts you got?” center Bryan Stork asked fellow offensive lineman Cameron Fleming.
“Sixty-eight right now,” said Fleming.
“I’m at 105,” Stork pronounced.
Though impressed, Fleming disengaged from the comparison: “Where is the trophy at?” he wondered, ducking into a curtained area.
He walked past the row of defensive backs’ lockers, where safety Patrick Chung wandered alone in a daze before taking a moment to try to gather himself.
“This is craziness, man,” Chung muttered. “This is craziness.”
Chung, a part of the Patriots team that lost Super Bowl XLVI, slumped in the chair in front of his locker and lowered his head into his hands. When he looked up after a couple of meditative minutes, his eyes were red.
“It means everything. It means everything, man. We work our whole lives to get to this point,” said Chung. “I don’t know what to say.”
As Chung whispered, a crowd formed and grew at the adjacent locker around suddenly famous cornerback Malcolm Butler. Butler did not appear to be tiring of the notion of unexpected celebrity or the opportunity to take a bow for the football instincts that allowed him to recognize Seattle’s formation and jump the route of intended receiver Ricardo Lockette.
Butler delighted in the suggestion that his play will be the stuff of NFL Films for years to come. But asked whether he had envisioned himself as the author of a decisive play on this stage, he confessed that he had not – though a relevant premonition came from another unexpected source.
“I didn’t expect to be this big,” said Butler. “I did have an Uber driver for my mom. The Uber driver told my mom I was going to make a big play. It came true.”
Malcolm Butler’s interception saves the day
A few feet away, LeGarrette Blount, who’d escaped a disappointing year in Pittsburgh in November to emerge as the Patriots’ lead back for the postseason, leaned over to share the moment with his son, draping him with his dreadlocks, before walking to the middle of the locker room.
The running back wrapped the shoulders of Jonathan Kraft with his arm. The Patriots president leaned into Blount and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
An observer noted that Blount will be getting a ring.
“A big, big ring,” beamed Kraft. “Really big.”
Matt Patricia entered the locker room, an American flag draped over the defensive coordinator’s shoulders. Patricia surveyed the room purposefully, steering from one member of the defense to another to embrace each with a bear hug.
Sealver Siliga beams, “What’s up, world champion?”
After a hug from the defensive coordinator, linebacker Dont’a Hightower looked at his phone.
“I don’t have that many text messages yet.”
A couple lockers away, Jerod Mayo – who missed most of the season with injury due to a torn patellar tendon – smirked. “I got 62 and I didn’t even play.”
A giant pile of silver streamers that snowed upon the field had somehow accumulated behind the linebackers’ row of lockers. Brandon Browner grabbed an armful of the decorations as he navigated past it and offered a shimmery, celebratory toss into the air.
“At the top! At the top!” Browner grinned, elated at having been on the field for a Super Bowl victory one year after the former Seahawk had been suspended from Seattle’s title game.
Because his first ring had come from a game in which he had not played, Browner expressed particular excitement about his connection to Sunday’s triumph. The safety said that he proposed and then politicked to implement the game-changing idea to take over the coverage of Seahawks receiver Chris Matthews, who’d burned shorter defensive backs Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan.
That change helped to stall a Seahawks offense that had surged to a 10-point lead, giving the Patriots time to mount their unprecedented fourth-quarter comeback, which in turn set the stage for Butler’s dramatic rabbit-from-a-hat.
“You know what it reminds me of? You guys remember that Rams-Titans [Super Bowl], when [receiver Kevin Dyson got tackled on the 1-yard-line, just short of a game-tying touchdown] and didn’t make the play?” Browner asked. “We made the play on the 1. That’s what it reminded me of. They say it’s a game of inches. It showed tonight. If they had maybe handed the ball off or the receiver had stepped in front of Malcolm, it may have been that the game had a different outcome.”
A run, likewise, might have yielded a different result than the game-deciding turnover. For his part, Browner remained stunned that the Seahawks did not entrust the ball to his former teammate, Marshawn Lynch.
“I’m just as surprised as everyone else. Marshawn Lynch, hands down, is the best running back in the game,” said Browner. “I just really feel like sometimes these coaches are so intelligent they out-strategize themselves. I think that’s what that case was. It’s simple. You turn around and give it to the best back in the game.”
This was the theme that permeated the New England locker room. The empty disbelief of the last two Super Bowl losses had given way to astonishment, revelry, and total fulfillment. The reversal – from the previous championship disappointments to this elation, from the prospect of gut-wrenching defeat to victory – seemed difficult to exaggerate.
“In that situation, it’s just like you losing $1,000. You thought you lost $1,000, then you do your laundry and you find it in your pocket,” said receiver Brandon LaFell. “It was one of those situations where you’re like, ‘Oh, man. Come on, man, not again.’ They get a lucky bounce and then the next play Malcolm Butler comes up and makes a play.”
As compelling as that analogy seemed, others found it more difficult to attach a value to what transpired.
“I just feel like I’m talking fast right now. I really don’t know what to say. I’m just ready to party with my teammates,” said Browner, as Patriots players began to file from the locker room to be transported to awaiting revelry. “I’d like to say this: If anyone goes to sleep tonight, they should get fined.”
One imagines there were few debts to collect.
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