Two former Patriots recall the team’s first season
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Long before Bob Kraft, Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Gillette Stadium, and four New England Patriots Super Bowl victories, there were the 1960 Boston Patriots.
Debuting Sept. 9 at Boston University Field in the American Football League's first regular season game, the team included on its roster Gino Cappelletti, a placekicker and defensive back, and Larry Garron, the left halfback.
Before 21,597 fans and the Baron Hugo Orchestra — whose members wore tricorn hats and introduced the Patriots fight song — our new professional football team's night ended on a sour note.
The Denver Broncos prevailed, 13-10, and the Patriots and its short-term head coach, Lou Saban, struggled through a 5-9 season.
But for Cappelletti, a Patriots Hall of Fame player and broadcaster who resides in Wellesley, and Garron, who lives in Framingham where he co-founded the town's Pop Warner program, that season changed their lives.
"In my early days with the team I lived on Pleasant Street in Cambridge and I'd walk across the BU Bridge to practice, and now, I live on Pleasant Street in Framingham. That's pretty cool,'' recalled Garron, 79, a former professor at Bunker Hill Community College who has attained the highest degree in World Martial Arts and still gives private lessons.
The Boston Patriots were eventually renamed the New England Patriots — who open their season Sunday, Sept. 11, in Arizona — and the team's nomadic existence ended with the opening of Schaefer Stadium in Foxborough in 1971, a year after the American and National Football Leagues merged.
Garron still vividly recalls the 1960 campaign, and his difficult rookie season.
After suffering from tonsilitis and batting injuries, he was cut by Saban, his college coach at Western Illinois University, but Garron added 40 pounds in the offseason, made the team again and became a four-time AFL All-Star.
Cappelletti, who had played professionally in Canada after graduating from the University of Minnesota, felt that his tryout with the Patriots would most likely be his last shot at a pro career.
"Our training camp was at UMass Amherst and there were 120 of us. Saban was a really tough hombre, but I liked him a lot as a coach,'' said Cappelletti. "He told me during camp to keep working and that I had a chance but that I needed to make the team as a position player before they even started to think about kickers.''
Like several of the new Patriots, Cappelletti stayed at the Hotel Kenmore in Boston after the team broke camp and that led to his going to Fenway Park in late September 1960, where he saw Red Sox slugger Ted Williams hit his final home run.
Cappelletti had made some history of his own in the opener: His field goal in the first half gave Boston a 3-0 lead. They were the first official points scored in the American Football League.
"You see, the New York Giants were very popular in New England at the time and their games were on TV on Sundays,'' Cappelletti said. "So that's why we opened on a Friday night instead of Sunday afternoon so that we wouldn't be losing fans to them.''
Was the loss a disappointment? Yes, since the Patriots had clobbered Denver a month earlier in an exhibition game in Providence, 43-6.
Garron, who played until 1968 with the Pats, holds the team record with an 85-yard touchdown run (against Buffalo in 1961). He scored 42 career touchdowns and ranks ninth in team history in rushing yards. He was named to the Patriots All-Decade team for the 1960s.
Cappelletti, an inductee to the AFL Hall of Fame who was switched from defensive back to wide receiver, is the Patriots' third all-time leading scorer with 1,130 points — combining 42 TD receptions, 176 field goals, and 342 point after conversions.
The Patriots fortunes improved after Mike Holovak took over for Saban: They posted four straight winning seasons through 1964, defeating the Bills, 26-8, in the divisional championship in 1963 before losing to the Chargers in the AFL championship game, 51-10.
Cappelletti, who led the AFL in scoring five times, was league MVP in 1964. He retired in 1970 and sat alongside Patriots radio play-by-play announcer Gil Santos as color commentator for more than a quarter-century.
In that role, on Feb. 3, 2002 at the New Orleans Superdome, Cappelletti, now 82, watched as the Patriots' Adam Vinatieri kicked a 48-yard field goal as time ran out to give New England its first Super Bowl victory, 20-17, against the favored St. Louis Rams.
"I just stood up in the booth and looked at the numbers on the players' jerseys and I was speechless as I recalled the players on the 1960 team who wore those same numbers,'' Cappelletti said. "I thought of how they must have been feeling and how elated they would be.
"It all paid off, didn't it?'' said Cappelletti, whose own number 20 has been retired by the team.
Cappelletti added that Vinatieri's game-tying 45-yard field goal at Foxboro Stadium during a snowstorm in a playoff game Jan. 19 against the visiting Oakland Raiders (he would kick another in OT for the win) was the defining moment for the franchise.
"To do that in such terrible conditions gave the team a lift that made them believe in themselves,'' Cappelletti said, "all the way to the Super Bowl.''
Garron said that from humble beginnings, in a former baseball park — Braves Field, where Babe Ruth once played — a franchise was born.
"So there is a special bond you feel,'' he said, "when thinking back on those days — even though my rookie salary was $7,500.''