The first one is always the best one.
On Feb. 3, 2002, the upstart, underdog New England Patriots beat the St. Louis Rams, 20-17, in Super Bowl XXXVI in the Louisiana Superdome.
It was the upset of upsets. And it still resonates 17 years later as the 2018-19 Patriots — owned, coached, and quarterbacked by the same three men who conquered the Rams in 2002 — attempt to win their sixth Super Bowl on the same date against the same opponent next weekend in Atlanta.
Winning the Super Bowl is no big deal to Millennials who grew up in an era of Duck Boat parades, Lombardi Trophies, and Red Sox dominance. But way back in 2002, Boston was Loserville. None of our city’s teams had won a championship in 16 years. The once-dominant Celtics had not raised a banner since 1986, the Bruins hadn’t won since 1972, and the Red Sox hadn’t won since 1918. The Patriots had never won.
Suddenly, the Flying Elvises were getting ready for a Super Bowl with their grumpy second-year coach (52-60 career regular-season record with the Patriots and Browns) and a 24-year-old quarterback who’d been a sixth-round draft pick, No. 199 overall.
There was no “week off” before the Super Bowl in 2002. NFL schedule delays after the 9/11 tragedy led the league to shrink its playoff calendar. And so after the Patriots stunned the Steelers in Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship game on Sunday, Jan. 27, they flew home for a day, then traveled to New Orleans for a short week of preparation to face the “Greatest Show on Turf.’’ The Patriots were 14-point underdogs.
When Bob Kraft got to New Orleans, he said, “I’m happy to let our results and our organization speak for itself. We want to build something very special in New England.’’
I remember going to a Bourbon Street restaurant, Creole Kitchen, a few hours after landing in New Orleans on Monday of Super Bowl week. Our waiter told us that New Orleans native Marshall Faulk had been a dishwasher there when he was a teenager.
Faulk, the Rams’ star running back, was one of the NFL’s best players, and Bill Belichick told his coaches and his players that he would not allow Faulk to beat the Patriots.
There was some debate about who would start at quarterback for New England. Tom Brady had sustained an ankle sprain in the AFC Championship and was bailed out by veteran Drew Bledsoe. Aware that the ambiguity was good for his team, Belichick kept the media guessing until Friday when he announced that Brady would start.
On game night, the Rams were introduced individually; the Patriots came out en masse.
Paul McCartney performed a pregame song, then Mariah Carey sang the national anthem.
St. Louis won the coin toss and elected to receive.
A pick-6 by Ty Law in the second quarter gave the Patriots a 7-3 lead. The Patriots built it to 14-3 late in the half.
After the second touchdown, when Rams coach Mike Martz sent Faulk out for the kickoff return, the Patriots nodded to one another. Fox broadcaster John Madden told America that he had seen Faulk practicing kickoff returns a day earlier. According to Ian O’Connor’s best-selling tome, “Belichick,” Madden was not the only one who saw Faulk practicing returns.
“Also present for that dress rehearsal were some Patriot staffers who were setting up video equipment,’’ wrote O’Connor. “One of the videographers, Matt Walsh, told the defensive coaching assistant, Brian Daboll, that he’d seen Faulk being used in this unconventional way. So Belichick was sitting on this Mike Martz curveball.”
To this day, a bitter Faulk contends the Patriots cheated their way to the championship. He rushed for only 76 yards in the game.
U2 performed at halftime, and Bono sang “Where the Streets Have No Name’’ as the names of 9/11 victims scrolled on a screen behind the makeshift stage.
New England pushed its lead to 17-3 before the Rams rallied in the fourth quarter and tied the game with 90 seconds left. As Madden called for the Patriots to run out the clock, Brady led New England downfield, moving 53 yards in nine plays. A 6-yard completion to Jermaine Wiggins set up Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning 48-yard field goal.
I started typing.
“This time, the ball didn’t scoot between anyone’s legs. It sailed between the uprights. Straight and true. This time, there was no ill-timed penalty for too many players on the field. No black cloud. No bad calls. No Charlie Brown luck . . .
“Under the Superdome’s synthetic sky, 1,500 miles from home, the Patriots shocked the nation and delivered Greater Boston its first professional sports championship since 1986. On his way to becoming a Bobby Orr/Larry Bird of the new century, Kid Tom Brady produced one final miracle to complete the magic ride of 2001-2002.’’
Globe photographer Jim Davis, who will be in Atlanta next week, got the cover shot of Vinatieri celebrating his winning kick (the Globe cost 50 cents then).
“We are all Patriots,’’ warbled Kraft.
“If we play next week, I know we’ll probably be underdogs,’’ said Belichick.
“Beats those Red Sox, huh?’’ added a smiling Brady.
Brady was the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl.
Now he’s back in the game at the age of 41, and the quarterback of the Rams is Jared Goff, who was 7 years old the night the Patriots made history in New Orleans.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org