FOXBOROUGH — Sending the Patriots off to the Super Bowl has become close to an annual tradition, and a rite of passage for the younger generation of New England fans, but it is safe to say that fan base is not fatigued with the franchise’s continued success.
Approximately 35,000 Patriots supporters filled Gillette Stadium on Sunday morning to send off their team to play the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl in Atlanta with a spectacular rally, and to earn a closer look at some of their heroes.
Among those dedicated enough to line up at 6 a.m. on a cold January morning was 14-year-old Brian Azinheira, who stood in the front row of the fan section eagerly awaiting the on-stage arrival of Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and the Patriots’ captains.
Azinheira, of South Windsor, Conn., met Rob Gronkowski two years ago through the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Azinheira battled osteosarcoma, a cancerous bone tumor, prior to the Patriots’ dramatic comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl. His welcome journey to remission coincided with the Patriots’ road to a title that February.
Now in good health, the aspiring offensive lineman soaked in the experience with his father, Eli, and their good friend, Mark Synol.
“It all kept him positive,” Eli said of his son’s introduction to Gronkowski. “It gave him something to look forward to and helped him on the road to recovery.”
When Patriots owners Robert and Jonathan Kraft, Belichick, and the Patriots’ captains took the stage Sunday, theirs was also a message of gratitude. The Krafts thanked the fans for their efforts in resurrecting the franchise and Belichick for guiding the Patriots to five Super Bowl titles.
Synol, 48, is a 23-year season ticket-holder with a deep appreciation for how far the franchise has come. He recalled watching the Patriots from aluminum seats at what was called Sullivan Stadium more than 25 years ago, and exhorted kids who have seen so much success over the last decade to cherish their experiences.
“This is history,” said Synol. “When are you going to see something like this happen again? “This run [the Patriots] are on now, it wasn’t like this when we were kids, so we tell the kids to not take it for granted.”
After Belichick took the stage and in his patented concise speech, recognized that “This is the biggest send-off we’ve ever had,” the Patriots’ captains worked the crowd in more incendiary fashion. David Andrews, Matthew Slater, James White, Patrick Chung, and Devin McCourty drew huge roars from the throngs of fans, but none drew a bigger reaction than Brady. Speaking over chants of “Brady, Brady,” the quarterback reflected on the past season.
“We did a good job of not riding the emotional roller coaster,” Brady said. “We played our best football at the end of the season, and we’re not quite at the end yet.” Before leading the Patriots off the stage to the buses that would take them to T.F. Green Airport in Providence for their flight to Atlanta, Brady led the crowd in a chant along those lines, saying, “We’re still here!” before dropping the mic. For fans who have known nothing else, it is easy to expect continued success from one of the greatest athletes in the history of Boston sports.
“We’re lucky,” Brian Azinheira said of his generation.
When asked if he thought this was one of the Patriots’ final trips to the Super Bowl, the teenager shook his head and said, “No way. Not until Brady’s done.”
The Super Bowl kicks off at 6:30 p.m. next Sunday on CBS.
Nate Weitzer can be reached at email@example.com.