Late Patriot Football

The biggest mistake a sports fan can make is to imagine it could have been different. That if only such and such a player had moved such and such a way, then such and such a thing would have changed, leading to such and such–and victory. This is to radically misunderstand what makes a game a game, which is that millions of people agree about a series of random, yet specific events. It is insane to imagine that there was some other, secret metaphysics happening, that a team was destined to win when suddenly some other thing, some dropped pass or blown call, robbed you of something. The entire thing is a fiction. You were not robbed. What happened, happened. Now it’s over.

Bill Belichick says there are two things a receiver has to do: get open and catch the ball. There are, he emphasizes, many ways to do this. But consider, against the vast continuum of human skills, the specificity of these two. Consider that Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals was paid over $20 million this year for his ability to get open and catch the ball. It is a travesty, some will say, that people are paid so much for something so simple. But this is wrong. It is, in fact, a glorious thing: it speaks to the power of collective belief. It is what allows a six-foot-five black kid from Rand, West Virginia, to become Randy Moss, the common denominator in two of the greatest offenses of all time. The second of these, the famed 18-1 2007 Patriots, met ignoble defeat when Moss couldn’t quite haul in a pass from Tom Brady as time wound down. Or maybe the game was over before then, but the point is, the possibility was there. It would have been absurd, but it was on the table. Moss had just completed the greatest season ever by a wide-receiver.

On Sunday night, when Tom Brady threw his last second desperation Hail Mary, the ball was batted around and, as it fell, a leaping Rob Gronkowski came close to catching it. He didn’t. He was injured. He had just completed the greatest season by a tight-end of all time, but he didn’t catch it and the Giants won, beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl for a second time in just five years. The thing about losing the Super Bowl is that it’s as much of an event, almost, as winning one. The number of articles written is similar; there is the same amount of anticipatory chatter, the same level of plans made with friends. The difference is just that the season is, if not a failure, exactly, then even more uniquely unsuccessful. Like a bad novel.

I have been a Patriots fan for a long time, and I confess that of late it’s become less easy than it seems. As any honest fan of a historically successful team will tell you, the pure joy of victory quickly gives way to a cool, aristocratic greed as winning begins to seem the natural order of things. Once this line has been crossed, the fan lives in fear of losing more than in anticipation of winning. This anxiety has actually driven a large portion of Patriot fandom insane, as the regional conversation throughout the 2011 season was relentlessly negative and critical of a team that any healthy fanbase would find absolutely delightful. Take the 2011 New England Patriots and put them in any other uniform and the fans would get tattoos of their faces on their faces. The Patriots have been so good for so long that they have almost run out of ways to win. Perhaps the fans sensed that there was no way but down. For eleven years, the Patriots victory has become the most prolific genre in the catalog of NFL storylines; like many historical genres, it’s possible that it’s been on a slow descent into decadence for a while now.

In the beginning, it was simply the greatest story ever told. Tom Brady, an unheralded sixth round pick had taken over for an injured Drew Bledsoe to lead a team of misfits and cast-offs to an unlikely Super Bowl victory over the heavily favored St. Louis Rams. The game climaxed with Brady’s dramatic last minute drive leading to Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning field goal. Included along the way were dramatic wins over Oakland in the swirling snow, which featured a controversial reversal on a fumble call, and over Pittsburgh, in which the three Patriots touchdowns were a punt return, a blocked field goal return, and a pass from Drew Bledsoe, who came on to relieve an injured Brady. Choosing to be introduced as a team at the Super Bowl, the Patriots become national heroes in the season following September 11. It could have ended there, and many of us would have been happy—one truly great, improbable season—but Brady and Belichick had other plans.

I know of exactly one person who had any premonition of Tom Brady being Tom Brady. It was the summer of 2000 or 2001, and I was either commuting to teach drama at a less-than-local summer camp or I was delivering pizzas. I can’t really remember, because what I was really doing was listening to a lot of Boston sports talk radio. This is not healthy. Mostly because the hosts are very good at feigning a level of ignorance that sounds reasonable enough—in that one is seized with the desire to call in and correct them—but, on reflection, is simply impossible for people who spend four hours a day surveying what is, finally, a pretty small sandbox. In any case, it’s deep into the third hour of The Big Show with Glen Ordway, and this individual, whose name I can’t remember, calls in and says: “Let me tell you. This Tom Brady has some serious biceps,” and is met with total silence. Drew Bledsoe, then the Patriots starting quarterback, had either just signed the richest contract extension in league history or was about to. He had been the first overall pick in the draft in 1993, had taken the Patriots to the Super Bowl three years later, and was generally regarded as a class act. Tom Brady had been the 199th pick in the 2000 draft, and was third or fourth on the depth chart, somewhere between immortals Damon Huard and Michael Bishop. His biceps, as best I can tell after spending a score of Sundays together for eleven years, are not large or impressive. After Bob from Weymouth or John from Brockton, whoever, had made his claim for young Tom, Ordway said quickly and quietly: “I think it is safe to say that Drew Bledsoe is going to be the quarterback of this team for a long time,” and hung up. The caller had managed to find one of the few things beneath discussion during the late afternoon wasteland that was Boston sports radio in the first summers of the young century.

When Tom Brady goes down as the greatest player in the history of the game it will be because none of us saw him coming; we had no expectations. And if you want to understand the peculiar disease that is sports fanaticism, both its glory and its tragedy, you have to understand two things. First, that watching sports is fundamentally akin to kissing or swearing in that expectations are everything. And second, that the fan’s lack of agency isn’t strange or extraneous, as many non-fans imagine—“Why do you say ‘we’?” “Why do you care about a game you can’t control?”—it’s the whole point.  If life, as Oscar Wilde remarked, is much too important to be taken seriously, then sports are just meaningless enough to get really worked up about.

For my part, I came by football honestly, like a scar. Growing up, I was so athletically hopeless that it could have been a diagnosis. (Indeed, when I began taking Adderall, I remember vividly the fantasy that maybe it would cure my lack of coordination. It did not.) Fiercely competitive and strangely proud, I experienced the constant threat of athletic activity as something that loomed over me, like a dead tree. No doubt there are worse things than being young and male and unable to throw anything accurately under any circumstances, but it did not always feel that way at the time. Even my hippie father, existing at a distance of 200 miles and entirely ignorant of anything professional, sports included, looked askance at my endlessly iterated inability to ice-skate, or hit a ball, or stay upright on skis. When he presented me with a surprise basketball hoop on my eighth birthday, I remember wondering how such a simple device could be simultaneously so stupid and so cruel. Since every suburban day presented a new opportunity to demonstrate my physical infelicity, I quickly developed a negative evaluation of sport both as a culture and as a way of life—less from reflection than for survival. And since football was the king of sports and the Super Bowl the king of games, I made a point of not watching, loudly.

It wasn’t until 1995, when I was 12, that I decided that perhaps I should see what everyone was on about. So I purchased some pixie sticks and some gummy orange slices and sat down by myself to watch Super Bowl XXX between the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was not a good game. Dallas won handily, and my only memorable impression was that Neil O’Donnell, the Pittsburgh quarterback, resembled a villain of some kind. The next game I saw was the AFC championship the following year, in which our very own New England Patriots were playing the Jacksonville Jaguars for a trip to the world’s biggest stage. I have one memory only: an interception in the end-zone that sealed the victory; my stomach leaping into the space below my heart.

That team would go on to lose, of course, to the Green Bay Packers, after Bill Parcells, the coach, quit during the two-week interim, over failing to secure full management powers from owner Bob Kraft. Bill Belichick was the defensive coordinator, and he left with Parcells for New York. The Patriots hired Pete Carroll, a supremely nice guy who led the team to progressively worse records in each of his three seasons. As the Pats got worse and worse, I got more and more invested. This wasn’t masochism on my part: I was getting ready to apply to college and was finding that reading about football is an ideal form of procrastination. By the time the team hired the curmudgeonly Bill Belichick, before the 2000 season, I was following every waiver wire transaction, every hiring of an assistant coach. The team’s strength and conditioning coach, Johnny Parker, came to give a talk at my school, which I monopolized by asking comically specific questions about different players.

My defining memory of Bill Belichick’s first season as coach was sitting in my car outside of a friend’s party, listening to the team lose to the Bears on the way to going 5-11. The Bears were terrible, and I couldn’t believe we were losing, but I listened to the whole game and part of the press conference afterward. Bob Kraft, the owner of the Patriots, had been warned against hiring Belichick by people sending him tapes of Belichick’s press conferences. Belichick is almost aggressively unforthcoming; this is usually chocked up to his zealous secrecy or to his being a jerk. (Both true things, actually, not relevant to this.) In fact, Belichick hates press conferences because he doesn’t see why the press should have to talk to him to do their jobs. He’s right, and it’s not entirely coincidental that the rise of the Patriots, and the Boston Sports Renaissance more generally, has been accompanied by the ascendance of the first sports writer to understand this: Bill Simmons.

Simmons’s genius lies not so much in turning his lack of access as an internet writer into an asset: understanding that access itself—the inane, endless back and forth between reporters and coaches, or reporters and athletes, which then gets reported by the reporters to other coaches and athletes, who are asked to comment on it, and on and on forever—is actually a waste of everyone’s time. Instead it rests on his intuition that what everyone secretly believes is true, that their own conversations about sports were funnier and more interesting than anything you could read in the newspaper or hear on TV. While all the other sports writers were composing realist narratives, Simmons was writing dialogues and refining theories; he is both the first and the most successful sports critic. And like a good critic, Simmons knows that being a fan isn’t an ideology, it’s an identity. It makes no impact on the truth of what happened, just how you respond to it.

At the height of their powers the Patriots did something similar in creating a new blueprint for winning in an age of parity, setting an NFL record with twenty-one straight victories between back-to-back championships in 2003 and 2004. Their average margin of victory during this time was four points, as Belichick became the master of the game plan, then the in-game adjustment. Whatever kind of team you were, the Patriots would transform into a team that was built to stop you. They did just enough to win and no more, but they could do it against anybody. Unlike dominant teams of yore, who won with sustained, consistent excellent in one aspect of the game or another, the Patriots would reinvent themselves every week, and every week the other team would walk off the field, shaking their heads, unsure, exactly, of how they’d managed to lose to a team that seemed so unimpressive in so many ways. Even Brady, though no longer the ultra-conservative “game-manager” of the 2001 season, was content to do just enough to win, whether that meant throwing for 100 yards or 300. His interception in the 2003 Super Bowl seemed timed perfectly, letting the Panthers back in the game and setting his team up for another spectacular finish.

I was in college for all three of the Patriots’ Super Bowl victories, which would have been a glorious thing, except that I went to Vassar. When Sunday came, instead of forcing games on friends who couldn’t have cared less, I took the long walk up the hill to the Poughkeepsie Bowl-o-Rama and watched the Pats alongside the locals, who all seemed to favor Dallas.

Much of my football-watching career has taken place at various bars, often alone. This has provided ample opportunity to compare the love we have for a person we know to the love we have for a sports celebrity. The feeling I have for Tom Brady is different from what I feel for anyone I have loved in person, so to speak. I’m not sure I’d do anything for Tom Brady, whereas I would lay down in traffic for several of my exes, even ones who don’t deserve it. We love people in spite of life, and the more we do so, the more likely we are to suffer for our affection. The time I have spent with Tom Brady has been more positive than with anybody else. And before you think that this is some sort of tragedy, ask yourself honestly if what you value about your loved ones is how happy they make you. To love someone is to shape a shared dissatisfaction, in the hopes of orienting it more correctly. Tom Brady doesn’t know me, and I doubt we’d get along, but he has brought me that thin, brittle thing called happiness more often than anyone. The squirming glee of victory is like sunshine, everyone knows it is unpredictable and has nothing to do with you, but they also agree that it’s better than the alternative.

I watched the game last night in South Boston. The Patriots won the coin toss at the beginning of the game and deferred. One of their delightfully badass tics they’ve developed in recent years. After that, the whole thing came and went very quickly.

When I say that the Patriots have become decadent since that final championship in 2004, I’m not talking about them as people, but describing the way they have continued to win without, finally, winning a championship. It’s a rare thing in sports to be champions enough times that nobody likes you, yet hang around enough to lose spectacularly season after season. It bears mentioning that if you were to subtract the three Lombardi trophies residing in Foxboro, these recent Patriots have put together one of the more devastating series of losses of any team going. They have become dominant, but in specific ways, just as the teams they used to beat were dominant in specific ways. What’s more, Belichick has taken his obsessions to new heights. He famously ran Brady’s favorite receivers out of the building after the 2005 season, determining that neither of them was worth the money they were asking for. This led to the first of the really catastrophic losses, against the Colts in the AFC championship game in 2006, when Brady had no one to throw to late in the game. Belichick compensated by acquiring Randy Moss and Wes Welker, officially turning Brady from a scrappy winner to a gaudy statistics machine who comes up just short in the end. Since he last won a Super Bowl, Brady has set the league record for touchdown passes in a season, been named MVP twice–the second time as the first unanimous choice ever–and just this year broke the record for passing yards in a season, along with two other quarterbacks who didn’t win the Super Bowl.

The mistake is to imagine that the Patriots have lost because of these things. Teams don’t lose because of, they lose alongside of, coincidently with everything that takes place on the field but not reducible to any of it. The Patriots are decadent because they are still as present as when they were winning championships, and often they are more dominant individually, they are just less successful as a team.

Last January, the morning after witnessing the Patriots playoff loss to the Jets while visiting my little sister in Providence, I was forced to disseminate the following to my friends and family. It is, sadly, entirely true:

I would like to issue a public apology to anyone who had anything to do with me between the hours of 4 pm yesterday and 11 or so this morning. Due to a combination of Jägermeister, some other drinks, and the offensive line of the New England Patriots, I was not myself. Apologies to the Squibb Family, first and foremost, whose wise indifference to the organized thuggery of American football must have made the ensuing events even more perplexing and sinister. To the crew down at Muldowney’s Pub: no amount of venue shuffling would change our luck, as it turned out, but the big fella behind the counter was quick with the shots after that situation with Santonio Holmes. It was appreciated. And though I disagree with you, Loud Guy at the End of the Bar, about the relative honesty and trustworthiness of Tom Brady, I also understand that we each have to grieve in our own way. And likewise, Large Man Sitting Next to Me, same to you. To the well-meaning drifter who wandered in at the beginning of the fourth quarter, clapped me on the shoulder and said, “There’s always next year!” please know that I meant almost nothing of what I remember saying, and none of what I don’t. Sorry, also, to anyone who texted, emailed, or called me during this difficult time. . . I clearly do not actually want you to fuck off, or die, for that matter, and I agree . . .  that your essay on the political history of Milwaukee would not actually benefit from a lengthy discussion of Rex Ryan’s sexual predilections, however lurid and unholy they may be.

To the poetry slam crew at AS220, I can only say again how fantastic you all were. Truly. Far better than I deserved in the moment of my wandering in, pickled and livid. And though I am sorry about all the yelling, that hole in the bathroom wall predates me and we all know it. To the bearded bartender at that establishment, thank you for continuing to serve me. It was not the right choice, but it was the correct one. To the very sweet middle-aged Chilean couple in town to see their child perform, please know that concerns like the ones you showed for my health and sanity after my third twenty-four ounce bottle of Sierra Nevada in as many hours are not typically met with sustained accusations of Rightist sympathy. Nor are such suspicions, vocalized loudly, an “American Tradition”–that’s just me.

To the Sad Atlanta Fan Working the Desk at the Providence Marriot at 1 am, I really felt we shared something, even if four dollars is a pretty penny to charge a brother in need for a strawberry shortcake and a Fifth Avenue. To the entire customer service department at Megabus.com, while you deserve neither my thanks nor my sympathy, it was nice to have someone to be legitimately furious with at seven o’clock this AM. Those threats were idle, of course, and everybody on the “coach” made it to Manhattan in one piece, as far as I know. But you still might want to get that sound system checked out. Thanks also to Antonio Cromartie, Bart Scott, the aforementioned Ryan, and the entirety of the New York Football Jets for embodying everything that is crass and wrong in the universe with such breathtaking power and economy. For you, nothing less than a lifetime of malodorous and humiliating diseases will do. Cheers, assholes. And lastly, extra special thanks to the thirty-one owners of the National Football League, whose bottomless greed will shortly lead to a lockout canceling all or part of the 2011 season, a development which, given recent events, can only be considered a heavenly blessing for me and mine.

The 2011 season was not cancelled, as it turned out, and by the time the game ended last night, I was once again suitably impressed at how shitty the game can make you feel. Imagine arriving at the last chapter of a book, so far in the running to be an all-time favorite, and finding it inexplicably consisting of recipes for bunt cake, just one after another, with no explanation, and you can begin to grasp the stupid, empty sensation that is losing the Super Bowl. When the other team fumbles three times and recovers all three, God is not on your side.

Between the two Patriots Super Bowl defeats to the Giants I moved back to Massachusetts after five years in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and in the runup to the game I told friends that whatever happened, it would be better than last time. In 2007, I had walked around the block, stunned, while all around me New York—a city I otherwise loved—celebrated. Then I went home and was sick for three days. There was nothing so dramatic this time. Just an old friend and me driving home from Southie in silence.

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