Today, I salute the Pats
January 15, 2004
First and foremost, I am a San Francisco 49ers fan. Let me make that crystal clear. I bleed red and gold. I covet Niners apparel like its my own child. Starting in the Joe Montana era (1979), I can name every year they’ve gone to the playoffs and every one of their five Super Bowl winning seasons, starting with 1981 – the year of my birth, actually. I’ve been to preseason games, regular season games and playoff games in San Francisco, even in the heyday when it was called Candlestick Park. I am as true as they come.
Just so no one questions that. I have a reputation to hold up, you know.
But on this day, Jan. 16, 2004, I declare the New England Patriots, members of professional football since their American Football League (AFL) days in the 1960s, as my secondary team. I came to this monumental decision while I watched the Patriots beat the Tennessee Titans in two-degree weather (and a wind chill of 11 below) last Sunday.
If you’ve been following my columns at all, you may have concluded that I’m a traditionalist, a small-town guy. Like the great Hank Williams, Jr. sings, “I’m into basics, and I don’t like fads.” And what professional football team represents basic, traditional America better than the Patriots?
On the surface, let’s start with the mascot. The team name was inspired by Boston’s role in the American Revolution (1775-1783). Remember, it was the American patriots, in the earliest sense of the word, who defeated the British Red Coats and stole this proud country away from Britain’s evil monarchy. A dignified patriot adorns their silver helmet, complementing red, white and blue uniforms. How can you not like this team?
After all, I’m American, born and bred, so why wouldn’t I like the Patriots? Come on, ESPN’s own Nick Buoniconti, a former linebacker, was a Patriot (I know, that’s not all that enticing, but keep reading).
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And what team was it, shortly after Americans were disheartened by the events of Sep. 11, 2001, that heroically defeated (the NFL team that I utterly despise) the St. Louis Rams in one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history? That’s right. The Patriots did, on a last-second field goal by Adam Vinatieri in Super Bowl XXXVI. Granted, they didn’t bag Osama Bin Laden, but, especially if you’re a Ram-hater, it was a close second.
Speaking of Vinatieri, a graduate of South Dakota State, who consistently makes clutch field goals, reason enough to respect him, he alone is slightly responsible for why I’m confessing my newfound love for the Patriots. Do I need to remind you that Vinatieri and I were born in South Dakota? I in Spearfish, and Vinatieri in good ‘ole Yankton, SD, in 1972! Go Adam! Keep putting us Dokotans on the map. Vinatieri also kicked the overtime field goal that beat the Raiders in the legendary snowy 2002 AFC Championship game, joining many other Dakota legends. Sure, he ain’t no Norm VanBrocklin, Sparky Anderson, or even Tom Brokaw, but he makes us South Dakotans proud, I reckon!
Back to tradition, the Patriots, who call Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., home, represent old-school football in the truest form, the way it should be played. They play outside, in the cold, and that alone offers them a home field advantage in the playoff months. Notice how the Minnesota Vikings, who lost four Super Bowls in the ’60s and ’70s, have not made a Super Bowl appearance since they moved into the cozy, astro turf laden Metrodome in 1982? Need I remind you that the Green Bay Packers, a close neighbor of the Vikings, geographically speaking, is 12-1 in the postseason on the “frozen tundra” of Lambeau Field, their outdoor home stadium.
Cold weather means victories in the playoffs when a team is used to the elements. And America will see for themselves this Sunday (3 p.m. ET) when Peyton Manning (0-4 at Foxboro), who has enjoyed the comfy confines of his Indianapolis dome his whole career, now loaded the “hottest” arm in football, balls up and withers in the freezing New England air. Just like a British soldier of the American Revolution, he won’t know what hit him, and Tom Brady (4-0 in the playoffs), the unnoticed quarterback, will in the end lead his team to Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston, which will be the Patriots’ fourth unsung appearance.
Besides defeating the Rams, which basically represented al-Qa’ida in a metaphorical world, the Patriots played in two other Super Bowls, after the 1985 and 1996 seasons. Like the 2001 team, these teams weren’t expected to be there. That said, the attitude that defines these Patriots Super Bowl teams are a model for how to live life: don’t give up.
Any half-witted football historian would know that 1985 and Super Bowl XX belonged to the Chicago Bears, who delighted us with their horrible ballad “Super Bowl Shuffle,” shortly after a 46-10 thrashing of the Patriots. This team, which had a ferocious defense under the guidance of coordinator Buddy Ryan and head coach Mike Ditka, may have stood a chance against a team of King Kongs. They were that mean and that good. Walter Payton. Mike Singletary. Richard Dent. Enough said.
On the other side of the ball, a little known Patriots team, then sporting the very unintimidating helmets with “a man hiking the football” logo, entered Super Bowl XX with slightly less of a snowball’s chance in hell of winning. Behind quarterbacks Tony Eason and Steve Grogan, the Patriots had won three playoff games on the road as a Wild Card team, including a 31-14 victory at the powerhouse Miami Dolphins.
That’s why you have to love the Patriots. Just making it to the Super Bowl that year, against all odds, was gutty enough. The 1985 team set a precedent for Cinderella Wild Card Teams to follow, even though you’d probably have to go to Boston to hear them mentioned in any present-day conversation.
Now skip ahead to 1996. Behind Head Coach Bill Parcells, quarterback Drew Bledsoe, and running back Curtis Martin, the Patriots found themselves in Super Bowl XXXI against the Packers. The Patriots again came out on the losing end, 35-21, but they were there, defying all predictions. They gave up only nine points in two playoff games versus the Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville. That’s less than a touchdown a game! That’s efficient football folks, and defense wins championships.
OK, that’s your lesson in American (football) history for today: True, traditional, red-blooded American football, baby. The Patriots, who field a group of classy players every year who just want to win. There is not much glitz and glamour in Foxboro. I don’t think down-to-earth coaches like Parcells or Bill Belichick would allow their team to take part in any “Super Bowl Shuffle.”
That is why you have to like the Patriots.
In closing, I have methodically chosen two teams in two different conferences, with many miles standing between them, and not much history together (the Niners are 7-2 all-time versus the Pats).
Perhaps I just need someone to cheer for in the 2004 playoffs, since the Niners performance was hideously inconsistent this season. But if the two ever meet in the Super Bowl, I’ll forget about my “patriotism” entirely for a day, that’s for sure.