What a long, strange trip it’s been—since the diminiutive Patriots place-kicker Adam Vinatieri came through in the pinch with a Super-Bowl winning field goal; since erstwhile second-stringer Tom Brady put the first fingerprints on the slick surface of the Vince Lombardi trophy; since I first began describing myself with two words I thought I’d never utter-“football fan.” What a long, strange season—begun in victory, pocked with defeat, and ending on a note that can only be described as bittersweet. And when it all came to a head on Sunday afternoon, before the New York Jets dashed our playoff hopes by trouncing the Green Bay Packers, before we as New England fans began uttering our mantra—“Next Year”—a bit of the old magic was back.
Stories of sports glory often start this way: Picture this. So picture it. Foxboro. December 29, 2002. On the scoreboard, the lights spell QTR 4, TIME 4:59. Up above, unforgiving, they read HOME 13, GUEST 24. As CBS cameras cut to streams of mournful spectators filing out of Gillette Stadium, their hangdog faces suddenly out of place in their cheery red, white and blue gear, their hand-lettered signs folded up under arms or in trash cans behind them, commentator Greg Gumbel speaks up. “I just figured it out,” he says. “To tie the game, the Patriots need a touchdown, a two-point conversion and a field goal.”
“Well,” my dad says resignedly from his recliner, “that’s the ball game.”
Picture this: David Givens is pumping toward the end zone, sprinting toward a bomb from Brady that’s floating like a promise over the painted grass. Miami’s Jamar Fletcher is on him all the way. Their eyes may be locked on the ball as they scramble down the sideline, but their hands are all over each other. The white “87” and the green “21” on their respective jerseys are bent into hieroglyphics in the fray, until they finally tangle feet and fall heavily onto the ground, barely striking it before they are both pounding their taped knuckles into the dirt in frustration, yelling curses we at home can read on their lips as the ball skitters away, untouched. It’s hard to tell, in the confusion, just who was interfering with who, but the referees call it in favor of New England, and Tom Brady tees it up one more time at first and goal.
Picture this: Troy Brown leaves the ground. His hands reach, fingers spread wide, gentle yet determined as he greets the perfect pass. Hugging the ball to his chest, he drops one foot, then the other, just inside the white sideline at the back of the end zone, all 193 pounds of him in motion in a kind of quirky ballet.
A matter of seconds later, the ball hits Christian Fauria right between the two wide-painted eights on his shirt, knocking him flat onto his back in the very corner of the end zone.
Picture this. Miami quarterback Jay Fiedler is standing on his own three-yard line after a textbook Vinatieri kickoff. On the next play, a stunned Miami’s only remaining chance to stop the audacious Patriots, a lineman might slip and miss a block; a wide-receiver might run a little too wide, but it is Fiedler’s face, he knows, that will appear on the Jumbotron while the game is still in his hands, will flash across countless living-room televisions moments later, will be canned for the newsreels after all has been said and done; as the quarterback, Fiedler is the one who will answer to the coaches on the sidelines, the fans watching at home, and the press-conference microphones, no matter what goes wrong. He crouches down behind the center, the cameras lingering just long enough on his face in that moment to capture the look of dull yet unmistakable panic in his eyes.
Picture this: The next Patriots possession culminates, as it has so many times, with Adam Vinatieri. Dwarfed by the linebackers hunkering down into position a few yards ahead of him, he lets loose a few practice kicks as punter/holder Ken Walter kneels to wait for the snap. A few ticks of the clock, and he charges at the ball, face impassive, propelling it up and forward with every ounce of his weight. It sails through the uprights, perfectly bisecting their twin right angles.
Picture this: A touchdown, a two-point conversion, and a field goal. The clock goes 3, 2, 1.
Overtime. The fans who have stayed till the bitter end have been richly rewarded, and their combined voices are raised in a howl that has obliterated the on-field mics and threatens to drown out the commentators in the press box, a howl still at least a few parts disbelief. Tom Brady and Co. meet three exhausted-looking Miami captains and two shivering referees at the 50-yard line, and as the coin glitters through the air, those of us watching at home see something we’ve been missing for at least three weeks: Tom Brady’s even-toothed, movie-star smile.
Precisely two minutes and three seconds later, in a scene that gives grown men goose bumps of recollection, Number Four takes the field again. No matter how many times I watch him trot out from the sidelines, the thought that crosses my mind is still the same: at least compared to his teammates, Adam Vinatieri is such a small man. Such a small man whose near-impossible task on earth is to stand back after the ball leaves his toes and hope hard enough to save the day. Such a small man that when the ball sails, end over end, between the exact middle of the uprights for the 27th and final time this season, his teammates can pick him up in great helmet-slapping bear hugs without so much as a grunt of effort.
HOME 27, GUEST 24.
I'm writing this in the present tense because somewhere—in a section of the fourth dimension reserved for the memories of the times muscular men in groups of eleven have taken a piece of inflated leather and made time stand still—it’s still happening. And somewhere else, maybe just next door in that strange memory-place, another, earlier Vinatieri kick is still tracing its graceful arc over the reaching hands of a pig-pile of St. Louis linebackers. This is why we as New England fans still can’t stop talking about That Game: after four decades of disappointment, the split second that made all the difference is still not something we can fully believe. And now, Vinatieri’s kick against Miami on Sunday lingers to reflect and refract that moment; as the defending champions head from overtime to the off-season, the second great kick leaves us with new dimensions of hope for the proverbial Next Time. We in New England are well versed in optimism, after almost a century of dying hard for the Red Sox, but now there is a crucial difference when it comes to the Patriots: while we're back to talking about Next Time, for once there has been a Last Time.
And so, I would like to take this moment to declare the playoffs irrelevant. Without the scrappy group of underdogs set to make a historic upset, the games of the post-season are, as they were before Super Bowl XXXVI, just a bunch of oversized zillionaires tossing a ball around--just a bunch of men going to work, and about as entertaining to watch, despite its grander scale, as construction workers or stock traders or any other group of men just doing their jobs. I’ll admit that this is because I'll never love the game simply for the game’s sake like my father does—I don’t watch football for the sharp cuts of runningbacks like Ricky Williams or the bullet throws of Brett Favre; all the buzz around Chad Pennington leaves me cold, and when I hear people talking about Super Bowl favorites, my general response is Tampa Who? Instead, what drew me to the gridiron was the crack in Gil Santos’ voice as he yelled, incredulously, over and over, “The Patriots are Super Bowl champions!” What grabbed me by the heart was the sight of a 350-pound linebacker ripping off his helmet and falling on his back in the end zone, first in a snowdrift in Massachusetts, and later on bare turf in Louisiana, kicking his massive legs and flapping his thick arms in a clumsy snow angel. Playoffs or no playoffs, the no-names led by a second-stringer who were “choosing to be introduced as a team” are the ones who caught my eye, and playoffs or no playoffs, when they play like they did on Sunday, I have eyes for no one else.