``I saw 60,000 people sitting up there and their benches weren't heated,'' linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. ``That was enough motivation for me to play.''--reported by Kevin Mannix in the Boston Herald
We didn't actually have our own tailgate, so we watched others from the van. As Friday moved into Saturday, weather reports showed a movement of cold air coming due South from the North Pole, to settle over New England--and Foxboro, and Gillette Stadium. The conditions were truly Arctic; 5 degrees with wind chill plunging the temperature below zero. Outside the van's sloped windshield two shivering men were removing a card table, metal folding chairs, a Coleman lantern, a cooler, two small grills, a bag of charcoal, a can of lighter fluid and a full bottle of Captain Morgan Spiced Rum from the back of an SUV. Nearby an open fire licked at the back tires of a pickup truck. Farther off a fire had been built so large that it cast flickering light over the entire area--the parking lot near the Foxboro Terminals, a shipping and receiving warehouse just across the Commuter Rail tracks from the stadium. Probably once a secret of the savvy season-ticket faithful, the parking enterprise had expanded to a $30-per-car exclave hundreds of fans strong--a true Little Bohemia, last night, of fires, mittens, and Miller Lite.
My father was struggling to figure out the logistics of the particular tailgate we were watching. Another person was clearly still in the SUV as one man wrestled with their equipment.
"Maybe he drew the short straw," my father theorized as the man poured himself a truly generous amount of Captain Morgan in a plastic cup. He added a few ice cubes as a garnish.
"Nope. Gotta be his wife." My father nodded knowingly as the man set up the grills, put in the charcoal, and lit the fires after having unloaded everything all by his lonesome.
"Gotta be the wife. Hmm. What the hell's he...oh, I get it. He's got the little hibachi thing there...What are they cookin', steak? Yup. What the hell's the point of bringing ice?"
Another man stepped out of the SUV. "Look at that guy's earflaps on his hat," my dad said incredulously. "Those things aren't shit!"
"Well, it's not a wife," I said, as the first man attempted to rekindle one of the lighter-fluid soaked hibachis with a cigarette lighter.
"Here's another theory," my dad said. "They're gay, and that guy's the bitch."
"I don't think so," I said as I watched their fumblings.
"If they were gay that guy's earflaps would be better, and they'd probably have a tarp and a tablecloth."
The first guy grabbed his cup of rum and took a draught of epic proportions. My dad and I fell silent, watching him swallow the all-but-straight-up liquor. "Wow," we said together as he finally finished swallowing.
Entertaining as our little play-by-play was, it was time to Suit Up. My dad crawled in the back of the van, where the middle seats had been removed for dressing purposes. I already had on a set of stretchy black high-tech long underwear from EMS (that'll be another considerable chunk of paycheck, thank you) complete with pants, zippered top, glove liners and a head sock--the overall effect was something between a wet suit and a ninja costume. This went underneath two pair of sweatpants and a pair of jeans. On my feet I had Double Layer (tm) hiking socks and the Thinsulate (tm) boots that had helped me survive the snowy game against the Jaguars. Over the ninja-shirt I had already layered a short-sleeved T-shirt, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and my Tom Brady jersey (a must). When it came time to head over to the stadium, though, I added my pair of SmartWool (tm) Mountaineer socks; fleece conversion mittens; a blue fleece pullover that said PATRIOTS across the front and EST. 1960 on the sleeve; my Gore-Tex (tm) shell parka; my SUPER BOWL XXXVI CHAMPIONS stocking cap and a white knit scarf.
My father had arrived wearing a pair of long johns, a pair of sweatpants, regular athletic socks, hiking boots, jeans, a turtleneck and his Ohio State vest. In the back of the car he put on a padded coverall suit; a neon orange head sock;Car-Hart overcoat and detachable hood; a pair of glove liners and a pair of padded mittens; SmartWool (tm) Mountaineer socks; and Sorrel (tm) Mountaineer boots. We grabbed the down-filled sleeping bags and were finally ready to set off.
We walked past the bonfires and tarpaulin tents till we reached the train tracks, and then stumbled clumsily along in the crushed stone between the rails till we got to the T platform, where we walked up the paved path toward the stadium. Outside the Fleet Gate we stopped for our complimentary Dunkin' Donuts coffee, had our sleeping bags and persons halfheartedly inspected by shivering Event Staff, and walked into Gillette Stadium. By the time we got to the man handing out the Official NFL Playoffs towels, we were both sweating. My dad had already put his footwarmers into his Mountaineer boots, and his feet were on fire as we ascended the ramp toward the upper levels.
Meanwhile, my chest was the part of me that was burning. The air was so cold it was painful to breathe, even through my scarf and headsock, which further compounded the problem by making sucking in oxygen a difficult proposition. Meanwhile the relentless upward incline of the ramp made every Marlboro and cheeseburger I've ever consumed come back to haunt me with a vengeance. When finally arrived at the top of the ramp, I had to stop for at least the third time to rest. I hadn't remembered the trek to the upper level being so daunting the last time I had come, but maybe that's because last time it was Kellie who was huffing and puffing. This time it was a near-impossible prospect to keep up with my dad, who after hour-per-day bike rides for the past year or so was unfazed by the climb. My heart was pounding as I leaned on my sleeping bag.
"What's the matter?" my dad asked. I put his mittened hand to my chest. "Holy shit, are you all right?"
"Yeah," I wheezed. "I'm just fat."
"The gym's having a special this week, you know," he said helpfully. "A New Years' Resolution type thing."
"Yeah, I'm thinking of checking it out," I gasped.
"Christ," my dad said, looking at me. "You're only 23 years old."
"I feel a lot older," I admitted.
But my coronary distress notwithstanding, we finally made our way up to the seats, which were perched at the midpoint of the third deck of Gillette. It's a well-designed stadium that maximizes the comfort and visibility for just about everyone watching the game, but with Saturday's weather, it was like sitting on the summit of Everest. People's beer froze in the bottle. My dad accidentally spilled hot chocolate from our mugs on the ground, and it was instantly a slick brown patch of ice under our feet. A fan took his seat with a huge round thermometer hung around his neck like Bel Biv DeVoe, and when he turned around I saw that the needle was hovering at just the second tick mark above zero.
"Shit," my dad said, "If this place fills up we won't be able to see the field. People breathing will make too much fog."
Hot as we had been walking up, we now found ourselves shuffling our sleeping bags over our boots and pulling them as far as they would go toward our chins. When I was finally arranged and situated in my seat, I looked up at the Jumbo-Tron. Earlier it had been broadcasting the Carolina Panthers' double-overtime upset of the St. Louis Rams, but now the red-nosed but still-handsome face of Tom Brady was standing two stories tall, breathing fire in the cold.
"Hi, Tommy," I said. My breathing and heartrate had slowed, but now my chest cavity felt like it had been scrubbed out with steel wool. The cold was seeping through all my layers of technology, and my butt against the seat, in particular, felt like a block of ice. I was toying with stuffing a hand-warmer packet down my pants. Part of my brain still couldn't quite exactly believe I was here. I looked up and Tommy and spoke what could only be the truth: "I love you."
After that there was the usual thunder of the crowd, the usual second-guessing of play calls and barking at refs. A sign showed up on the Jumbo-Tron: "Eskimo Up!" We only counted two beer-bellied morons showing up shirtless on the screens. There were catches that weren't catches and touchdowns that weren't touchdowns and a few cases of pass interference that weren't called. The Titans had the energy and determination of a person hanging by their fingernails off the cliff, and for all the Patriots' poise and focus, it's harder to stay on top than to clamber up with a cheap move.
It should also be mentioned that while attempting to stuff hand warmers into various crevices in my shoes, pockets and gloves, I opened my jacket and thought I had broken one of the packets open--my chest was covered in white granules. I showed my dad. "It's frost," he said, awestruck. I opened one side of my jacket and looked inside. There, on the inside of my jacket, the condensation from my sweat as I clambered up to our seats had hardened into ice. Inside my clothing.
The score was 7-0. Then 7-7 for a nerve-wracking period in the late second quarter where, if I could have gotten to my fingernails, I'd have bitten them: the Patriots have an astonishing record of wins when ahead at halftime, and I was afraid that this precursor of victory wouldn't come to pass. Then it was 14-7, but then, impossibly, it was tied up again at 14 all for an interminable stretch into the fourth quarter. Adam Vinatieri's field goal to boost the score to 17-14, Patriots, was a comforting echo of the division game against Oakland two years ago, but the lead was still disconcertingly small. Hypothermia notwithstanding, the stadium remained packed until the very end.
I have to confess something now: I didn't believe. I feared our record, to be honest, and remembered that our 2001 team had been an upstart underdog, as the Tennessee Titans had now become. I feared being on the Goliath side of the ball. I feared the twists of fate that had sunk the Red Sox. Most of all, I feared getting my hopes up in the freezing cold only to have the Patriots' remarkable season prematurely put on ice. It makes me ashamed to say it, but I was more or less off the bandwagon--running along behind it, maybe, but off just the same.
I guess I should just be glad that the Patriots knew differently than I did.
Suddenly the clock read 1:45. League Co-MVP Steve McNair stood, ever the battered soldier, on his two bum legs on the Patriots' 42-yard line. It was fourth down with 12 yards to go, but the Playoffs are not the time to go for the minimum or concede defeat. As he stepped out the huddle, everyone knew McNair was leveling his cannon. That cannon had already fired out 210 yards against the uncharacteristically shaken ranks of our defense, and he'd already pulled the team up by its bootstraps twice with similar odds against him.
But these were the Patriots, after all. As Tedy Bruschi and Richard Seymour appeared on the Jumbo-Tron calling for more noise, I stood and finally joined the rest of the crowd with an unconflicted heart. These were the Patriots. Tom Brady was at the helm, even if he was standing on the sidelines, and he had obviously been blessed in his crib by a gridiron guardian angel. The teams lined up for their do-or-die moment, and my yell tore my throat.
Several other plays and series have been mentioned as the keys to this particular game--a 4-yard pass from Brady to Troy Brown with the score tied at 14 on a fourth-and-3 at the Titans' 33-yard line with 5:14 left; Vinatieri's usual clutch performance--but this particular moment, 1:45 up in lights, the play clock ticking down, battle-scarred McNair under center, our frozen breath catching in our throats, was it for me. "It" being, of course, the sensation of finding yourself in a place where time has slammed on the brake. "It" being the part of the story I'll bore my grandchildren with. "It" being the point in time so rare and enigmatic that stands out independent from any final outcome or story of getting there.
It came down to this handful of moments, moments that were both hideous and gorgeous in their simplicity: McNair took the snap. He dropped back to throw.
And the ball went up in the air.