Patriots sent off by 25,000 fans
FOXBOUROUGH, Mass. -- An estimated 25,000 New England Patriots fans flooded Foxborough late Sunday morning, turning out in droves for a send-off rally at Gillette Stadium before the team left for Indianapolis and their Feb. 5 Super Bowl matchup against the New York Giants.
"I want to thank you all for coming here today and giving us the warmest welcome in the history of this team," said team owner Robert Kraft, addressing the crowd from a stage set up along the Patriots' sideline. "(It's) our send-off to Indy, where we intend to do business."
Taking care of business was a common refrain throughout the day. When the Patriots players arrived on the game field shortly after noon, they were dressed for the boardroom -- for "a business trip," as linebacker Jerod Mayo said -- outfitted in pressed, dapper suits. And at the podium, they largely followed coach Bill Belichick's brief, business-like lead.
"It's a great honor to be representing the AFC and New England in the Super Bowl," Belichick said. "We're really excited about the trip. (We) appreciate the support. I'm sure we'll see some of you out in Indy. Go Pats."
Vince Wilfork echoed his coach.
"It's been a long, fun, exciting, tough year," Wilfork said. "And hopefully we can go down to Indy and have one more win in us. So we'll hear you guys all the way down to Indy, and like Bill said, Go Pats."
Brady, too, was brief, thanking the fans for their support and saying that he wished he could bring all of them to Indy.
"We're going down there for one reason," Brady said. "We're going to give it our best and hopefully we'll have a lot more people at our party next weekend."
Some in the New York media jumped on that remark, and later in the day, Brady was asked if he was hoping to project confidence to fans.
"Well, it was a pep rally," he said, drawing laughter from reporters in Indianapolis. "People were pretty excited. Certainly players were excited. I know 25,000 fans who were there were excited as well. It was great to see the support. We get great support, home and away, and hopefully we have some Patriots jerseys in the stands next Sunday night."
Only Deion Branch, dressed lavishly in a white sport coat and black slacks, deviated from the business-like script at the rally.
"What's up, baby?" Branch yelled as he grabbed the microphone from rally host and longtime Patriots radio play-by-play announcer Gil Santos. "What's up, New England? You know coach Belichick told us not to come out here and talk too long, but we're going to the Super Bowl! Unreal.
"This is the reason why I wanted to be back here, for this one reason right here, baby. To have the opportunity to play for a championship, play for a Super Bowl, and bring this trophy back to you all because you deserve it. Thank you, baby."
The send-off officially began at 10 a.m. with a replay of the Patriots' 23-20 AFC Championship win over the Baltimore Ravens, but fans started arriving at the stadium well before that, many of them wearing Patriots jerseys and hats and arriving in cars with messages like "Honk for Gronk" written on their windows, though ailing tight end Rob Gronkowski, seen in recent days wearing a boot on his sprained left ankle, was notably absent from Sunday's festivities.
Gronkowski was wearing a large boot on his left ankle when the team arrived in Indianapolis shortly before 5 p.m. ET
Still, as fans milled about Patriot Place Plaza in search of coffee and free hot dogs, most were optimistic about next Sunday's game.
"We're gonna kill 'em," said Foxborough's Suzanne Colwell as she held the leash of her dog, Armani, a 5-year-old rat terrier with a banner-waving Tom Brady doll strapped to its back. "I can't wait."
Many fans said they expected a close game -- "We're going to win by three, whatever the score ends up being," said Bob McNeil of Medfield -- while others hoped for a blowout, the better to avenge New England's 17-14 loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
"I hope (the Patriots) crush 'em," said Joe Fitzgerald, an 18-year-old from Wilmington. "Especially after how (the Giants) ruined the Pats' perfect season in 2007. This is more than just a game."
North Attleboro's Brett Harris, 23, agreed. "(The Giants) have a good team, but I don't think it's going to happen again," he said, before pulling up the sleeve of his Patriots sweatshirt to reveal a fresh tattoo, which read, simply, "Patriots."
"I'm thinking about adding more if they win," Harris said. "Maybe the Lombardi trophy."
The send-off ceremony concluded shortly after 12:30, with Kraft offering the final remarks. At Kraft's left was a painting depicting Patriots players reaching their hands toward the initials MHK, which represented Kraft's wife, Myra, a committed philanthropist and volunteer who passed away in July after a battle with cancer. In her honor, the Patriots have invited 10 New England service workers -- teachers, firefighters, police officers, nurses -- to join them in Indianapolis for the Super Bowl. After thanking the fans for their support, Kraft closed with a reference to his late wife.
"You all know that I am a great believer in spirituality, and I know that a lot of you just like our family have suffered losses over the last 12 months," Kraft said. "And I know that they are ardent Patriots fans and that they've been smiling down on us over this past year. But especially this past game at this stadium, I saw one smiling face along with your dear ones, making sure that things worked out the way we wanted at the end of the game."
As players left the podium and filed off the field, many greeted fans in the stadium's front row as they exited. From there, they boarded six team buses -- each with "Good Luck Patriots" written in red letters on the side -- and, with a thicket of fans cheering them on, the buses pulled out of the Gillette Stadium parking lot and headed for Logan Airport and then Indianapolis.
The Giants aren't scheduled to arrive until early Monday afternoon.
Belichick explained that the early arrival allows the Patriots to have as close to a normal regular-season week as possible, with a practice Monday, day off Tuesday, then practices Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
"It's great to be here," Brady said. "Regardless of where you play, the Super Bowl is an incredible experience for all of us. I've been very fortunate in my career, my fifth time. You try to communicate to the younger players how special it is to be here, because you really do never know when you're going to come back."
Tom Lakin is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Information from ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss was used in this report.
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