- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Twenty years ago, one of the New England Patriots' final home games of the season drew a crowd of 19,429.
For Thursday's opening of 2012 training camp, the team announced a single-session crowd of 12,163.
Think about that for a moment, if you will. Not just about how the Patriots have morphed from undesirable to a must-see over that time, a storyline that has been well-chronicled, but more about the number of spectators who came to watch practice.
In the unforgettable words of Allen Iverson, "We're talking about practice! Not a game. We're talking about practice!"
"Every year, our training camp audiences continue to grow," said Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who watched the session from the sidelines. "Today's attendance was remarkable, especially considering the threat of thunderstorms in the area. It shows how eager our fans are to start another season. It was great to see the players back on the field.
"After practice, I attended former Patriot Tommy Hennessey's wake and saw some of his former teammates," Kraft continued. "When I told them that we had over 12,000 fans at practice today, they couldn't believe it. They said they could remember playing games in front of smaller audiences. I told them that I could remember being at those games [in the 1960s].
"It is amazing to think how far this franchise has come and how much the support for it has grown. I am glad to have had an opportunity to be a part of it all."
Kraft, of course, is one of the driving forces behind the transformation. The brilliance of coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady is a powerful catalyst as well.
Greg Silvia, of south Orange County in California, watched it all unfold Thursday from about eight rows up at the 50-yard line. The 21-year-old, a lifelong Patriots fan, was in town with family for a wedding.
"We had a blast. It was a great crowd, everyone's just talking football, and what's nice is that you can be that close to the team," he said. "It didn't feel too crowded."
One thing that stood out to Silvia, who is studying to become a sports writer and enjoyed watching the seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 passing drills, was the knowledge of those in the crowd.
"The amount of kids who knew players' names was incredible," he said. "Where I'm from, everybody has their own team. They don't stick with one team."
Silvia's father was a Patriots season-ticket holder in the 1980s and once explained to him that he couldn't give his tickets away. That must be hard to believe for a younger generation of Patriots fans born over the past two decades, such as 19-year-old Mark Rossetti of Dracut.
"I just love seeing the players up close, legends in the making," said Rossetti, who watched from about the 35-yard line. "It's a chance to see them before they hit the field for games. I like to see how they run their practice."
He arrived early Thursday, and soon enough, he found himself among a crowd of 12,000-plus.
"I looked over to the grass and that filled up quick, then all the bleachers were filled, and I was shocked," he said. "You have to love the support."
Part of what makes training camp so popular is the cost. It's free, and that includes the parking. There aren't many true values left in professional sports these days, but NFL training camp, at least here in New England, is one of them. It looks like that's the case in Denver, too, where a record crowd of 4,000-plus showed up Thursday to see quarterback Peyton Manning in his first practice with the Broncos.
Manning might have been the big story in the NFL on Thursday, but closer to home, the return of Brady and the boys had many buzzing.
Fans came from across the region, and even farther, to take it all in on the two glistening, fresh-cut fields behind Gillette Stadium. Some brought signs, such as the one touting back-of-the-roster safety Ross Ventrone and his fan club. The energy generated by the crowd added a special twist to the first-step-in-a-long-process day, and it reached a peak when Brady connected with receiver Jabar Gaffney on a long-bomb touchdown pass down the right sideline. The crowd roared.
Yes, we're talking about practice, one very popular practice.