Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Football In America [Print without images]

Monday, November 15, 2004
Boston winners? Pick 'em

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

FOXBORO, Mass. -- They had a harmonic hardware convergence shortly before kickoff in Gillette Stadium Sunday night. The defending Super Bowl champions welcomed in the freshly minted World Series champions for a wicked-haht celebration.
Postcard From Foxboro
There's no mystery as to why Boston sports fans finally find themselves surrounded by winners. It's all in the headgear.
Fresh folk hero Johnny Damon sprinted across the field, still looking like Jim Morrison with better wheels. Curt Schilling, whose ankle will go down alongside Willis Reed's knee in the annals of famous injuries overcome, hobbled out of a golf cart on crutches. (In a hero-to-hero salute, Schilling was wearing a Tom Brady jersey.) The World Series trophy was held aloft to a standing ovation.

And Titletown embraced its bad self.

A region that spent most of the 20th century leaning hard on the Celtics for athletic glory is suddenly flush with millennial mastery. They simply don't lose these days in Massachusetts. (John Kerry prominently excepted.)

The Red Sox closed the baseball season with an eight-game winning streak of historic, epic, mythic and cathartic proportions. The Patriots, owners of two of the last three Vince Lombardi trophies, peeled off a league-record 21-game winning streak that stretched on for more than 12 months before ending two weeks ago. (After thrashing Buffalo 29-6 Sunday night, the new winning streak stands at two.)

The Pats' winning has endeared them to a city loyal to the Sox.
For the first time in 25 years, since Pittsburgh ruled, the champions of pro football and pro baseball reside in the same city. Things have been so good, the Boston newspaper writers don't even remember how to rip somebody.

"This," proclaimed Pats fan Rob Anderson, "is the apex of the sports universe."

Now Boston College is riding the pros' coattails, upsetting West Virginia Saturday to gain the inside track for a Big East championship and BCS bid. Local boy John Ruiz retained the World Boxing Association heavyweight title Saturday night. Next thing you know, Heartbreak Hill will level out in time for the 2005 Boston Marathon.

This is all a radical change, of course. The Sox suffered under Yankees tyranny for a mere 86 years, and the Patriots went the first 42 years of their existence without winning it all -- not in the AFL, not in the NFL, not in their wildest dreams.

These days the Pats are the gold standard of the league, seemingly incapable of serious misstep.

They play in a Taj Mahal of a 2-year-old stadium, outdoors and on grass, having kept it real by resisting any temptation to play inside like the weenies in Atlanta, New Orleans, Minnesota, Detroit, Indianapolis, St. Louis and Houston. They won over the world when they shocked the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, refusing individual introduction and instead coming out as a team. They have a roster full of team-first guys like wide receiver Troy Brown, who has been playing defensive back the last two weeks because of injuries (and who picked off his old teammate, Drew Bledsoe, Sunday night.) They have a quarterback who wins hearts with his looks and minds with his play, and who gracefully bears the burden of crossover celebrity. They have a taciturn coach whose utter disinterest in self promotion has helped make him a weird kind of New England cult hero.

Life is so lovely here in Beantown that they even adore the team owner, Robert Kraft. That runs counter to the typical pro-town mentality of disliking and distrusting all ownership.

Before the Seattle game last month, fan Eric "Duke" Duquette was in line at a Port-A-John outside the stadium. Kraft came rolling by in a golf cart. Duquette shouted his appreciation of the owner. Kraft stopped the cart and gave Duquette a hug.

"How many owners would do that?" asked Duquette, who is a lot to hug. The baseball coach at Pittsfield High School in New Hampshire, Duquette wears the jersey of former offensive lineman Bruce Armstrong -- and fills it about as amply as Armstrong used to.

Duquette and his crew are in the New England minority -- bigger Patriots fans than Sox fans.

"Our bread is buttered right here," he said. "It's our life."

Outside of Duquette's tailgate party, the Red Sox rule -- and never more than now. You cannot swing a dead cat around here without hitting someone in a Sox hat, Sox sweatshirt, Sox jersey or, one would assume, Sox underwear.

The tailgaters were still crowing about The Comeback For All Time that beat the Yankees. ("There's so much hatred for the Yankees up here, it's not even funny," Jason Marshall said.)

And they were still talking about the 3.2 million people who reportedly flooded Boston for the Red Sox victory parade. ("It's sick," Chuck Mason said. "You can't fit 3.2 million into downtown Boston, but it's religion here.")

But while the fans worry about which Sox wind up in pinstripes, they have this pleasant diversion of a football team to watch. Not a bad little squad.

"It's a good mainstream NFL town, but baseball is the obsession," said no less an authority than longtime Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan. "But at one point football was No. 4, and I don't know of another market where that's case. Now it's 1A."

Ryan divides Patriots history into two periods: pre-Parcells and post-Parcells. The year before the Tuna arrived in 1993, New England had sold 18,000 season tickets and games were routinely blacked out.

"The minute Parcells arrived, the phones started ringing," Ryan said.

And they haven't really stopped -- especially since the titles started rolling in under Bill Belichick. These days the fans show up regardless of the weather, and engaged in memorable snow-game revelry last season.

It snowed here Saturday, and the weather was none too balmy Sunday night. But neither cold weather nor $35 stadium parking were enough to chase away the tailgate crowd.

Tom Abernathy, recently retired from Raytheon, has been coming to Patriots games since the franchise was born in 1960. Sunday night he performed a classic New England gustatorial service for his tailgating crew, steaming 34 lobsters. While melting butter he talked about what the Pats mean to him.

"When the Pats won the Super Bowl for the first time," he said, "it was a better feeling than when the Sox broke 'The Curse.' "

Not a soul at his tailgate party agreed with him, but that's the beauty of life these days in New England. They don't have to choose between champions. They have it all.

Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com.