BOSTON – The narrative arc of the soul of the Boston-area sports fan has undergone one of the most improbable reversals of the past generation.
The Pedro-loving and Bledsoe-devoted fans in New England entered this century as famously bedraggled, clinging to memories of Larry Bird and waiting for another Ray Bourque. The tortured passion of the Boston sports existence helped spawn a multi-million dollar media empire. The zeal of it has turned radio callers into caricatures. Cottage industries and bad movie scripts brewed up from the pain.
But then Brady pulled off his first Super Bowl hat trick at the end of the 2004 season, Dave Roberts provided the spark to help Reverse The Curse and, suddenly, this area’s fandom trajectory transformed from bedraggled to ascendant to, well, spoiled.
Along the way, there has been no region’s fan base whose soul has been prodded, studied and parodied more than that of the Boston fan. And this Super Bowl delivers the Boston Sports fan a unique trip to Dr. Melfi’s office for a quintessential first-world conundrum: how does a region that prides itself on its everyman image and parochial passion handle its quarterback icon leaving town after six Super Bowl titles to instantly transform another forlorn football town? (And luring his gregarious old tight end to come out of retirement to come along as his wingman certainly adds to the sting.)
With Tom Brady leaving New England for Tampa Bay in March, it’s safe to say that he left behind few bitter hearts here. Sure, there are some grumblings, but mostly about Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick’s inability to keep him here and surround him in his final seasons with less depth at wide receiver and tight end than Bryant University.
But Tampa Bay is a sporting Switzerland compared to any of the hated Northeast stalwart rivals like the Jets, Giants and Bills. And New England fans have proven they’ll honor their stars’ post-Boston success, as Boston held a City Hall celebration for the former Bruin stalwart, Bourque, in 2001 after he won a Stanley Cup in Colorado.
The best way to gauge this region’s embrace of Tom Brady’s latest revival may have come from the entrance to Olympia Sports, a sporting goods chain, in the shadows of Gillette Stadium this weekend. Amid the expansive strip mall known as “Patriots Place” that appeared and grew with the Brady-fueled success, this visitor was greeted by racks of the awkward Buccaneer red Brady and Gronkowski jerseys at the entrance. There was even a rack with a Brady throwback from Michigan.
Boston Globe columnist Chad Finn reports that about 70 percent of Patriots fans he interacts with will be rooting for Brady this weekend. He quantified the region’s interest in Brady through television ratings, as the Bucs’ wild-card game against Washington did a better rating than the Patriots’ Week 16 Monday night game against the Bills – 19.6 to 18.3. The Bucs game was also the highest-rated game in this market in wild-card weekend.
Finn said that speaks to Brady’s resonance here, even with some fans – taking cues from local media – distilling the brilliance of Brady and the genius of Belichick as either one or the other.
“I think the fans around here realize no matter what he does with Tampa, he’s always going to be remembered as the Patriots quarterback,” Finn said. “He won six Super Bowls and lasted 20 years. Everything that happens after he leaves the Patriots, no matter what he achieves, is going to be a footnote to what he’s already done. He’s got an opportunity to enhance a legacy that’s already set in stone.”
If you are 25 years old, grew up in New England and started watching the Patriots in kindergarten, Brady essentially delivered the Patriots to the Super Bowl every other season during your sporting lifetime. That’s completely anomalous to the way the NFL is structured, and such a steady run of dominance that Brady remained a constant from the grade school playground to high school hallways to college Super Bowl parties to Sunday Fundays post-graduation. Basically, Brady playing in the Super Bowl is muscle memory.
It’s hard to quantify Brady as a constant in this region. Look around on any Sunday, and the dossier of jerseys worn by the Sunday Funday crew offers a clue. There’s awkward fonted Brady jerseys bought and preserved from the early 2000s. There’s pink jerseys, which prompts a reminder that the Boston Herald gossip pages used to refer to him as the QB QT. There’s more sleek modern Brady jerseys, from an era when he opened a health center in Foxboro and his personal health shaman, Alex Guerrero, became a dominant local talking point. And now, Buccaneer red Brady jerseys are the new blue.
It’s a tricky time to measure the pulse of a region via the tried-and-trite journalistic tradition of man-on-the street stories, mostly because there’s very few men or women on the street. The plexiglass barrooms of Boston have all the communal warmth of an interaction with a bank teller. (And those are the barrooms that have endured and remained open, as old haunts like The Fours, The Baseball Tavern, Lir and The Pour House have all disappeared during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Instead of dropping by for a pint at Shenannigans Bar in South Boston, I called Tony Pastore, a longtime barkeep turned former bartender the past few months. He lives in Billerica on the outskirts of Boston and says he doesn’t know a soul rooting against Brady. He admitted that the first few weeks of the season, he tried to stay myopic with his Patriot fandom and not get lured into rooting for the Bucs. He’s said he’s an “old school” Pats fan who wanted to not stray his devotion.
That changed the past few weeks. “You know what did it for me was the Drew Brees video where he stopped and talked to him and his family,” Pastore said. “This guy [Brady] can’t do anything wrong. He’s got that aura around him. It’s tough to hate him.”
Would the barrooms in Boston be filled with Buccaneer red Brady jerseys on Sunday? That’s hard to say. There’d likely be a kaleidoscope of Brady, if this were a non-pandemic time, which is indicative of a run that spanned from David Patten to N’Keal Harry.
Along the way, he took less money for the good of the team, generally avoided significant controversy that didn’t involve ball deflation and became the indelible icon of a region. In the eyes of the fans who’ve known the franchise only with him, he could be considered bigger than it.
“You know what? Let the guy have his day,” said Jay Miranda, a longtime bartender in Boston and native of Providence. “He gave us 20 years of his time and sacrificed a lot. If he wants to go prove himself separate of the Patriots, he’s earned that right.”
With a blizzard dumping more than a foot of snow in some places around New England this week, the rhythms of early February feel both familiar and different. New England is bundled up, anxiously awaiting Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. The color scheme and supporting cast has changed. But rooting for Tom Brady hasn’t.
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