Sports Nut

New England Patsies

The myth of the rough, tough Boston sports fan.

Here in New England, the bestest place ever to live in the bestest country ever on the bestest planet in the bestest solar system at the heart of the bestest galaxy, we have the bestest professional football team with the bestest coach and the bestest hunky quarterback and the bestest owner, and they play in the bestest stadium there absolutely ever was, and if you don’t think so, you’re just jealous, that’s all you are. Nyah.

Sorry about that.

Beware when a city’s sports fans start bragging about how “tough” that city is on its teams. Invariably, this is done only to distract your attention from the immense marshmallow there just beneath the surface. For example, Philadelphia fans certainly did boo Santa Claus once, but they all still get weepy about the old Flyers teams. New York’s allegedly leathery heart softens to gelatin over as ordinary a ballplayer as Paul O’Neill. And all those Chicago fans who lined up to toss poor Dick Jauron off Navy Pier and into the lake remain there on the shoreline to catch a glimpse of Michael, out for his morning stroll past the breakwater and off in the general direction of Benton Harbor, Mich. A fan may wait for an hour on hold in order to spew 35 seconds of practiced invective on sports radio. Down below the bombast, however, is the tiny hopeful voice of the Inner Sports Child. Let a team win. More to the point, let a team win it all, and that voice becomes a mighty bellow itself, and the overall impact on the sports environment is rather like discovering that H.L. Mencken has been replaced on the shelf by a bound edition of Teen Beat.

Welcome to Boston, 2004, where, it may come as some surprise to various bookies, TV executives, and at least seven other franchises in the National Football League, the New England Patriots already have won Super Bowl XXXVIII. Just watch the TV set. Just listen to the radio. Even after shredding Denver on Sunday—and putting 34 on the Patriots in Week 13—Peyton Manning still can’t get Bill Belichick out of his head. As for this week’s game against the Titans, hell, Steve McNair’s banged up, and Eddie George is over the hill. The NFC is a landfill. Hubris is at high tide hereabouts, and, if there ever was a fan base more deserving of a Euripidean pratfall than this one, it probably was the people who followed the St. Louis Rams to New Orleans two years ago to enjoy the easy dispatch of the New England Patriots.

Not that there isn’t much to admire about the Patriots. They are 14-2, having won 12 in a row to close out the season and having defeated Tennessee, Denver, Dallas, Indianapolis, and Philadelphia along the way. They need win only two home games to get back to the Super Bowl. They have the coach of the year, and Tom Brady is a perfect quarterback for the system in which he has been placed. The New England defense is fast and smart and a joy to watch. (When Ray Lewis finally goes off to the Old Thugs Home, Patriot Richard Seymour will be the best defensive player in the league.) Vegas loves them more than it loves feather headdresses and fixture salesmen. Clearly, the Patriots ought to be what they are—the early-line favorites to win the NFL championship.

But here in Boston, that’s not anywhere near enough. I haven’t pointed out that Belichick is equal parts Vince Lombardi, Chuck Noll, Bill Walsh, and Gandalf. I have not yet reckoned Tom Brady with Joe Montana or the New England defense with that of the 1985 Chicago Bears. I have not argued yet that the national media fail to give the Patriots sufficient love, and that the Pro Bowl voters cheated them, too, and that McNair and Manning are shams and mockeries of MVP quarterbacks because they are not Tom Brady who, you may have heard, is Joe Montana. And, have I failed to mention that Robert Kraft is the only NFL owner in history who Isn’t In It for the Money? How great are we, anyway?

(The latter is based on the widely bruited notion that Gillette Stadium is “entirely privately financed,” which isn’t altogether true since $70 million in state money was spent on the surrounding infrastructure. Also, the legend often neglects to mention that Kraft built his own stadium only after exhausting a number of other options, including a fantastical utopian deal with the state of Connecticut that should’ve ended Gov. John Rowland’s career long before the vacation cottage did.)

The print media, God love us, largely have managed to stay sane. (Some of my colleagues at the Boston Globe regularly are roasted on Patriots cyber fanzines for, as best I can judge, insufficiently deep genuflection.) But our electronic brethren have gone so far in the tank for the Patriots that many of them won’t dry off until Arbor Day. There are at least four regularly scheduled TV infomercials for the franchise every week. The local sports radio juggernaut carries at least 16 hours of programming weekly dedicated to All Things Patriots. The questions on all of these run the gamut from, “Is This Team Great?” all the way to, “How Great Is This Team, Anyway?” The fans have followed this lead so slavishly that they now can never credibly refer to fans in places like, oh, say, Tennessee as rubes and yahoos. This is, of course, tragic. We are talking about the squandering of a historic cultural prerogative here. What’s the point of being from Boston if you can’t credibly refer to people elsewhere as rubes and yahoos?

It all began two years ago. In what may turn out to be a capital irony, the Patriots beat two pride-fattened teams, the Steelers and the Rams, to win the Super Bowl, after which Kraft rather clumsily wedged himself into the National Healing Process. “Spirituality, faith, and democracy are the cornerstones of our country,” he gushed, apparently mistaking the Superdome for Cemetery Ridge. “We are all patriots.” Since then, a town with no football history whatsoever—the Patriots’ front office was the NFL’s premier Klown Kollege for nearly four decades—built one from scratch, taking to NFL supremacy the way a golden retriever puppy takes to a slipper.

In my lifetime, Boston sports have lain down like this only three times: in the early 1970s, when the town got all gushy over the Big, Bad Bruins of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito; during the mid-1980s, when the Bird-McHale-Parish Celtics were nearly as good as the Lakers of that same era; and when, at roughly the same time, Doug Flutie won the Heisman Trophy, leading Boston College to a Cotton Bowl triumph over the third-best team in the Southwest Conference. The town got so silly over Flutie that my newspaper assigned me to go to the Worcester Regional Airport and watch his plane take off for the Heisman ceremony in New York. If Doug did a Buddy Holly in the hills of Leicester, the story was mine. Once he cleared the horizon, however, I was done for the day.

Needless to say, the Red Sox never enjoy endless love like this. Every time they have a successful season—like, say, the last one—the good feelings always are shrouded in frayed historical crape, and everything’s always coming up lilies. The Patriots are fortunate enough now to have a Year Zero—when they won the Super Bowl and history began again, so nobody ever mentions the fact that they once played a home game in Birmingham, Ala., or that they once nearly lost a coach to electrocution because of a faulty microphone at his inaugural press conference, or that they once called a player out of the stands to cover the opening kickoff, except as measurements for how far the franchise has come. We’re all Patriots now! Yahoo.