By Mike D’Abate
On February 3, 2019, the New England Patriots continued to cement their place in professional sports immortality. With a 13-3 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII, the Patriots claimed their sixth championship in franchise history. That ties them with the Pittsburgh Steelers at the top of the championship echelon in NFL history. Patriots fans were elated, while the rest of the country was nauseated. It was once again the ‘best of times’ in New England.
Just two days later, an estimated 1.5 million fans packed the streets of Boston to congratulate and celebrate with the team during their victory parade. Once again, the envy of sports fandom was directed squarely in the direction of the New England Patriots and their fans. What is the reason, you might ask? It is simple. The ‘hated’ New England Patriots have just delivered another Super Bowl championship to their ‘entitled’ fan base.
If you are a Patriots fan, you have heard them all. Some use the term ‘obnoxious.’ Others prefer the moniker ‘fair-weather.’ There is even the dreaded label of ‘bandwagon.’ (…And those are just the ‘family-friendly’ terms for Pats fans). However, the history of New England Patriots’ fandom has not always been one of privilege. Despite the good fortune that has surrounded Foxboro, Massachusetts for the past seventeen years, the history of the Patriots is one that involves defeat as much as victory.
Perhaps an understanding of the franchise’s history might make some of the uninformed a bit less likely to opt for hate, as opposed to respect. That could be wishful thinking. However, it will more than adequately explain why the New England Patriots fan base is among the most intensely loyal in all of professional sports.
Following the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, the Patriots were a punchline more often than anything else. Despite some fleeting moments of success during the 70s and early 80s, New England was regularly on the receiving end of defeat. The Patriots finally achieved NFL prominence for the first time in 1985. After a ‘Cinderella-like’ playoff run, New England represented the AFC (American Football Conference) in Super Bowl XX. However, the era of good feelings for Pats fans was about to abruptly end. The Patriots were steamrolled by the Chicago Bears 46–10, in what remains one of the most crushing defeats in Super Bowl history.
After a first-round playoff exit in 1986, the team would not see the postseason again for eight more seasons. During the 1990 season, the Patriots went 1–15. They endured three ownership changes over the next 14 years. Losing seasons continued to pile up. Finally, in what would have been the ultimate demoralization of the New England fan base, then-owner, James Orthwein announced that he intended to move the team to his native St. Louis, Missouri in 1992. To say the least, it was not easy to be a Patriots fan.
Two years later, the Patriots fortunes began to improve. In 1994, Orthwein sold the team to local businessman, (and current owner) Robert Kraft. With Kraft at the helm, new head coach Bill Parcells ushered in a new culture in Foxboro. In drawing from his winning pedigree during his tenure with the New York Giants, Parcells was able to inject a winning philosophy in franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe and a group of tough, talented players. He led the Patriots to two playoff appearances, including a berth in Super Bowl XXXI. They ultimately lost to the Green Bay Packers by a score of 35–21. After an abrupt and acrimonious departure by Parcells following the Super Bowl loss, the Pats next head coach, Pete Carroll, led them to the playoffs twice. However, each time resulted in an early exit from the postseason.
Although the days of embarrassment had passed them by, Patriots fans still found themselves among the back of the pack in the NFL fandom pecking order. Fans of teams like the New York Giants, Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins would often look down on the Patriots as being “JV (Junior-Varsity)” or “bridesmaids.” Even though they had enjoyed some recent success, NFL fans, as a whole, still looked at the Patriots as ‘second-fiddle.’
During the 1990s, Patriots fans often lamented their lack of ability to find team merchandise, even in their home state. The shelves of pro sports shops were often reserved for Boston’s Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins. Being a distant fourth in their own backyard almost certainly insured that they would never find national acclaim.
However, anyone in the New England area can tell you that hometown pride runs deep. The desire to cheer on the hometown team was always there beneath the surface. The true Pats fan was just waiting for something to bring it all together.
Since the arrival of head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady in 2000, the Patriots have since become one of the most successful teams in NFL history. They have won 16 AFC East titles in 18 seasons. During that span, they have not endured a losing season. The franchise has also set numerous notable records, including most wins in a ten-year period (126, in 2003–2012), an undefeated 16-game regular season in 2007, the longest winning streak consisting of regular season and playoff games in NFL history (a 21-game streak from October 2003 to October 2004.) They have won ten straight division titles from 2009 to 2018. The team owns the record for most Super Bowls reached (nine) and won (six) by a head coach-quarterback tandem.
This is an impressive resume, for sure. The triumvirate of Kraft, Belichick and Brady have awoken a fan base that will not fade with a diminishing of the team’s success. The New England area enjoys a rich sports tradition, boasting some of the most loyal fans found anywhere. They are passionate about their teams. Simply put, spend some time in New England. In short order, anyone can see that New England ‘red, white and blue‘ flows through the veins of the self-proclaimed ‘Pats Nation’ fanbase.
Here in Smithfield, the ties to the Patriots are still securely bonded. From 1976 to 2002, the Pats conducted Training Camp on the campus of Smithfield’s own Bryant University (at the time, known as Bryant College). It was on the grounds of that picturesque campus that the Patriots built their first Super Bowl Championship team in 2001. Despite moving their Camp headquarters to the confines of Foxboro’s Gillette Stadium during that same offseason, Smithfield residents remain some of the most loyal Patriots fans in the New England region. In fact, many of them happily make the trek to Foxboro each Summer to watch the Patriots train for the upcoming season. It is a common occurrence to overhear parents sharing their own stories with their children; regaling them with the details of watching the Pats “when I was your age” at their former “Summer Home.” They impart the wisdom of cherishing these great times, knowing full well how hard it was to be a fan not so long ago.
Therefore, when one calls them ‘entitled,’ remember that there are many fans that have previously watched them lose. In fact, they probably saw them lose more often than they saw them win. They have heard their team called the “Patsies” due to ridicule, rather than jealousy. However, they stuck with their team through the bad times. As a result, they have earned their right to enjoy the good times.
It might presently be easy to be a Patriots fan, but it has not always been that way. The fans who had suffered before, are now simply enjoying the ride. You can’t blame them. Any other fan would do exactly the same.
On behalf of The Smithfield Times, congratulations to the New England Patriots on their sixth Super Bowl championship. We wish them the very best of luck in their pursuit of number seven.