BOSTON — If you can look past the anger, finger pointing, bitterness and gloom, this is a love story.
There’s no other way to explain how a city of demanding, cynical sports fans can turn into giddy pubescents at the mere thought of Tom Brady returning to New England. Tommy, Tommy, we’re over here! Give us a wave, Tommy!
It doesn’t matter that he left. It doesn’t matter that he won a Super Bowl in Tampa Bay without them. It doesn’t even matter that nearly everyone in New England expects Brady and the Bucs to humiliate the Patriots in one of the most highly-anticipated regular-season games in NFL history Sunday night. Romeo is in someone else’s bed, and Juliet is still waiting on the balcony.
“I’m a Patriots fan through and through, but I’m a Brady fan, too,” said Geoff Stokes, who has been a season ticket holder for 21 years and attended eight of the nine Super Bowls Brady played in with New England. “Once it’s all said and done, I hope he comes back to the franchise and takes his rightful place as the king of Boston sports, which is what he is.”
Do not mistake this for mere politeness. Ray Allen won an NBA title and went to the finals twice with the Celtics, but was booed in his return to Boston. Red Sox fans were screaming “traitor” at New England native Carlton Fisk in his first game at Fenway Park as a member of the White Sox. Ted Williams may have been the greatest hitter in baseball history, but his relationship with Boston fans was so fickle that barely 10,000 showed up for his final game in the Hub.
That’s not how it’s going to be for Brady on Sunday night. The average price of a ticket being sold on the secondary market had zoomed to around $1,500 earlier in the week, although the market had cooled by Friday. The expectation is that Brady will get a standing ovation the first time he steps on the field at Gillette Stadium, and the lovefest will only intensify when, as expected, he breaks Drew Brees’ NFL record for regular-season passing yards (80,358) early in the game. Brady has 80,291.
“New England fans are pretty diehard when it comes to their teams. But are a lot of them missing Tom Brady, and do they wish him well? Absolutely,” said Will Clark, general manager of the Lincoln Tavern and Restaurant in south Boston. “That’s what 20 years of service gets you. That’s what (winning) six Super Bowls gets you. You get a pass. I don’t think anyone else could pull this off, but Tom Brady will.
“Plus, you’ve got to respect a guy who is coming here to stick it to his old boss.”
Ah, yes, now we’ve reached the dark side of this romance. If no one is blaming Brady for swapping duck boats for yachts as his preferred ride in a Super Bowl parade, then who is responsible for breaking up this 20-year marriage?
Look no further than New England’s resident genius, Bill Belichick. It’s not as if Patriots enthusiasts have completely turned on the most accomplished coach in NFL history, but a lot of them have decided that Belichick’s unyielding ways drove Brady into the loving arms of Bucs fans.
It’s not you, it’s him
One fan — identified only as Jake in Boston — purchased a billboard on U.S. Route 1 in Foxborough that read, “The OWL is no longer wise without his GOAT!” The billboard references a children’s book that portrays Belichick as a wise owl, as well as Brady’s widely accepted status as the Greatest of All Time.
As if a frowning owl in a hoodie didn’t twist the knife enough, the bottom of the billboard includes the notation: BB 62-74. That’s Belichick’s record as a head coach without Brady as his starting quarterback, as opposed to 219-64 during their time together.
“I think there’s a lot of Pats fans who are pretty bitter that Belichick kind of ran the guy out of town,” said Dave Wedge, who co-authored the book 12: The Inside Story of Tom Brady’s Fight for Redemption with Casey Sherman. “Brady got sick and tired of being treated like just another player. He got tired of being berated in the film room. Got tired of giving the hometown discount on his salary.
“When you’ve won one or two Super Bowls, maybe that’s palatable. But not after the second half of his career. I think at that point, Brady earned the right to be treated special and he’s getting that in Tampa. And we’re seeing the results.”
Brady, of course, is a master at staying above the fray. He has only nice things to say about Belichick and his time in New England, although whispers of his discontent routinely find their way into books through unnamed confidantes.
ESPN senior writer Seth Wickersham sent New England radio stations into overdrive with brief excerpts of his upcoming book It’s Better to be Feared. While the book’s overriding theme is the partnership between the two men and the sacrifices each was willing to make to reach the summit, the headlines were about the revelation that Belichick supposedly blew off Brady when it came time to say goodbye.
Brady said that his departure was handled well by Belichick, but acknowledged their final conversation was done over the phone. It was a classic passive-aggressive maneuver to publicly absolve Belichick of guilt, while confirming the most damning part of the story.
“Tom Brady holds a grudge, we’ve been hearing it from his trainer (Alex Guerrero), we’ve been hearing it from his dad. This is personal,” said Rich Shertenlieb, host of the popular Toucher and Rich radio show on the Patriots’ flagship radio station, The Sports Hub 98.5. “He’s going to come in here and just kick everyone’s ass. ... He’s going to set the passing record in front of everybody.
“And at the end of the game, he is going to sprint to Bill Belichick and makes sure he shakes his hand while everyone is watching on national television so the whole world sees this uncomfortable moment of Brady basically saying, ‘I just owned you.’”
It’s as if New England fans have become untethered in Brady’s absence. The team is 8-11 since he left, and fans already seem to have written off their chances with rookie quarterback Mac Jones this season. The bravado of a dynasty that was 20 years in the making was apparently packed up and shipped to Tampa Bay along with the rest of Brady’s belongings.
From the hipster food courts in the Back Bay to Copley Square to a row of bars in Southie, a photographer and I walked and rode trains for seven hours on Friday and saw the same number of fans wearing Bucs shirts as Patriots shirts — that is to say, one of each.
The lure of Brady is so ingrained that fans in New England have migrated to Raymond James Stadium to watch him play. Massachusetts state trooper John Maguire and wife Nancy live five minutes from Gillette Stadium, but bought Bucs season tickets in 2020. The tickets were cheaper, easer to acquire and came with the added benefit of long weekends on Clearwater Beach.
They didn’t get to use their tickets during the COVID-19 shutdown last season, but flew down for the Bucs’ season opener against the Cowboys last month.
“We pull into the parking space, get out of the car and start talking to the people who pulled in next to us. Figure out these guys are from Maine, they’re down here just like us,” Maguire said. “So then we walk over to the stadium, get in line to go inside, and the two guys behind us are from Massachusetts and they bought season tickets, too. I’m thinking this is unbelievable.
“So we go to the game, sit way up at the top, have a good time. The next day, we’re walking down the beach in Clearwater and this guy has a Patriots T-shirt on. So I say, ‘Go Pats,’ and we get to talking. Turns out, he’s from western Mass and he’s bought season tickets in Tampa. I’m like, holy crap, this is crazy, all these New England fans down here.”
To love and to cherish
Throughout all of these conversations, everyone makes clear that they are not turning their backs on the Patriots. If they’re angry, it’s only because they feel another Super Bowl or two might have been within reach with Brady still at quarterback.
And it’s clear that more people blame Belichick for that, and not Brady.
“This guy is a global icon who grew up before our eyes. He was the plucky sixth-rounder who seemed like he was just happy to finally have his shot, and then grew into the most accomplished quarterback in NFL history,” said Wickersham, who has been covering Brady since his rookie season. “It’s got to sting to watch him playing for someone else. He was the perfect ambassador for this team, and then he leaves and wins another Super Bowl (because) the head coach didn’t believe he had much football left in him.”
A generation of fans can barely remember a world without Brady in his New England No. 12 jersey, and those memories have survived where his relationship with Belichick did not. Tony LoConte is 35 and has had Patriots season tickets in his family since he was in kindergarten. He named a puppy after Brady, saw the dog live an entire life before dying, and still Brady plays on.
The sounds of Jay-Z’s Public Service Announcement will forever be tied to Brady’s entrance on the field at Gillette Stadium, so it was only natural for LoConte to use it as he walked down the aisle for his 2012 wedding.
“I’ve said this before, but if I were to list the 10 greatest moments of my life it would include my wedding and the births of my three kids,” said LoConte, a building restoration specialist who also has a Patriots podcast called Malcolm Go.
“After that, it’s the six Super Bowls with Brady.”
The relationship has ended, but the love lives on.
Even if Tom Brady is wearing another team’s Super Bowl ring.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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