For 20 years, it was Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. On Sunday, it will be Tom Brady against Bill Belichick.
The greatest quarterback of all time and greatest coach of all time won 17 division titles, nine AFC Championship Games and six Super Bowl titles as a tandem with the New England Patriots across two decades. Brady announced that he was leaving the franchise in March of 2020 and eventually landed in Tampa Bay, where he promptly won his seventh Lombardi Trophy at 43 years old.
Brady’s last game in Foxboro ended in a 20-13 loss to the Tennessee Titans in the AFC wild card round on Jan. 4, 2020, with his final pass in a Patriots uniform landing in the hands of opposing cornerback Logan Ryan for a pick-six. Now, Brady will return to the place he called home for 20 years when his Buccaneers visit the Patriots under the primetime spotlight of Sunday Night Football.
Even as an inter-conference game in Week 4, the matchup is one of the most anticipated regular season games in NFL history. Just look at the stimulus-check-value ticket prices for the game when it was first announced:
Brady’s return to Foxboro is poised to top the list of notable homecomings in American professional sports. Some marquee players were welcomed back with open arms, while others received boo birds in their first game back at their old venue.
Here’s a look at the most memorable homecomings that Brady will join when he charges onto the Gillette Stadium turf on Sunday:
1988: Wayne Gretzky adored in Edmonton
The Great One got some great ovations in his return to Edmonton.
In the 1988 offseason, Wayne Gretzky and Oilers owner Peter Pocklington held an infamous press conference to announce Gretzky was being traded to the Los Angeles Kings. Gretzky had spent nine NHL seasons in Edmonton and helped the franchise win four Stanley Cups, including one just three months prior to the announcement.
Fast forward to the 1988-89 regular season, and it only took seven games for Gretzky to take the ice in Edmonton again. It came as no surprise that Gretzky was met with admiration as the crowd gave the forward a handful of standing ovations at Northlands Coliseum.
As far as game action, it was a wild tilt between the Kings and Oilers. Gretzky tallied two assists, but he was a -2 as the Oilers won a wild 8-6 contest behind Mark Messier’s two goals.
1997: Roger Clemens racks up K’s at Fenway Park
Roger Clemens had an unforgettable outing on July 12, 1997.
The 13-year Boston Red Sox starter stepped on the mound as a Toronto Blue Jay for his 400th career start and first as a visitor at Fenway Park. While the occasion was memorable, his actual pitching was even more spectacular. He piled up 16 strikeouts in eight innings of work as his new team earned a 3-1 win.
While Clemens won his first Fenway homecoming, he also made his way back to Boston several times as a member of the Red Sox’s archrival. Clemens joined the New York Yankees in 1999 and lost his first start at Fenway with the Bronx Bombers, allowing four earned runs across five innings in a 6-5 defeat.
Unlike Clemens, a couple of other former Red Sox-turned-Yankees did not fare as well in their first games back in Boston. Ruth went 2-for-4 in the first game of a doubleheader on April 19, 1920, which ended in a 6-0 win for the Red Sox. Damon went 0-for-4 in a 6-0 Yankees loss on May 1, 2006, while receiving cheers and boos from the Fenway Faithful.
2001: Alex Rodriguez strikes out in Seattle
Seattle Mariners fans were on their A-game when A-Rod returned to Safeco Field on April 16, 2001.
“A-Fraud” signs. Rodriguez jerseys with a dollar sign in place of a number on the back. A fishing pole with a dollar bill hanging on the line.
These were some of the sights Alex Rodriguez was met with when he played his first game in Seattle since signing the biggest contract in MLB history with the division rival Texas Rangers over the winter.
There were some cheers sprinkled throughout the night from Mariners fans, but the loudest roar came when Rodriguez struck out in the sixth inning. The fans got to leave the stadium happy, too, as the Mariners pulled out a 9-7 win. Rodriguez went 1-for-5 on the night with a single.
2004: Shaquille O’Neal battles Kobe Bryant on Christmas Day
Basketball fans got the gift of Shaq and Kobe beef for Christmas in 2004.
After falling flat in the 2004 NBA Finals, Shaquille O’Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers reached the end of the road. Phil Jackson did not return as head coach and O’Neal, seeking a major raise from the organization, eventually requested a trade. The Lakers obliged him, shipping the center to the Miami Heat for a package headlined by Lamar Odom and Caron Butler.
O’Neal’s first game at Staples Center against Bryant and Lakers came on one of the signature days of the NBA calendar, Christmas Day. The former partners in crime shared a brief, expressionless embrace at halfcourt before tipoff, and then it was game on. Bryant was the game’s leading scorer with 42 points, but he clanked a potential game-winning 3-pointer in overtime as the Heat won 104-102. O’Neal put up 24 points and 11 rebounds, while Dwyane Wade scored a team-high 29 points.
2006: Terrell Owens gets no love in Philly
Terrell Owens did just that in March of 2006 after an explosive two-year stint with the Eagles. He reached highs in Philly by helping the Eagles reach Super Bowl XXXIX and catching nine passes for 122 yards in a loss to the Patriots. He also reached exceptional lows, from heated displays on the sideline to an eventual suspension that ended his Eagles tenure. Five months after the Eagles suspended him, Owens moved across the NFC East and signed a three-year, $25 million deal in Dallas.
Owens had a checkered history with the Cowboys, too. While playing with the 49ers in 2000, he famously celebrated on the star at midfield of Cowboys Stadium before getting decked by Cowboys defensive back George Teague.
Once a Cowboy, Owens didn’t need to wait long before returning to Lincoln Financial Field. The team traveled to Philly in Week 5, and there was buildup on and off the field for his return. The receiver refuted a report that he had attempted suicide in late September of 2006 and said it was instead an allergic reaction that led to his recent hospitalization.
On Oct. 8, Eagles fans brought the noise, booing Owens and chanting “T.O. sucks.” Owens did not make much of an impact until the second half, finishing with three receptions for 45 yards. The Cowboys had a chance to get T.O. the ball in the final minute trailing by a touchdown, but Drew Bledsoe threw a red-zone pick-six to Lito Sheppard that cemented a 38-24 win for the Eagles.
2008: Nick Saban comes back to Death Valley
“I am not going to be the Alabama coach,” Nick Saban said two weeks before becoming the Alabama coach.
Saban has held all kinds of positions at different levels of football throughout his coaching career. He reached the mountaintop in January of 2004 when he led the LSU Tigers to a BCS Championship win over the Oklahoma Sooners. After one more year in Baton Rouge, he took the head coaching position for the Miami Dolphins.
While in Miami, speculation grew that Saban would take the top job with LSU’s top rival, Alabama. Even though he categorically denied that he would leave the NFL to return to the SEC, he dipped and signed a massive contract in Tuscaloosa.
Saban got a chance to face LSU in his first year at Alabama, but it was a home game for the Crimson Tide. LSU won the game 41-34 and went on to win the national championship over Ohio State.
The next year, Saban brought his No. 1 Alabama squad to Death Valley on Nov. 8, 2008. A group of LSU fans burned an effigy the night before the game, but the epic matchup overshadowed the regrettable fan behavior. It took overtime, but the Crimson Tide pulled out a victory thanks to a QB sneak from John Parker Wilson and remained undefeated.
2009: Brett Favre lights it up at Lambeau Field
Brett Favre’s first game back at Lambeau Field after leaving the Green Bay Packers was filled with Lam-boos.
The quarterback spent 16 seasons with the Packers before his first “retirement” in March of 2008. Favre quickly unretired and joined the team for training camp, but Green Bay was already prepared to move forward with Aaron Rodgers, Favre’s former understudy. The Packers traded Favre to the New York Jets, where he spent one season before he inked a deal with one of Green Bay’s divisional rivals, the Minnesota Vikings.
Favre and the Vikings had already beaten the Packers once in the 2009 season, picking up a 30-23 home win in Week 4. The team’s visit to Green Bay on Nov. 1, 2009, was a totally different beast, though. A sold-out stadium of cheeseheads booed him when the Vikings’ offense took the field in the first quarter. No. 4 silenced the crowd by throwing four touchdown passes in a 38-26 victory.
2010 and 2018: LeBron James receives king’s and villain’s welcomes in Cleveland
LeBron James departed the Cleveland Cavaliers twice in his career and was met to two drastically different receptions in his first visits back.
James notoriously used “The Decision” to announce he was leaving the Cavs to sign with the Heat in the summer of 2010. When the Heat visited Cleveland on Dec. 2, 2010, he was met with signs that read “Betrayed,” “Witless” and “LeBum” along with a cascade of boos from the crowd at Quicken Loans Arena. James was evidently unbothered, as he posted 38 points in a 118-90 rout.
“The King” returned to play for the Cavs in the summer of 2014, won the city a title in 2016 and then packed his bags again in 2018, this time to join the Los Angeles Lakers. The Cleveland crowd was much more receptive during James’ second homecoming on Nov. 21, 2018, giving him a standing ovation during player introductions. In addition, the team showed a video tribute for James for his work on and off the court in the city.
The result of the 2018 game was the same as the 2010 one for James. He led the Lakers with 32 points in a 109-105 victory.
2013: Peyton Manning enjoys return to Indianapolis
A serious neck injury ended Peyton Manning’s 2011 season -- and his time in Indianapolis.
The Colts were dreadful without Manning in 2011, going 2-14. The poor play gave the team the No. 1 pick and a major dilemma: should they draft generational prospect Andrew Luck or stick with their franchise icon? The organization chose the former, selecting Luck and releasing Manning, who then signed with the Denver Broncos in March of 2012.
Manning made his first trip to Indy as a visitor in Week 7 of the 2013 season for Sunday Night Football. He was treated to a tribute video and deafening standing ovation from Colts fans. He was also met with four sacks from the Colts defense and three touchdown passes from Andrew Luck, as Indy handed Denver its first loss of the season.
2017: Kevin Durant receives thundering boos in Oklahoma City
The people of Oklahoma City are apparently opposed to the mantra, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”
Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Thunder were a game away from ousting the 73-9 Golden State Warriors and advancing to the 2016 NBA Finals before the Warriors rattled off three straight wins to close out the series. The Warriors then went on to blow a 3-1 series lead of their own to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals, some “parking lot texts” were exchanged between Draymond Green and Durant, and on the Fourth of July, Durant set off fireworks by announcing his “next chapter” with the Warriors.
Durant’s decision to sign in Golden State sent shockwaves -- and outrage -- through the basketball world and did not sit well with many in Oklahoma City. He had been with the franchise since 2007, the final year of the Seattle SuperSonics before the team became the Thunder, and joined the squad that kept the Thunder out of the Finals.
The boos poured down on Durant throughout his first game as an opponent in OKC on Feb. 11, 2017, crescendoing each time he touched the ball. He did not appear fazed in the least, though as he scored a cool 34 points in a 130-114 Warriors win.