It was the first day of Patriots training camp, July 27, 2002.
Bill Belichick was wrapping up his press conference in a classroom at Bryant College when I asked him about local and national perception of him at that moment.
Five months earlier, the Patriots beat the St. Louis Rams 20-17 in Super Bowl 36. It was one of the biggest upsets in professional sports history. It still is.
The cuddly Patriots, selflessly eschewing individual introductions all season and being introduced “as a team” on Super Sunday, represented something the country wanted to drape itself in.
They were -- in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks -- symbolically America’s Team. A team which lost its presumed on-field leader, Drew Bledsoe, but rallied behind a skinny, overlooked backup named Tom Brady.
Many of their best players, like Troy Brown, David Patten and Mike Vrabel, were castoffs. Others were true talents -- Ty Law and Willie McGinest -- players whose passion had almost gone to seed under Pete Carroll but rediscovered purpose under Belichick.
The Kraft family rescued the team for a region. A local family who’d sat on the cold aluminum benches of dilapidated Foxboro Stadium for years watching a hapless team get slapped around in the AFC East, they’d figured out a way to keep the team here. Then Robert Kraft figured out a way to be a master owner -- involved but not meddling as Bill Belichick’s predecessor, Bill Parcells, charged.
Everywhere you looked, there was something to embrace or emulate. From Bledsoe’s dignity to the NYC-first responder brothers of Joe Andruzzi coming out for the coin flip in the first game after the attacks.
The Snow Bowl win over the hated Raiders, that revenge being a dish served cold 25 years after the 1976 Bicentennial Patriots got jobbed in the playoffs.
The AFC Championship win over the haughty, entitled Steelers with Bledsoe (as the spin went) rescuing the team when Brady went down with an ankle injury.
Smarts. Guile. Guts. Selflessness. All of it harnessed by Belichick, who’d been drummed out of Cleveland, pilloried for his dour manner and then flourished in the second chance given by Kraft.
“Is this season any different for you now that you are a genius?” I asked Belichick, knowing he’d get the gist.
"I've been in the game for a while," he said, smiling. "I've heard 'Belichick' and 'genius' together. I've also heard 'Belichick' and 'moron' together.
"A couple of plays or a couple of games and those adjectives get attached to your name. We're in a performance business and we'll be evaluated week to week. I've understood that for a long time and I understand that's the way it will be in the future. If we win, I'll look pretty smart; if we don't win I'll probably look pretty dumb."
Oh, they’ve won.
And now this team, held aloft at birth as a unifying touchstone for America, is one that most of the country would gladly smother with a pillow in its old age.
Cinderella turned into an entitled supermodel. Now she’s Satan.
A smug, arrogant franchise known for breaking rules with a loud insufferable fanbase that delights in farting in the faces of the poor downtrodden supporters of teams the Patriots step over.
Deadspin is a site that regards itself as the Tiananmen Square Tank Man and the Patriots as the Chinese Red Army.
Their fleet of writers has chronicled Patriots crimes against football and humanity, real and imagined, as well as anyone. One of their editors, David Roth, wrote this earlier in the week under the headline, “Let’s Just Keep Doing This Shit Forever!”
The New England Patriots, who have been shitting up the mid-winter for sports fans throughout this entire terrible millennium, are not remotely close to going away, not any more than, say, measles or famine are close to going away. They’re a problem, but one that gets managed more than it gets eradicated. It’s embarrassing that, at this late juncture and despite the near-unanimity in the culture that Something Needs To Be Done About The F---ing Patriots, seemingly nothing can be done about the Patriots. They’re in the Super Bowl again and you’re a fool if you think they’re not going to win it in some sort of hideous and repellent way. They’re going to have a parade and Bill Belichick is going to pass a kidney stone the size of a Hyundai Elantra while a bunch of mutants with unforgivable beards cheer him on.
How’d this happen? Well, the easiest answer is that familiarity breeds contempt. And the principle Patriots -- Brady, Belichick, Kraft -- have remain unchanged for almost two decades, as has the fanbase.
Then there was the haughty “Patriot Way” propaganda the franchise embraced even if Belichick himself was a little more self-aware than that.
There was Brady’s full-on embrace of celebrity, which made him easily lampooned every time he showed up with a strange costume on.
There was Spygate, Deflategate and Aaron Hernandez’ murder convictions.
And as much as anyone around here tried to “But, but, but . . . ” about any of it, nobody wants to hear it.
Because it’s not who the New England Patriots “are” individually, it’s what they are believed to represent.
They represent unsentimental corporate efficiency. They represent an embarrassment of football riches in a league where the model is socialist. They are the Team of Trump and, that label affixed, the green light’s been given to sling whatever smear one likes, up to and including “white supremacists."
The navel-gazing and self-flagellation about that locally -- especially in New England’s “paper of record,” The Boston Globe, -- has been steady since 2015, when a Trump hat was spotted in Brady’s locker.
And no matter how discreetly he’s tried to put distance between himself and the president since, the perception remains that he’s a full-on Trumpkin (from Harry Potter THIS WEEK!)
Again, nobody cares about the “But, but, but . . . ” the die is cast. The Patriots are what they are as far as America is concerned.
They’ll play the Rams next Sunday, 204 months since they last played them in a Super Bowl. People will say they’ve come full-circle. They haven’t. They’ve traveled light years from where they were in perception and reality.
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