I could tell this weekend was going to be a different type of sports experience when my flight from Charlotte to Phoenix was full of Patriots fans chanting Go Patriots as we boarded (and one lone Seahawks fan). It’s fair to say I saw a few more Seahawks fans when I arrived in Phoenix, but I was not expecting so many fans to be coming from around the country. All weekend, my brothers, dad and I watched droves of neon-clad Seattle-folk proudly wearing #12 jerseys take over everywhere we went. They were out in force. And Patriots fans were not.
Saturday afternoon we went to the circus at the Phoenix Convention Center – or the NFL Experience, as it was officially called. Outside, there were 32 trucks with each NFL logo, there was a red carpet viewing area and there were puppies playing football. Line after line of thousands of jersey-wearing football fans from all over the country followed whatever the NFL produced. But despite the long waits, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, for there was a discernible excitement in the air. Everybody was just happy to be there, even those hapless souls in Jets jerseys.
After I showed off my arm in a deep route passing drill, besting my brothers in our competition, I was chirped by a Seahawks fan who proceeded to bring up the Giants, Spygate and Deflategate all within two sentences. How creative. It was all in good fun, but by Saturday night, the atmosphere was beginning to change.
Sunday morning, we began the long trek out to the desert that is Glendale via public transportation. It felt oddly like the public transportation within Disney World. On the bus – a ride in which the driver missed the stop and ended up taking us on a half-hour detour into the thick of the traffic – the Seahawks fans were much more tolerable than the man the night before. Everyone even united to cheer loudly as the bus finally let us off.
Security was surprisingly efficient and effective. Within the walls of ticketed company, it was a full-on party. We went inside to check out our seats roughly three hours before the game before heading back out to do more NFL-themed games. Waiting in line for another passing drill – this 3/3 outing in front of heckling Seahawk fans being my personal quarterbacking highlight – I was right in between two sets of Patriots and Seahawks fans. At this moment, things began to feel more like a game and less like a party. Conversation turned from Friday night Ludacris concerts to respective gameplans. After a free sampling of Tostitos’s new product and a sighting of Chris Pratt, we went back inside for warm-ups.
As we approached game time, there was some serious buzz in the stadium. All the energy that had been building over the weekend crescendoed as Idina Menzel nailed her final note. Suddenly, there was a game to be played. When Steven Hauschka kicked off, it was unbelievably loud. And for the Patriots first drive, it only got louder. At this point, I feared the alarming number of Seattle fans would make the difference. But enough of the spectacle, there was a game too. And a pretty great one at that.
I went into the game cautiously optimistic. And despite Tom Brady’s early red zone interception right in front of us, I stayed confident. The defense came out hot. The peak of my confidence came with Rob Gronkowski’s touchdown near the end of the first half. It was all just too easy. But then came the guillotine. The Seahawks thirty-second touchdown drive to close out the half swung the momentum entirely. I thought watching Katy Perry was going to be fun, but instead, I could only be nervous.
Those nerves reached a point I’d never felt as the third quarter bled into the fourth and the Patriots could neither convert a third down nor make a stop. With every failed LaGarrette Blount run, I sank further and further back into my seat, barely able to watch. When the Patriots punted on their opening drive of the fourth quarter down 10, I pretty much accepted defeat. I began dreading the plane ride home the next day, dreading turning on ESPN for the next seven months.
One stop later, the game was on the line as the Patriots drove the field down 10. It felt like Brady was walking across a tightrope with every throw he made between two or sometimes three defenders. Yet the receivers kept making plays. They kept moving the chains. This drive was about the will to win. It was about giving us fans near heart attacks. It was simply brilliant.
The first low point of the game came when Brady overthrew a wide-open Julian Edelman in the end zone. It was an open Wes Welker with the game on the line all over again. But fears were alleviated a play later when Brady found Danny Amendola. All I could do at this point was focus on taking deep breaths.
After another huge stop by this year’s much-improved defense, the next drive was pure gold. This was the drive people will remember forever as a crowning moment of Brady’s career. Gronk, Edelman and Shane Vereen at their absolute best. Even when things went awry on Amendola’s pass interference call, the Patriots answered the call on the very next play. There was never any doubt about this drive. The Seahawks were going to get the ball back down four. That the go-ahead touchdown came on the exact same throw to Edelman that Brady missed on the previous drive made it all the more redemptive. This was our game.
The emotions from this point are all a blur. As soon as Russell Wilson hit Marshawn Lynch on the wheel route, the dread came flooding back. Then the storm surge of dread hit in full force as the ghost of David Tyree returned to University of Phoenix Stadium in the form of Jermaine Kearse. It was all too real. This was the new low point. Suddenly, Lynch was down to the one.
The next play will be talked about forever. We all know it was a stupid play call – the explanations from the Seattle coaching staff about killing a play make absolutely no sense. If you want to kill clock, kneel the ball. But in the moment, it was a flurry of emotions unlike anything I’ve experienced. From our vantage point directly behind the throw, it was hard to tell what exactly happened. We saw the ball thrown in traffic, saw a Patriot go the ground and saw no reaction from the referees. I was the first to react in our group, noticing the Patriots sideline celebrating. I began jumping up and down screaming wildly as I comprehended what just happened. Seconds later, everyone around us was hugging one another. Jubilee. I wouldn’t stop smiling the rest of the night.
There are heroes in every Super Bowl. But few come from as far as Malcolm Butler did. He will be discussed alongside Adam Vinatieri, Mike Vrabel, Ty Law and other heroes of the Patriots Super Bowl years. Throwing context aside, that was one fantastic read he made. But add the stupidity of the call back in and you get one of the best game-sealing plays of all-time.
Butler’s contribution might help Patriots fans remember down the line that this team was about so much more than Brady. Sure, he might have won MVP – and appropriately so – but Belichick needed everyone to beat the Seahawks. Without Revis and Browner, without Hightower and Collins, without Ninkovich and Jones, without Stork and Fleming, without Vereen and Amendola, there would be no Lombardi trophy for the Patriots this year. Brady, Gronk and Edelman were this team’s shiny exterior. But that aforementioned core can’t be forgotten.
Just about any fan out there could have told you Bill Belichick was going to revolve the offense around unexpected players. But for Patriot fans, it was all too clear that Shane Vereen was going to have a big role. However, few could have predicted the magnitude of his role. With every shoe-string catch across the middle, he bailed his quarterback out. He fought for every yard and made some truly remarkable plays. He and Amendola, the other surprise, were excellent.
Everybody wants to talk about Tom Brady’s legacy right now, but I think we need to spend a little more time on the remarkable play of so many Patriots like Vereen and Amendola. Let’s not soon forget Edelman’s iron-man toughness as he fought for the extra yards despite what looked to be a clear concussion. Brady will have his time in the sun soon.
On my plane ride home, there was a large man three rows in front of me dressed in a black hoodie, a West Virginia hat and dark sunglasses. He sat quietly as Patriots fans walked by without looking twice. From my seat, I saw this man’s enormous hands. There was a black ring on his left hand. But there was a noticeable lack of a championship ring.
Upon landing in Charlotte, Randy Moss exited the plane quietly, head down and headphones on. One of the greatest receivers to ever live walked swiftly, not wanting to be recognized. And soon he was out of sight.
This Patriots team didn’t have a Randy Moss on offense. It had a collection of grinders, of fighters. Julian Edelman, the undersized seventh-round pick who arrived in the NFL without a position, is now what Moss and Welker will never be. A Super Bowl Champion. He and 51 others are not soon to be forgotten in New England. You can bet Patriot fans won’t be walking by players like Edelman anytime soon without giving him a nod, a high-five or a thank you.
What a game.