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Monday, July 22, 2002
Updated: July 24, 2:18 PM ET
2. Patriot Games

By by Steve Wulf


  • Launch The ESPN 100

    Perfect name. Perfect timing. Perfect storyline. And on a snowy day in Foxboro, the perfect gesture.

    After Adam Vinatieri kicked the 23-yard field goal in overtime that gave the Patriots a 16-13 victory over Oakland's Raiders and put them in the AFC championship game, New England long-snapper Lonie Paxton lay down in the powder and made a snow angel. While all of New England danced in delirium, Paxton just lay there on the 5-yard line, fanning his arms and legs up and down.

    The impression he left was that there was someone watching over the Patriots, some higher power seeing to it that in America's time of crisis, the team that most directly symbolized the spirit of this nation would win the day. "Team of destiny was not what I was going for there," says Paxton, a Southern Californian and Greek-American with scant winter background. "A lot of people read that into the snow angel, but basically, I was just trying to show how happy I was."

    Adam Vinatieri
    Many teams learned the hard way that you never count out the Patriots.
    But who could blame people for pumping up the message? With the nation in need of a feel-good story, the Patriots mounted a charge that seemed to come right out of the Revolutionary War 226 years before. Bill Belichick may not look much like George Washington -- Bill has better teeth -- but he was able to rally his undermanned troops after he was forced to replace his field commander. And that Jan. 19 victory over the Raiders sure as heck looked like Valley Forge.

    Is it any wonder that America saw the Spirit of '76 in XXXVI? The Patriots' 20-17 upset of the Rams seemed as natural and preordained as their forefathers' upset of the British.

    Our bad: If we believe the Pats' Super Bowl trip was a gift from a Big Zebra working the Raiders game, we do the players and coaches an injustice. Same with their precursors. As historian Joseph Ellis points out in Founding Brothers, "What in retrospect has the look of a foreordained unfolding of God's will was in reality an improvisational affair in which sheer chance, pure luck -- both good and bad -- and specific decisions made in the crucible of specific military and political crises determined the outcome."

    In other words, it's what you do with the opportunities -- not what the opportunities do with you. When the Pats gathered last summer at Bryant College in Rhode Island (where the last four digits of the main phone number are 1776), they were coming off a 511, last-place season. Nobody outside that camp thought they were a Super Bowl team. But Belichick sensed something special: "I saw a strong feeling for each other, a refusal to let the guy beside you down." Helping to galvanize the team were both the arrival of veteran linebacker Bryan Cox and the death of quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein. A rusted anchor was placed in the middle of the locker room to remind everyone that one unprepared player could sink the whole ship.

    Football coaches no doubt will want to study Belichick's 2001 campaign the same way military historians study Washington's. The Pats opened the season with seven new starters -- and lost to the Bengals. Then came September 11, the concern for guard Joe Andruzzi and his NYC firefighter brothers and the emotional resumption of the season at Foxboro 12 days later. Not only did the Pats lose to the Jets that day, they also lost Drew Bledsoe, nailed on the sidelines in the fourth quarter by linebacker Mo Lewis. Bledsoe's replacement, Tom Brady, was a 2000 sixth-round pick out of Michigan who'd thrown exactly three NFL passes, completing one.

    A turning point of the Revolutionary War was Washington's decision to replace General Horatio Gates on the southern front with Nathanael Greene. Sure enough, Brady led the Patriots to their first win, 44-13 over the Colts. In that victory were the other seeds of New England's success: the rushing of Bills castoff Antowain Smith (94 yards, 2 TDs) and the aggressive play of the secondary, which returned two interceptions for touchdowns.

    But you know it don't come easy. Each time the Patriots seemed to be making progress, they took a step backward. The Dolphins embarrassed them, 30-10. After beating the Chargers in overtime and the Colts when David Patten ran, caught and passed for touchdowns, they lost to the Broncos, 31-20, when Brady threw four fourth-quarter interceptions. At that point, the good people of New England were calling for either Bledsoe or a new coach. Then the Pats beat the Falcons and the Bills -- but hey, they were the Falcons and the Bills. Week 10 brought the real test: Kurt Warner and the Rams.

    St. Louis won, 24-17, in what most observers thought was a lackluster effort by the Rams and what few observers thought could be a preview of the Super Bowl. But, as Paxton says, "It was in that loss that we found out we could win." Down went the Saints, Jets and Browns. Down went the Bills, Dolphins and Panthers. With that last win came a first-round playoff bye, home-field advantage in the second round and a Gatorade shower for Belichick. (George never had to put up with that.)

    So there was one last game at Foxboro Stadium -- and four inches of snow. The Raiders had a 13-3 lead going into the fourth quarter, but Brady finally got a handle on the ball, taking the Pats on a 67-yard drive that ended with his six-yard run. On his next possession came the strongest indication of divine intervention, the incomplete pass-turned-fumble-turned-incomplete pass. But whatever you think of the call, referee Walt Coleman's decision doesn't outweigh the Patriots' decision two years before to take Brady in the sixth round, or even Brady's decision to pass up an offer to catch for the Montreal Expos.

    Even with that break, the game still came down to a 23-yard field goal in driving snow, to the synchronization of an undrafted long-snapper from Sacramento State softly flinging a football through his legs seven yards back to a holder and punter released by Carolina (Ken Walter), whose gentle hands would set the ball down just right -- laces away -- for a World League refugee trying not to think about how big the kick really was.

    It was up ... and it was good.

    The rest, as they say, is history.

    This article appears in the August 5 issue of ESPN The Magazine.