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The New England Patriot Factor

By Sam Parry
February 12, 2004

Call it "the New England Patriot factor" of Campaign 2004.

As George  W. Bush’s campaign and the Republican National Committee gear up to label Sen. John Kerry a “Massachusetts liberal,” they’re confronting a new and unexpected obstacle. For millions of American football fans, “Massachusetts” is no longer just a byword for effete, latte-sipping, out-of-touch-with-the-rest-of-America politics. 

Instead Massachusetts is subliminally connected to the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, a tough, resilient, blue-collar, “waiver wire” team that conquered the NFL by playing like a team and eschewing individual statistics. The ethos of the Patriots was the opposite of the “me-me” selfishness that has become a blight on professional sports. Their biggest star, quarterback Tom Brady, was a sixth-round draft pick who was bypassed for the Pro Bowl even as he won his second Super Bowl MVP award.

Football fans often associate cities and regions with their teams: Denver and John Elway’s Broncos, Chicago and Mike Ditka’s Bears, Pittsburgh and the Steel Curtain Steelers. So, now when the word Massachusetts is mentioned, many football fans are more likely to think of Foxboro than Harvard.

Instead of Teddy Kennedy, they’re thinking of Tedy Bruschi, the linebacker who slid on his knees in the end zone after intercepting a Jay Fiedler pass and touching off one of the NFL season’s most memorable images: Patriot fans celebrating by tossing showers of white snow into the air.

Tough Sell

When RNC chief Ed Gillespie uses the epithet “Massachusetts liberal,” he may hope to conjure up thoughts of pointy-headed intellectuals. But there’s now a competing image of 1.5 million Patriot fans packing downtown Boston to honor a football team that finished the NFL season by winning 15 straight games, including some played in bitter cold against talented opponents.

There’s the image of kicker Adam Vinatieri kicking a 46-yard field goal through a sub-zero wind chill to defeat the Tennessee Titans. There’s the same Vinatieri finishing off the Super Bowl with another dramatic field goal to edge the Carolina Panthers. There are the faces of Ty Law, Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest and Tom Brady making key plays under pressure to win a second Super Bowl in three years.

How many paid commercials will it take to erase from the minds of Americans the fact that Massachusetts is the home of the team in red-white-and-blue named the “Patriots.” Convincing Americans that somehow Massachusetts is un-American has gotten a whole lot tougher, not that the allegation ever made much sense.

Massachusetts is in many ways the birthplace of American liberty, not only where Samuel Adams brewed beer but where he organized a revolution. It’s also home to some of America’s greatest sports franchises, with the Patriots now taking their place alongside the storied Celtics, Bruins and Red Sox.

For those who have never visited New England, the exposure of the region through the prism of sports might help explain a misunderstood part of the New England character. Nothing is more respected than hard work, sturdiness and traditional values. That is evident in the way the most beloved New England athletes have dedicated themselves to their jobs, whether Red Sox slugger Ted Williams or the Bruins’ Bobby Orr or the anchors of Celtic dynasties, Bill Russell and Larry Bird.

Over the past three years, the Patriots have joined those greats, playing football like traditionalists love to see it played, with hard-nosed defense, toughness in the face of adversity and a one-for-all spirit. No football fan in America can doubt the character of the Patriots after watching them overcome a league-high list of injuries, amass the best record in the NFL and then defeat three quality teams in the playoffs: the Titans, the Indianapolis Colts and the Panthers.

Brave Fans

The Patriots also won in the worst weather, including bone-chilling cold and snowstorms. When the Patriot players thanked their fans in Boston after the Super Bowl victory, it wasn’t just the polite thing for athletes to say to ticket holders. The fans of New England had shown a rugged disregard for cold and discomfort that had inspired the team.

What football fan will forget the division-clinching game against the Miami Dolphins when 50,000 fans braved a storm that dumped two feet of snow on Foxboro. Many fans had to stand throughout the game or perch on snowdrifts, but were rewarded when the Patriots held the potent Dolphin offense to 134 net yards and zero points.

In a scene that has already gone down in football lore, Patriot fans reveled when linebacker Bruschi returned an interception for a game-clinching touchdown. Gillette Stadium erupted with powdery snow-works as fans flung snow into the air.

Those images will be hard to blot out as RNC Chief Gillespie and other Bush campaign operatives seek to disqualify Kerry because he comes from a state that they want to portray as outside the American mainstream.

But sports fans across the country now know something else about Massachusetts, that it not only gave birth to the American Revolution more than two centuries ago but it is today the home of the very tough Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots. It doesn’t get manlier or more American than that.

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