By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- For a very, very, very long time, Patriots fans had it so good. Now, they're enduring some emotional turmoil.
All of America no doubt sends its warmest regards.
Of course, nobody will actually be feeling too badly for Patriots fans, who got to experience not one but two dynastic runs in the 21st century. No team has ever dominated a two-decade stretch like the Patriots did under Bill Belichick, providing a lifetime of joy, memories, highlight films, memorabilia, and -- most importantly -- Lombardi Trophies for the region to enjoy.
Alas, all good things must come to an end. And in the case of Tom Brady leading the Patriots to the conference title game every year, that era slammed shut in 2020. Belichick was understandably hesitant to commit to a quarterback entering his mid-40s, and Brady unwaveringly believed in his ability to rewrite what's possible for men of a certain age playing a certain sport.
And so, here we are. The Patriots went 7-9 and are in dire need of major upgrades this offseason. They went from being the class of the NFL to being an undesirable trade destination for the quarterback of the pitiful Lions. And Brady is where he always is at this time of year: playing for a damn Super Bowl.
It's a lot for a fan to handle, even if that fan celebrated more winning and success from 2001-18 than any football fan has any right having in an entire lifetime. In a region where the standard was always set on winning the next championship, the glow of past glory doesn't help ease the pain of a down season.
As such, when No. 12 trots onto the field in Tampa, with a hundred million or so viewers tuned in for football's grandest game, there's sure to be some conflicted feelings from folks in the Northeast who had delighted in that sight nine times before.
Around the country, there's been a general curiosity regarding how Patriots fans feel about the whole situation. There's no short and easy answer for that. It's best to go direct to the people.
"TOM'S OFF THE TEAM"
To be sure, there are not two defined camps when it comes to Patriots fans and their feelings about Brady. Seemingly each person has a unique perspective, which isn't altogether surprising for a matter so closely tied with emotion.
Yet in the general sense, there are those who remain ardent Tom Brady fans, and there are those who don't much care about him right now.
"My wife and I have this saying that we talk about business, and it applies in sports," said Andy Johnson, who's attended at least 400 Patriots games and says he's not been in attendance for fewer than 10 games since the team moved to Foxboro. "And the saying is, 'When you're on the team, you're on the team. And when you're off the team, you're off the team.' Tom's off the team, you know? And so I don't ... I'm not rooting for him or against him. But he plays for somebody else."
While it's impossible to nail down an accurate percentage on this sentiment, Johnson is far from alone.
"Here's the thing: He left," said Roberta Grady, who grew up in Rhode Island and attended her first Patriots game in the '70s.
Of course, reaching that level of acceptance of reality took some times.
"I wouldn't say I've been sad. I was sad to start with, I was sad when he announced he was leaving," Grady said. "And it was like the stages of grief, you know? First you feel sad, and then you feel sort of angry, and now I'm just like, eh, he's gone, get over it."
For some Patriots fans, that progression took a sharp turn after the season began and the praise for Brady reached certain levels that made the Tompa Bay Experience too upsetting to bear.
"Honestly, I probably would have been neutral early on, but there was a little too much of a two-team loyalty kind of situation happening from Patriots fans all season," said my WBZ co-worker Matt Schooley, whom I may or may not have tormented all year long regarding his fragile emotional state on this matter and thus had to speak to for this story. "So then I decided, probably about halfway through, that I was just going to go hard the other direction and root against him, just because Patriots fans were starting to annoy me."
Schooley's been known in the past to be seen sporting a TB12 brand T-shirt ... and a TB12 hat ... while carrying a massive TB12 water jug. All of that merchandise has been collecting dust since March, and it may never make it out of storage.
"One thing that I have found is that it has been a little bit nice to not have to pretend that ... Tom Brady, he's a great guy and everything. But, to not have to go along with everything that comes with it as being great," Schooley said. "The Tom Brady Experience isn't always seamless. So it's been nice, a little bit nice to not have to go along for the complete ride."
Schooley added that hoping for failure from Brady gave him some added rooting interest during a lackluster Patriots season, and that "when he retires, I think that he'll be my guy again."
Others weren't bothered so much by local fans rooting for Brady as much as they were the sting of the breakup.
"As a fan, you end up taking it a little bit personally, in that you make an investment -- an emotional investment -- and the cold hard reality of it is it's a job for those guys," Johnson said. "When it's time move on, they move on. But, if you can tap through to get to the emotional part, that's where it is a little disappointing, I guess."
Grady said she's spent the past several weeks rooting for the Saints and Packers.
"I was cheering for the other guys," she said, explaining that it's been frustrating to see Brady's success in Tampa being used as an indictment against Bill Belichick. "It makes me want to scream, because the fact of the matter is, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were lucky to have each other."
That aspect of the matter was a common theme among all Patriots fans when discussing the Brady situation, but we'll get to that a bit later. For now it's clear enough that a healthy amount of Patriots fans had no issue cutting ties with Brady over the past year, despite the long history of success.
"JUST HAVE SOME APPRECIATION FOR THE GUY, YOU BLEEPING BLEEPS"
Then, there is the other side of the aisle. And the poster boy for that side would be Jim Murray.
Anyone who's listened or watched sports talk radio this season has known that despite departing the region, Tom Brady has remained arguably the liveliest topic of discussion. And on that front, nobody has been more over-the-top in getting behind Brady than "Big Jim" on 98.5 The Sports Hub's Felger & Massarotti program.
Whether it's with his biting on-air commentary or his Creamsicle/TB12-inspired Bucs wardrobe, Murray has certainly laid the obnoxiousness on thick when it comes to remaining loyal to the quarterback who delivered him unimaginable happiness as a fan for almost 20 years. And if you thought that his messaging of inelegantly firing full-diaper insults at anyone with opposing viewpoints was just a schtick for radio, you'd be wrong.
"They're just so mad," Murray said about some his closest friends, whom he harasses on a group text chain with regularity. "That fuels me to be like ... it's because of them and callers like Danny in Quincy to be like, oh, just have some appreciation for the guy you [bleepin'] [bleepholes]. Like, can't you just root for him for this one?"
It's a blunt message, but it's not uncommon among a large section of Patriots fans.
"I am a zero percent Bucs fan. I'm a 100 percent Tom Brady fan. I'd love to see him get another trophy," said Tony LoConte, who walked down the aisle at his wedding to Jay-Z's "Public Service Announcement" (Brady's pregame intro song at Gillette Stadium). "And I don't see why that's a big deal, to me. Honestly. I love the guy. I mean, I idolized him. So, I always tell my wife, I mean, I got three kids. I got married. So that's four moments. And my top 10 moments, the other six are Tom Brady winning a Super Bowl."
LoConte -- who wears his fandom out in the open with his @BradyDisciple Twitter handle -- doesn't think Patriots fans should have any negative feelings toward Brady.
"I think you're a sore loser if you don't [root for Brady in the Super Bowl]. I feel like you're out of your mind," he said. "I don't even know how you evaluate a person like that, that can't take the 20 good years and be like, 'Ugh, screw this guy, he left.'"
Tom McNaughton, a Patriots season ticket holder since 1992, has likewise had zero problems pulling for Brady this season -- albeit with some strict limits.
"I was saying to my wife the other day, because she was suggesting we get Bucs Brady T-shirts, and I'm like, 'No no no, we have plenty of Brady shirts here in this house,'" McNaughton said. "So I'm not a Bucs fan. I don't want anybody to get it twisted. I am a Patriots fan. And if they were playing, God willing, the Buccaneers on Sunday -- I wish they were -- I would be rooting hard for the Patriots and rooting for Tom Brady to lose. But since that's not the scenario that's been played out, I love everything Brady's done for this for this organization -- especially that organization, which was fourth out of four [in the Boston sports hierarchy] for so long -- he was a big part of that and obviously a huge part of that. So, I'm 100 percent rooting for him."
McNaughton named his son Brady, which he said wasn't necessarily because of Tom Brady but also wasn't necessarily not because of Tom Brady. So rooting for Brady to succeed this season in Tampa was only natural, even if it didn't feel quite right.
"I feel it. ... It is a little weird because I feel like I'm rooting for the Bucs," he said. "But I'm really just rooting for him. So it does feel a little strange for me. But, I wish he was doing it for us, I do feel that ex-girlfriend thing, but I also feel like since we have 20 years, it's not like he was in the prime of his career and we lost him like when Roger Clemens ran for the extra dough over the border. This is totally different than that."
McNaughton added: "It is a little conflicting. I wish it was happening for the Patriots. And then I also factor in, and I think a lot of Patriots fans feel this fans feel this way, I think he's the greatest of all time. And him winning a seventh Super Bowl helps that cause, and it does feel like a little bit of defending what he's done with the Patriots."
For Murray, his loyalty to Brady has a lot to do with the experience of getting to witness this generation's version of Bill Russell or Larry Bird.
"He's everything I ever wanted to root for in a professional athlete. And especially being able to remember the losing times and how this place was Loserville," Murray said. "I never expected any of these teams to win. And the osmosis of him being here and then everything has happened over the last 20 years, is he responsible? No. I mean, he is with the Patriots, but there is something weird about it, and it started with that championship in '01. And I never thought as a fan and growing up around here I would never have the joy of watching someone like that. ... I never thought I would ever get the honor, as corny as that is, to root for a guy like that."
Murray admitted that his love for Brady dipped in the QB's final season in New England, referring to Brady as an "unrelatable weirdo" due to the "whole Gwyneth Paltrow thing." But seeing him succeed this year at 43 years old has rejuvenated the old feelings.
"I just try to focus on what he is as a player and what he is as a professional athlete, and that still brings me joy. And that he was able to pull off what he's pulled off this year with that wretched franchise ... how he's played, how that team looks, the fact that they're in the Super Bowl, [my love for Brady] is back at a 10," Murray said.
McNaughton was understanding of Patriots fans who can't bring themselves to cheer for Brady in Tampa, but he hasn't had a problem.
"I just find it hard to root against him," McNaughton said. "I'm super happy for him. And I really think all Patriots fans should be."
THE MAHOMES FACTOR
Making matters somewhat tricky for Patriots fans who've been rooting for Brady to fail this year is the fact that if he and the Bucs lose the Super Bowl, it'll mean back-to-back championships for the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes. Considering no team has won consecutive Super Bowls since the Patriots in 2003 and 2004, that's a potential historical achievement that is sure to hit home for many New Englanders.
"These people I feel like are in a pickle. ... If you're dug in,and you haven't been able to root for [Brady] this year, I think you have to kind of look at it as it's now this Chiefs thing," Murray said. "It's already started. Like, [Mahomes] is the baby GOAT, and if you don't like hearing that kind of thing, I think the decision gets made for you. Because if you end up being neutral or end up kind of pulling for the Chiefs a little bit here, you're pulling for the national sports media to start talking about the Kansas City Chiefs as the new dynasty. That won't diminish what the Patriots did over the last 20 years, but it's gonna start putting a dent in it a little bit. So, what are you gonna do? I think that makes the decision for you -- Brady and the Bucs are the one to root for."
Johnson, who hasn't been on the Brady train this year, certainly considered that scenario.
"I like Mahomes, I love to watch him play. I like Andy Reid," Johnson said. "I would say my rooting interest, if it would be to root for Tampa, it's so that the Chiefs don't win two in a row."
LoConte, who very much has been on the Brady train, is a bit worried about the impact of Mahomes potentially winning a second Super Bowl at age 25.
"Mahomes is kind of on a pace now where he could realistically catch Brady right now, with the stacked team that he has and how good he is," LoConte said. "So, I'd love it if Brady could just put some more padding in between the two of them."
As is the case with just about everything involving Patriots' fans feelings toward this game, not everyone feels the same.
"It's a little too entertaining to watch Mahomes to necessarily root against him, just because he's so good," Schooley said.
BRADY VS. BILL
If there was one commonality among everyone interviewed (except for Murray), it was a distaste for the way that Brady's successful 2021 season coinciding with Bill Belichick's subpar season in Foxboro has been used as a definitive case in the Brady vs. Bill debate. Without being asked, the disagreement with that general premise was rejected.
"I want both sides to come out on top," LoConte said. "I don't get into the Brady Brady vs. Belichick stuff, where it's like, Brady's winning the duel, he's 1-0 vs.the Patriots. I don't get into that. I wanted Brady to throw for 600 yards in every game, but I wanted them to lose because the coaching is so inept. ... I can't do the scorekeeping, because I feel like it was smart for both sides."
"The thing I hate is the argument about which one it is," Johnson said. "I think Brady's the greatest to ever play the game, and a big reason for that is because Belichick was his coach. And I think Belichick's the greatest ever to coach the game, and a part of that is because Brady has been his player. And it works hand in glove and I don't think it's a zero sum game."
"I know you're talking about Brady in this and not necessarily Bill Belichick, but it does feel the two are sort of intertwined," McNaughton said. "I think sometimes people put them against each other, and I disagree with that. I feel like for the last 20 years, the answer to the question of who was more important, Belichick or Brady, the answer is really the cop-out one. It's both of them. And so I'm not going to separate that. I'm rooting for Belichick as hard as I am for Brady."
"I cannot take -- I cannot take -- one more column, one more radio show, one more broadcast in any way, shape or form of the 'Who's better, Bill Belichick or Tom Brady?' I can't. I can't," Grady said. "Does Belichick become one of the winningest coaches of all time without Brady? I dunno. Does Brady become the potential greatest of all time ... without the Patriots organization, including Belichick?"
Murray was the lone voice who seems to enjoy the Belichick vs. Brady aspect of this season, likening it to the intrigue of a band like Guns N' Roses breaking up.
"I find those dynamics interesting," Murray said. "And so while I don't feel great about Belichick now, and I think he's got a lot to prove in this offseason, I don't hate him or anything like that. It's just I love Tom more than him right now."
Interestingly, the two steadfast Brady supporters aren't feeling quite the same way about seeing the affable Rob Gronkowski working hand in hand with Brady in Tampa.
"I'll tell you, I think the more complicated feelings are Gronk, honestly, than it is Brady," McNaughton said. "I loved him too, but he retired, quote-unquote, and rubbed some oil on himself and then next thing you know, he forced his way to Tampa. I think it's a totally different scenario."
"I have trouble rooting for Gronkowski," LoConte said. "I love Gronkowski giving his interviews and everything like that, but it's always been like, the way he did it is a lot different than the way Brady did it. Basically I feel like he fake-retired and knew Brady was gonna leave, and that was a plan from the get-go. I mean, if Brady went to the Chargers, I think Gronkowski would be on the Chargers right now."
When it comes to matters of emotions, we can all try to rationalize our feelings with some logical, cogent thoughts. But in the moment, identifying and compartmentalizing those feelings isn't always quite so simple.
And so, when it's finally time for Super Bowl LV, and Brady trots onto the field in his Bucs jersey and stands on the Tampa sideline for the national anthem in his home stadium, with 100 million folks glued to their televisions, the emotions are sure to be complex.
"Oh, I've been psycho. I've been psycho during these few games," Murray said. "This is the most I've emotionally been invested in sports since Game 7 between the Bruins and Blues. ... To have that again, this last month has been a blast. It really has."
The die-hard Patriots fans don't anticipate feeling the same level of nerves or butterflies while watching this one, while still pulling for Brady to win.
"I'm definitely wishing he was in a Patriots helmet, but I'm rooting for him," McNaughton said. "I want the Buccaneers to win for a number of reasons, but he's the biggest reason. I'm not that super conflicted over it. I live in reality and the reality is he doesn't play for the Patriots anymore. But I'm happy, I'm happy for him personally."
And while everyone will obviously be watching the game, not everyone will be listening.
"If I mute the sound and don't listen to the announcers, I'm good with it. Because they'll kind of make a big deal about it," Johnson said. "I'll probably root for whoever is behind. You know, I want it to be an interesting football game."
Grady envisions an emotion-free viewing of Sunday's game.
"I think I'll be fine. I think I will be fine. I think there will be Patriot fans who will be crying in their beer. I will not be one of them. I will be fine," Grady said. "Frankly, I think this year, having lived through -- with the rest of the world -- the worst year that I could have ever imagined, watching Tom Brady play for another team is the least of my concerns."
For others who have been rooting hard for Brady's failure, seeing him win this one won't be the end of the world.
"I'm kind of, honestly ... I honestly don't really know. I think, honestly, the last couple of weeks, I've probably leaned more towards like if he ends up winning it, to beat the Chiefs and stuff, it's obviously going to be an insane accomplishment," Schooley said. "So I think that if he does it, it's got to be like, wow it's pretty crazy that he was able to do that. Acceptance, I would say."
You can find Michael Hurley on Twitter @michaelFhurley.
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