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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Eyes of many are trained on workouts

FOXBOROUGH -- Is this heaven? Is this Iowa?

No, it's Foxborough. Summer home of the New England Patriots.

Take a ride down Route 1 and watch the Super Bowl champions get ready for another season. The practice field adjacent to Gillette Stadium surely is the happiest place on earth.

Patriot preseason camp this year has the feel of a Fourth of July picnic on the town common -- complete with fireworks and a muster by the volunteer fire department. Looking at the football crowd peppered with strollers and toddlers, it's easy to imagine the town band playing Sousa marches on the gazebo in the middle of the big lawn. All that's missing is bobbing for apples and cotton candy.

"It's like a carnival," Tom Brady said after a morning practice in the hot sun last week. "We can actually hear the vendors."

Christian Fauria seconded that emotion. "We can hear, `Cold beer here!' " said the tight end. "We're practically drooling, like Pavlov's dogs. We hear the cans open. It's the Homer Simpson effect. `Beeeeer.' "

Imagine. Drinking a brewski while sitting only a few feet from Bruschi.

The festival of fun takes place in the stands and on the embankment surrounding the practice field. Patriot fans lounge and sip cool beverages while the players sweat. It's the best sports deal in New England. Parking is free, admission is free, and the Patriots hand out rosters for those who don't know Matt Chatham from Matt Light. Kids can play on the grass or toss a football over by the practice bubble while mom and dad watch Corey Dillon follow his blocking. The beer isn't sold until noon, but fans feast on other goods while cheering madly every time a wideout makes a catch.

There has never been a better time for a championship team in our midst. The Celtics of the 1960s won every year, but their preseason was hardly a big draw. Few went to Buzzards Bay or Hellenic College to watch John Havlicek run end-liners.

The 2004 Patriots are coming off a Super Bowl victory (second in three years), had a great draft, feature a flossy new running back, and will add a terrific linebacker returning from an injury. They also have a favorable schedule and the best coaching staff on the planet. They have a chance to break the NFL record for consecutive victories and are odds-on favorites to win another Super Bowl. Even the Ty Law mess has fizzled. It's Hakuna Matata, 24/7. And now they are making preseason fun for the fans. More than ever.

It is, how can we say, quite un-Soxlike.

"Very un-Soxlike," agreed Brady.

"We just focus on playing," said the cutie QB, who turned 27 last week. "But it's true. It's all good. The winning does that for our players, and the organization makes it easier for us to play hard. We have great fans, a great owner, great coaches, and the right mix of guys."

Patriot players sign autographs after most sessions. They stop and talk to reporters on their way to the locker room. Everyone seems to be in a good mood. Especially the appreciative fans.

"We made the trip down from Haverhill," said young mom Keri Guertin Ryan, as she held her 2-year-old son, Luke. "It's a great time for the fans. The stands are a little hot in the morning sun, but it's cooler up on the hill and the kids can run around."

She let Luke loose while she talked, and soon he found new toddler friends. Was this preseason or preschool? Certainly it was never this much fun, or this crowded, in and around the barracks at Bryant College.

One gets the feeling that head coach Bill Belichick would rather prepare his squad in a less public, more spartan environment. Something like a prison in the middle of a desert.

Au contraire, said the coach.

"I don't think it affects the team too much," said Belichick. "We've always done this. We played in front of fans in Denver and Detroit, Baltimore, the Jets. We had a lot of people in Cleveland. Good turnouts. Of course, we never had the beer vendors."

Bet the Browns never had players getting cheered for running a punishment lap either. This happened last week in Foxborough when James "Big Cat" Williams was applauded while running a penalty lap for a training camp transgression (alas, the offsides-jumping Cat was cut Friday).

"We had fans in camp when I played for Seattle, but they weren't on top of you like this," said Fauria. "And these fans are so into it. You see them wearing all the different jerseys. You would think it would make some of the players uptight, but everybody here is really focused and interested in getting the job done. The coaches run a good camp and give us a chance to recover."

They were off Friday and yesterday. Recovering. Back at it today at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. Check it out.

And bring the kids.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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