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A foot in the door

Patriots' humble beginnings were anything but super

By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / August 4, 2009

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The football had a different flavor to it.

A seven-game pack of Patriots season tickets cost $35, and the combined salary of the team, all 35 players, was $330,000. There were only five coaches.

After regular-season games, players often stayed on the field and mingled with fans. Some even picked up a date.

In their makeshift locker room in East Boston, players sat on milk crates watching 16-millimeter game film. There was no screen to show the images, just a white sheet hanging from the ceiling that covered water pipes.

After practices, many players went to work at other jobs. Some were lawyers, others sold insurance. Coach Mike Holovak was on the racing commission and helped several players land jobs at Suffolk Downs.

Then there was “The Duke,’’ a.k.a. Gino Cappelletti, who would take part in training camp in Amherst, then drive east five nights a week to anchor WBZ television sportscasts. Broadcasting helped supplement his $7,500 salary.

The team offices were in a basement in Kenmore Square, and when it came time to draft players, reporters sat alongside as team officials flipped through the Street & Smith’s football guide to make the choice.

These were some of the modest beginnings of the local professional football franchise, which is celebrating its 50th birthday this season.

Hearing the stories and recollections brings to life an era in Patriots football that served as the roots for what has grown into a massive enterprise. Those who lived it - from ownership, to players and media members - echo a familiar theme: For all the prosperity the Patriots have enjoyed in recent years, it wasn’t anything like that in the 1960s.

Unlike today, when owners submit multimillion dollar bids for teams, the Patriots came to Boston in 1960 as the eighth and final member of the American Football League in an understated way behind the guidance of Billy Sullivan.

“My dad had gotten a call from Frank Leahy, the former coach at Boston College when he was the public relations guy there,’’ Pat Sullivan recalled. “Dad had also worked with him at Notre Dame. Frank was working for what was then the Los Angeles Chargers and he said, ‘We need one more franchise to fill this out. Are you interested?’

“Dad had tried to get a franchise in the NFL in 1957-58, but they wanted a stadium to be built and that wasn’t likely to happen in that timeframe. So when that call came, it wasn’t hard for my father at all. He felt that Boston would be a great market for a professional football team.’’

Sullivan cobbled together $25,000 of his own money that would have been put toward buying a summer cottage on Cape Cod’s Craigville Beach. He also recruited nine others to put in $25,000 each.

At that point, it was official. The Patriots were coming.

“My mother really wanted that house on the Cape,’’ recalled Sullivan, who was 8 at the time. “But mother and dad were married for 58 years and she supported him in everything he did. There is no question in my mind that if it wasn’t for her, the Patriots as we know them today wouldn’t be in Boston.’’

Giant undertaking
When Cappelletti arrived in 1960, it was his first trip to Boston. He played at the University of Minnesota and had little idea of what he was walking into.

“I did not realize that New England was New York Giant territory, but I found out in a hurry,’’ he said. “The Giants and their players were household names in Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, especially Connecticut. In a way, that turned out to be our toughest opponent.’’

The Giants, in the already-established NFL, had their games broadcast across the East Coast every Sunday. The Patriots would initially play on Friday nights.

Before there could be games, however, a team had to be formed.

The Patriots’ first training camp was held in Amherst, and it was nothing like the structured, ultra-organized, two-a-day sessions of today.

“The first day I ever went to training camp, we had almost 300 guys there and they were all shapes and sizes, an incredible cast of characters who thought they could play pro football,’’ said Sullivan, who later became the team’s general manager. “There were tall fat guys and short fat guys, and mixed in among all of that was a group of pretty good athletes that had tried out for NFL teams and didn’t make it, or didn’t try out for NFL teams because they felt they couldn’t make it. From that, a group got cobbled together - 300 down to 35.’’

“Players came from every corner of the country,’’ added Cappelletti. “Some were professional wrestlers. Some had played in the NFL 10 years ago and were trying to make a comeback. There were a few rookies, a few draft choices, but other than that, it was a comedy of people who showed up to play. Some guys had never played before.’’

Exhibition games were played in Providence, Worcester, and Amherst that first year, by design. The idea was to sell the AFL, and Sullivan remembers that the team was met with enthusiasm with 12,000 to 13,000 fans showing up. The first regular-season game, against Denver at BU Field, drew 21,597 spectators.

In one game against the Dallas Texans that year, Sullivan recalled seeing thousands watching from steel frames that later became the West Campus dormitories at BU. Those fans weren’t part of the official attendance, but it was a sign that pro football in Boston might catch on.

Off the field, the Patriots did not have luxurious practice facilities, sometimes training at BU, other times in East Boston.

“They were all antiquated buildings to work in, and because of that, you didn’t have rooms or movie rooms. I walk into Gillette Stadium now and it’s ‘Oh my!’ ’’ Cappelletti said.

“Hood used to provide us with milk - we had a lot of milk drinkers - and we’d sit on milk cartons while looking at film of our opponents for the week. The offense would be turned one way, and turned around facing the other way was the defense. We could hear what the defense was doing. You’d turn around and say, ‘Hey, keep quiet over there!’ ’’

Unlike other teams, such as the Texans owned by oil man Lamar Hunt, the Patriots worked with limited resources.

“They weren’t a rich organization, so at times it was a struggle,’’ said Gil Santos, who started broadcasting Patriots games on WBZ radio in 1966.

“There was a story about playing a night game in Buffalo, and the team went in the day before the game. In order to not be charged an extra day for the hotel room, players had to have their rooms made up at 11 o’clock on game day. They could stay in their rooms until it was time to get on the buses to go to the game, but they couldn’t disrupt the bed, or get under the covers. Otherwise, they’d be charged an extra day.’’

Santos also remembers traveling with the team to a game in Anaheim, Calif. - it was a doubleheader with Boston facing Oakland in Game 1, and Kansas City playing San Diego in Game 2 - on a four-engine prop plane loaded with equipment that required multiple layovers to refuel.

More than anything, however, Santos remembers a close-knit group of players who were “trying to win fans and trying to win acceptance for the league.’’

“One word comes to mind - chaotic. We were living on a shoestring in those days,’’ added center Jon Morris, who played for the Patriots from 1964 to ’74 and is arguably the top center in team history. “The Patriots were probably the least capitalized team in the AFL, and we lived from day to day, but I got the sense that we were on a mission, because the AFL and particularly the Patriots was looked down upon by the NFL.’’

Added Cappelletti: “There were lots of discussions with players from other teams after games, walking off the field, and guys would ask each other, ‘Did you get paid last week?’ One thing I can say, though, Bill Sullivan and the Patriots never missed a payroll.’’

Searching for a home
The Patriots’ first decade was defined by almosts - a win in the 1965 season finale against Joe Namath’s Jets would have clinched the division title - and the search for a permanent home to play, starting at BU, with stops at Fenway Park, Harvard, and Boston College. There was even a “home’’ game in Birmingham, Ala., in 1968.

One summer, before the Patriots knew where they would be playing, they printed tickets for three locations. Sullivan’s favorite spot was Fenway, where the team played starting in 1963.

“It was a great place to watch a football game, for precisely the same reason it is for baseball - you’re right close to the action,’’ he said. “If you were in the temporary seats that we set up against the Green Monster - it was a big grandstand with about 5,600 seats - you were right on the action.

“The opposite side of the field was fairly low and so the two teams would be on the same side, the Green Monster side. The conversations that occurred between some of the coaches and our fans were hysterical. The conversations that went on between the coaches, because they were on the same side of the field, were also kind of interesting as well. I was a ball boy, so I would listen in on them.’’

Sullivan also remembered how players and fans would mingle on the field after games, which created a connection that doesn’t exist today.

“Romances were started, business relationships were formed, and guys got jobs during those times,’’ he said. “The visiting players would hang out, too, and one time I bumped into [Bills quarterback] Jack Kemp. He was a fabulous guy and one of the things he later told me was that it was a season ticket-holder from the Patriots who convinced him to later go into politics - Tip O’Neill.’’

Kemp, who died in May at 73, went on to a successful political career after his playing days, which included a run for the presidency in 1988.

Sullivan also tells more lighthearted stories about the atmosphere at games at BU. “There was a well-known boxing promoter in Boston named Sam Silverman. He was a colorful guy. So he calls my father and says he needs four season tickets on the 50-yard line, but my father told him that he didn’t have them, we had sold out,’’ Sullivan said.

“Sam said he had to have four tickets, so my dad told him, ‘Well, you can have four that are in the very front row, but you won’t see anything because you’ll be right behind the players.’ He said he’d take them and then explained, ‘You don’t understand - I don’t want to see, I want to be seen.’ And you’d see him come to the game, usually with some boxer on his arm, and he’d stand up and wave to everybody, watch some of the players’ backsides, and then leave.’’

Behind the scenes, there were fond recollections of how Cappelletti used to have the equipment manager dip his square-toed kicking shoe in water before placing it next to a heater so it would get hard and crusty for games. Cappelletti also took great pride in his appearance, seldom, if ever, taking the field without a shiny kicking boot.

Cappelletti and quarterback Babe Parilli became two of the team’s big stars, and running back Jim Nance’s cover shot in Sports Illustrated gave the Patriots national recognition in the mid-1960s, but things began to dip by the end of the first decade.

Morris recalls one unfortunate meeting before a practice at Curry College.

“We had lost a few games in a row and it looked like our coach, Clive Rush, was starting to come unraveled,’’ he said. “I was the offensive captain and Houston Antwine was the defensive captain, so he asked us if we wouldn’t mind coming in the next day a few hours earlier.

“We were going to talk about how to get it all turned around and when we showed up around 8:30, he pulled a bottle of scotch out of his desk drawer with three glasses. He looked at us and said, ‘Do you guys care to join me?’ I think we realized at that point that this thing was going nowhere.’’

In one sense, Morris was correct. The Patriots, as they were constituted at the time, needed major changes and a Chuck Fairbanks-like presence to later turn things around.

Yet in another sense, the Patriots were going places, having already celebrated their 10th birthday.

Now it’s 50.

“When we first got there, I don’t think many of us realized that pioneering was something we were doing,’’ said Cappelletti, who is second all time on the Patriots in scoring, behind Super Bowl hero Adam Vinatieri.

“The original dream was survival. First, you had to survive to make the team. Then, you hoped for franchise survival. And then you hoped that the league would survive.

“I think that’s the mark of anybody throughout the American Football League years.’’

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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