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Foreign legion

Patriots begin acclimation to London

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / October 24, 2009

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LONDON - As he stood on a small black riser just a few feet off the verdant lawn of the Brit Oval cricket ground, Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork was like the NFL’s goodwill ambassador to England. He laughed. He smiled. He entertained questions about British soccer. He talked about doing some sightseeing. He looked genuinely happy to be in London.

“It’s exciting to be over here to play a football game,’’ said Wilfork, who along with the rest of the Patriots contingent arrived at 5:15 a.m. London time yesterday and was at the practice field about 7 1/2 hours later. “My first time in London, and it’s playing a football game. It’s amazing. Take it for whatever it’s worth. As long as we come out with a win, I’m OK. I don’t care how you slice it.’’

Wilfork’s comments echoed the team’s general mood upon its arrival. They presented a united front of excitement about playing in the United Kingdom. Any veiled cynicism and expected kvetching about having to travel across the Atlantic Ocean to play a regular-season road game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers tomorrow at Wembley Stadium didn’t make it through customs.

Make no mistake, the Patriots will not remember their excursion fondly if they lose to the 0-6 Bucs, but touching down in London town has given the team an appreciation for the unique experience of traveling abroad to play a meaningful game.

“We understand what this means. We know we’re over here to play a game. We’re over here representing the NFL and the New England Patriots organization,’’ said Wilfork.

“First of all, we have to win. That’s what we came over here for. But to come out here a couple of days early gives us a chance to get out and see the history. We’ll take a day for that and go sightseeing and [today] pick it right back up. We came here for one reason only and that’s to be 5-2 going back home. We have to take care of business first. Like I said, if I like what I see I’ll come back on my own time.’’

It was an odd sight, the regal Brit Oval, which has hosted cricket matches since 1845, lined with yard markers and outfitted with temporary goal posts. The home pitch of the Surrey County Cricket Club was retrofitted as the Patriots’ place for a day, as the team had a refresher practice in shorts and light shoulder pads.

“There is a first time for everything,’’ said Wilfork of practicing on the cricket ground.

The historic and unusual backdrop even led Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who is so disciplined in his focus that he could show the Buckingham Palace guards a thing or two about stoicism, to drop his guard a bit about this being strictly a business trip.

“This is quite an experience for us, all of us, the team, the players and myself,’’ said Belichick. “I’ve been in the National Football League 35 years and this is the first time I’ve ever been to a facility like this. It’s kind of cool, and I’m looking forward to the experience this weekend at Wembley and the couple of days we have here in London. It would be nice if we could hang around a little bit longer, see the Tower of London and all that, but it’s a great city with a great history, and I love that it’s getting into football and the NFL.’’

Perhaps Belichick and his team can be a tad relaxed because they did most of their game preparation in Foxborough. The team practiced on Tuesday (normally an offday), Wednesday, and Thursday to install the game plan before they left.

Yesterday’s practice was basically a light workout/review session to allow the players to become adjusted to local time.

The Patriots will hold a walkthrough today at Wembley Stadium to familiarize themselves with the playing surface, the scoreboard, play clock locations, and the locker rooms.

There seemed to be an awe factor for the players yesterday. Quarterback Tom Brady mentioned that on the bus ride from the hotel to the Brit Oval players were getting a mini-guided tour from security head Mark Briggs, who is from England.

“I know a lot of the guys it’s their first trip [here], their first trip out of the country in general, so it’s a very good experience for us all,’’ said linebacker Jerod Mayo.

This week is a bit of a social respite for Brady, a mega-celebrity at home but relatively anonymous in England, where famous footballers have names like Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney.

Brady said he wasn’t that recognizable the last time he was in London, four years ago as a tourist. That was before the NFL began staging an annual regular-season game here.

“The Americans, they recognized me, but the English people, they’re not too familiar with football,’’ said Brady. “So, hopefully over the last few years, with the NFL being here, [it has] created some interest and some excitement.’’

“I know all the players are really looking forward to the game. It’s a pretty unique experience for all of us, and it would be great to go out there and make it a memorable trip by playing our best game on Sunday.’’

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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