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Fans flight of fancy

NFL lockout is a distant memory for these training camp loyalists

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / July 29, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - The players and owners figured out how to split the NFL’s $9 billion pot Monday, and the very next day, Tim Lewis called his friend Chris Barnes.

All things football were about to be shifted into warp speed, including training camp, and Lewis wanted to see if Barnes would make the drive from Hampton, N.H., to Foxborough for the first day of Patriots training camp practices. There was just one hitch.

“Chris didn’t believe it until it was signed on the dotted line,’’ Lewis said.

After a four-month lockout, football returned yesterday. The enthusiasm for the game almost seemed heightened by the threat of losing it for a season. For the first day of camp, 7,566 fans poured into the fields behind Gillette Stadium.

Lewis and Barnes were there. Barnes, a 28-year-old cook, had to wiggle out of work.

“I had to convince my boss,’’ he said.

“We’re going to bring him back something special,’’ Lewis added.

The two sat on the grassy knoll behind the end zone during the breezy, padless morning session. Lewis broke out his silver Tom Brady jersey for the occasion.

“There was a point in time where it was bleak,’’ said Lewis, a 36-year-old pastor.

Originally from Cambridge, Lewis grew up on the Steve Grogan Patriots - “Yes, I cried when we lost in ’86 to the Bears,’’ he said. He usually plays in two fantasy football leagues (“I’ve got to get Tom Brady on my keepers’’), and even though his Sundays are obviously booked, a long lockout would have left a huge void.

“When both sides were so far apart and they kept walking out on the conferences together, we were very skeptical,’’ Lewis said. “So it’s a great day to just see them out on the football field doing something.’’

No matter the reasoning, players and owners grappling over revenue shares and rookie wages sounded like a millionaires-vs.-billionaires beef to fans in a struggling economy.

Matt Homsy, 27, of Duxbury watched the morning session from the top of the bleachers in a broken-in Tedy Bruschi jersey. He never thought that the sides wouldn’t be able to reach an agreement.

“There’s too much money on both sides to not get something done, in my opinion,’’ Homsy said. “I just thought it would have been over a little bit sooner than it was.

“It’s definitely tough in this economy when enough people are struggling. But I could see the sides from both the players and the owners. Big businesses obviously want to grow and make more money.’’

Homsy usually gets to one or two games a season.

“If there wasn’t football on Sunday, I don’t know. I’d have to find something to do,’’ he said. “There’d be a lot more time on my hands.’’

About five rows down, Ashley King watched the afternoon session with her mother, Melissa, having worked in the morning. She came to camp in her Wes Welker jersey, hoping to get an autograph from her favorite player, which she did after sifting through a swarm of bodies along the sideline.

She was sitting in front of an older woman who had a framed photo and was asking how to get it signed.

“You’ve got to get down there real early,’’ Ashley said. “Honestly, we got really lucky. I got right up front. It was crazy.’’

Her mother avoided the crowd.

“When Tom Brady walked by, I could see people [pushing and shoving],’’ Melissa said. “I could see her back up like, ‘OK, I don’t want to get killed.’ ’’

In a nice gesture, the entire team took the time to sign for fans. Typically, certain players sign on certain days. Defensive linemen one day, running backs on another. But yesterday, aware that if there was a time to show fan appreciation it was the first day back from a lockout, the plan changed.

Asked what led to the extra token of appreciation, defensive lineman Ty Warren tipped his hat to Myra Kraft, who succumbed to cancer last week as her husband, team owner Robert Kraft, was spearheading the final days of negotiations on the league’s new agreement.

“She’s a big part of what you saw here today,’’ Warren said. “I don’t think it’s a propaganda thing at all. I think it’s a straight-up genuine thing that Myra would probably be rubbing her knuckles through Kraft’s head if what was displayed today didn’t happen.

“It’s huge because the fans, the people that support this sport, the people that are the fuel to this whole thing, definitely missed a lot throughout the offseason. People didn’t really have much to talk about. People didn’t know the whereabouts of some of their favorite players, organizations. I think the owners and the players, through the negotiations, kind of put the fans in a rough spot.’’

Second-year cornerback Devin McCourty added, “It’s big when you see all these fans come out just to watch us practice. So any time we can give back our autographs, the fans are happy, and it’s not a problem for us.’’

The appreciation was mutual.

“It’s worth the wait,’’ Ashley King said.

Her mother chimed in, “I think they feel lucky to be back.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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