“It’s 50-50 right down the middle,” Nunes said. “Some people are rooting for Brady and want him to be happy. The others, they can’t believe what’s happening, and they don’t want to see him win with another team. The mentality is, if you’re not with us, you’re against us.”
The Patriots didn’t even make the playoffs in their maiden post-Brady attempt. But Patriots fans are undeniably back in the Super Bowl, whether they like it or not. For a population accustomed to clear-cut and borderline-arrogant rooting practices in February, this year’s Super Bowl will be an exercise in grappling with both the familiar and the unmooring, a kind of gridiron alternate dimension.
The New England region processed the idea of Brady playing for another franchise from the time he joined the Buccaneers in the spring through Tampa Bay’s coalescing into a title contender in late autumn. Brady’s upcoming appearance in a 10th Super Bowl has dredged, amplified and jostled all those conflicted feelings anew. How does New England feel about watching Brady on the Bucs? It depends whom you ask, and even then it may be difficult to ascertain.
“You sort of feel like these guys are going to the dance without you,” said Lou Merloni, who co-hosts one of Boston’s biggest sports talk radio shows on WEEI. “I don’t know if I could put it in one emotion. Confusion, maybe. Not knowing if I should be rooting for this guy, or if I should be mad at him, who I should be mad at. I think that’s part of it. Patriots fans are trying to figure out . . . whose fault is it that this is happening in front of me right now? [They want] to blame somebody for Tom Brady not being here anymore.”
For or against, the region remains transfixed by Brady. Merloni, a son of Framingham, Mass., and a former Boston Red Sox infielder, felt a dual reaction as he watched the NFC championship game conclude. First came shock, a surreal realization that he would witness Brady play in the Super Bowl for a team other than the Patriots. He also understood he had struck a content jackpot.
“It was like, ‘Wow, okay, just a typical, Patriots-going-to-the-Super Bowl two weeks,’ ” Merloni said this week in a phone conversation. “. . . Revisiting the departure, it’s all kind of coming back up again. It’s kind of giving you something for a couple weeks to talk about.”
The Bucs’ NFC championship game victory over the Green Bay Packers drew a 39.9 rating in the Tampa-St. Petersburg market, which barely beat out Providence (37.9) and Boston (36.0). NBC Sports Boston’s Tom Curran, who has covered the Patriots for more than two decades, compared the team’s unwillingness to sign Brady to a contact that would keep him in New England for his entire career to the Red Sox selling Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. The column ran under the umbrella of a sponsored feature titled, “Tracking Tampa Bay.”
Bernd Buchmasser, managing editor of the Pats Pulpit blog, posted a poll at the start of the playoffs asking which team readers would be rooting for. More than 1,000 responded, and roughly 70 percent chose Tampa Bay as the NFC team they wanted to win.
“There’s the others who feel like he left the Patriots and he left them in a pretty desolate state,” Buchmasser said. “. . . That’s not how I see it, but I do understand that sentiment to a certain degree. It’s like seeing your ex-girlfriend go off and live a happy life.”
The presence of tight end Rob Gronkowski provides another layer for New Englanders. Gronkowski did not achieve the reverence Brady received, but he may have been more beloved. His outgoing personality made him relatable in a way Brady never could be. This week, Gronkowski said he has heard from friends and family who remain in New England that people there are supporting him.
“And it’s good to hear,” he said. “It’s a sense of relief to hear. Because when I was there, I appreciated everything from the organization to the fans. There are unbelievable fans up there. It’s cool to hear they’re still watching. When my friends are up there, they’re like, ‘Everyone is cheering up here for you.’ It’s pretty cool.”
Gronkowski’s loved ones may not be sharing everything. Among Patriots fans inclined to feel enmity toward Tampa Bay, Gronkowski tends to draw more ire than Brady. He cited the need to preserve his body when retired in March 2019. His decision came weeks into free agency, which left some Patriots fans with the feeling he had prevented New England from addressing a need.
“When his buddy picked up in Tampa Bay, all of a sudden now he wants to play?” Merloni said, mimicking how Patriots fans felt. “. . . He’s a tough guy not to love, personality-wise. But I don’t think people give Gronk the pass that they give Brady.”
Brady himself may be able to relate to Boston fans, both the jilted and the appreciative. He grew up in Northern California rooting for the San Francisco 49ers, and he watched Joe Montana finish his career with the Kansas City Chiefs. But when asked last week about whether watching Montana on the Chiefs informed his understanding of how Boston fans view him now, Brady merely offered appreciation for his time with the Patriots.
“I had an incredible 20 years, and I wouldn’t change anything in the course of 20 years,” Brady said. “That was magical. And all the relationships, those shaped me into who I am as a person, as a player. I have great affection for the city, everything that Boston has meant to me and my family – all of New England, not just Boston. I didn’t even know where New England was when I was picked by New England.”
Boston has experience in watching an icon pursue a late-career title. In 2000, the Bruins traded beloved defenseman Ray Bourque to the Colorado Avalanche. His quest to win his first Stanley Cup transfixed Boston. When the Avalanche won in June 2001, about a month before Brady began his second training camp with the Patriots, Boston threw Bourque a parade.
Those were different days. The region had not seen a professional sports championship since the 1986 Boston Celtics, and the four local teams were a quartet of dysfunction. Then Brady took over an 0-2 Patriots team, led it to a Super Bowl title and sparked a ludicrous two-decade run. The four major New England teams would claim another 11 championships in an 18-year span.
All those championships provide license for every feeling between gratitude and animosity. The rooting motivations provide a novel and kaleidoscopic study of sports fandom. Some Patriots fans are rooting against the Chiefs as much as they’re rooting for Brady, lest Patrick Mahomes win a second Super Bowl and launch a dynasty that challenges their own recent run.
Others who wanted Brady to stay are eager to wield his success as a weapon to swing in the direction of Bill Belichick, the coach who won six Super Bowl trophies with Brady. It has long been a popular, if irrational, parlor game in New England to discern who deserves more credit for the Patriots’ dynasty. This season tilted the debate.
“That tune has changed,” Nunes said. “At first it was, ‘Bill knows what he’s doing, and he’s the mastermind.’ Now it’s like: ‘How’d they lose him? Why’d they blow that chance to have Brady finish his career here?’ It started from, ‘You can’t mess with a genius.’ Now it’s like, ‘Belichick’s on the hot seat.’ “
“People are keeping score,” Merloni said. “And right now, Tom’s winning.”
In the playoffs, Patriots fans have gotten to live vicariously through Brady. But if he wins, it will only remind them of what they lost. Most want him to succeed. But if he does, it may make them feel even worse about their own team.
“It just becomes real possessive,” Merloni said. “He’s a New England Patriot, but if he wins the Super Bowl, Tampa Bay can say, ‘Tom Brady, he won a Super Bowl with us.’ So they get a piece of that, too. So I think that’s the emotional roller coaster.”
For Bostonians, Brady’s appearance in the Super Bowl provides endless grist and elemental pieces of why sports make us so crazy to begin with. It pits Brady against Belichick, Bucs against Patriots, fan against himself. There are so many ways for Patriots fans to feel about Brady, except not caring at all.
“For us,” Merloni said, “it’s a gold mine.”
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