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Gillette Stadium opened in 2002, built adjacent to New England’s former joint Schaefer/Sullivan/Foxboro Stadium. That old place was a forgettable collection of metal bleachers, a testament to ownership that lacked money and stature. Yes, an NFL stadium was actually named after a discount (and now mostly discontinued) brand of beer.
The new place was the product of new ownership, a billionaire playing the NFL’s favorite game of pitting two different states against each other for sweetheart incentives. The Hartford Patriots (or something like it) was supposedly a real possibility.
Gillette was a palace built for royalty — luxury boxes and a giant lighthouse in one end zone. When it was constructed, however, no one knew who the king would be.
Then along came a sixth-round pick out of Michigan, who closed the old place in a playoff snowstorm (with help from the tuck rule) en route to winning this once woebegone franchise its first Super Bowl.
Gillette has never really known a quarterback other than Tom Brady. There was one year Matt Cassel filled in due to a Brady knee injury, but otherwise it has been Tom’s playground, especially on dark January nights like Saturday when his Patriots host Tennessee in the AFC wild-card round.
It also might be Brady’s last game amid the tall pines of Foxborough.
If the Patriots can get past the Titans, they’ll travel to Kansas City, where they’d have to upset the Chiefs and then enjoy a slew of upsets for the AFC championship game to return to Foxborough.
After that is anyone’s guess. The 42-year-old is a free agent at season’s end, which means he may retire or choose to leave the only franchise he has ever known. Or he could, perhaps, return for another shot, too.
Perhaps not even Brady knows for sure.
Saturday will be his 152nd game (playoffs included) at Gillette. He’s 115-19 during the regular season and 14-3 during the playoffs. Not only has no other quarterback ever won so many games in a single stadium, he’s the only quarterback to even reach 100.
The memories are endless. Brady to Faulk. Brady to Welker. Brady to Moss. Brady to Gronk. This has just gone on and on and on. The Patriots starting right corner for Brady’s first game at Gillette (Otis Smith) was born in 1965. One of his current receivers (N’Keal Harry) was born in 1997.
By the start of the 2020 season, only 17 current NFL stadiums will be older than the Brady-Gillette marriage.
On many game days, opposing teams would pull up to the stadium through a police protected back route that slips through neighborhoods and forest and be done before they even got off the bus.
Eight times he posted unbeaten regular-season records at home. Dallas, Chicago, Minnesota, Cincinnati and Browns, among others, never beat Brady there. He’s 6-0 against Pittsburgh (playoffs included). He’s 16-1 against Buffalo, the lone loss coming when he was subbed out in a final week game to rest for the playoffs. His current nine-game home win streak against the New York Jets includes a three-game stretch where the Pats won by a combined score of 105-12.
It’s during the postseason that he’s been particularly haunting. He’s equally famous for late-game comebacks (against Baltimore and Jacksonville) and early game blowouts (over Indianapolis and Denver) that make the night feel hopeless. He hasn’t lost a home playoff game since Jan. 20, 2013, when Ray Lewis and the Ravens stunned them.
He didn’t build the place. He just made it his own like no other player in NFL history.
And that’s why Saturday will feel different than any of those previous starts — the real sense that when he charges out onto the field pregame and sprints all the way into the end zone, imploring the fans to roar, it may be for the last time.
Or that the inevitable “Brady, Brady” chants from the stands will echo around but perhaps never return.
“I’m not much for nostalgia,” Brady said Thursday, when asked about this possibly being his last game at Gillette. “I’m pretty focused on what I need to do. This week felt pretty much like every other week for the last 20 years. Just focused on what I need to do.”
Yeah, well, of course he’s going to say that. He probably even means it. You can’t put up these kinds of numbers without staying in the moment and focusing on the minutiae.
Let’s see how he feels when he’s driving to Foxborough on Saturday, or strolling in through the Gillette loading dock or getting dressed in the locker room.
“I haven’t thought about those things,” Brady said. “I wouldn’t be thinking about those things anyway.”
There is plenty to work on. The Patriots are leaking oil as they enter the playoffs, fresh off an infuriating loss to lowly Miami on Sunday that cost them a bye and a divisional-round home game.
Brady doesn’t lack for accolades or appreciation, but in some ways New England’s relentless domination of the NFL has hindered some perspective. After nine Super Bowl appearances and six Lombardi Trophies, there is only one goal for the quarterback and the franchise.
Anything other than everything is not enough.
Yet here on another January Saturday Night, all eyes turn once again to Foxborough to watch Tom Brady lead the Patriots.
Win or lose against the Titans, that is something to behold, something to appreciate, because there’s never been a single player more dominant in a single place in the 100-year history of the league.
One more for Tom and Gillette. After that … nothing promised.
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