Surreal pregame scene of Tom Brady as Patriots opponent in New England; fans showed appreciation until kickoff

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tom Brady returned to Gillette Stadium and was greeted with a steady rain, a standing ovation and cheers of “Bray-DEE! Bray-DEE!”

Brady, who delivered six Super Bowls titles and countless memories to the New England Patriots and their fans across 20 years here, was subdued as he took the field at 8:10 p.m. ET. He jogged out of the visitor’s tunnel and led his Tampa Bay Buccaneers to their sideline.

This may have been his house for a long time, but on Sunday he seemed content in being a visitor on a business trip — even as he jogged toward an end zone and gave a fist pump to the crowd.

Brady was briefly booed by some fans when he took the field for his first series, at that point becoming the enemy trying to beat the Pats.

There was no obvious pregame interaction between Brady and his former coach, Bill Belichick. Nor with the man who is trying to replace him in New England, rookie Mac Jones.

The scene was still surreal; the home crowd wearing the jersey of the visiting quarterback, rows and rows of old Tom Brady 12 jerseys, pulled out of closets and drawers for one last run on Sunday night.

It was the same throughout the parking lots surrounding Gillette, where fans stood around sipping beers and grilling food while talking about Brady.

(Yahoo Sports)
Patriots fans were in a reflective mood on Tom Brady's return to Foxborough on Sunday. (Yahoo Sports) (Yahoo Sports)

“Once he runs out, it’s going to be loud and pretty epic,” predicted Bill Gately, a season-ticket holder from Burrillville, Rhode Island. “But once the game starts, we are all-Mac, all-Pats. That’s it. That’s how it goes. This is Patriots Nation.”

“I am a Tom Brady fan, but I am a Patriots fan,” said his brother, Joe, who wore a sweatshirt with a series of Bill Belichick headshots on it. “Notice his emotions. They are all the same.”

Foxborough, MA - October 3: Fans cheer Bucs quarterback  Tom Brady (12) as he leaves the field following during pre game warmups. The New England Patriots host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a regular season NFL game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, MA on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Fans cheer Bucs quarterback Tom Brady as he leaves the field following pregame warmups. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images) (Boston Globe via Getty Images)

About the only pregame discontent was when the Buccaneers gathered briefly on top of the Patriots midfield logo, drawing boos from the crowd. As transgressions go, it wasn’t much. Few patriots players were on the field to see it.

But for a hyped crowd that was standing in the rain, it was something to react and pass the time.

If there was ever a time to reminisce about the epic games and playoff triumphs Brady helped produce, it was a night he returned with his new team.

They wore his jersey — in Patriots red, white and blue (and even a few No. 10s from the University of Michigan). One woman had a homemade T-shirt that read: “I miss Tom.” Others had banners and flags that pledged their allegiance to TB12 … at least until kickoff.

As for who is to blame for the breakup, opinions varied out here. Most saw it as an inevitable conclusion because Belichick didn’t think Brady would still be playing at such a high level at age 44. Almost all agreed Brady found himself in a better place.

If there is one thing Patriots fans know, it is what a Super Bowl-caliber roster looks like, and what has been taking the field here the past two seasons isn’t it. Getting on with the Mac Jones era, even if the record stands at 1-2, provides comfort.

Besides, almost everyone rooted for Tampa Bay last season and wanted Brady to win a seventh Super Bowl. There was no bitterness, no jealousy. Everyone seemed happy for him.

That includes Bob Nichol of Wrentham, Massachusetts, who said he was offered $20,000 last summer for his four prime, 100-level seats at the 40-yard line. He turned it down. His first year as a season-ticket holder was 2001, in the old Foxboro Stadium. The second game of that season he watched New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis crush starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe, sending Bledsoe to the hospital.

“And just like everyone else, I was like, ‘The Patriots are in for it. Who is this guy Tom Brady?’” Nichol said. “So I said no to the 20 grand. This could be the last time Brady plays here. So I have been here for the first game and the last game, and they could have offered me twice that money and I would have said no.”

The memories were too great to make this anything but a positive. They know they’ve been spoiled and they know who helped spoil them.

Tom Brady, the greatest New England Patriot of all time, was no longer their quarterback. It didn’t mean they still didn’t love him. At least for now.