Monday, January 30, 2012
So, without further adieu, here is an excerpt, for the first time in a long time for my big opus, the story of when Frankie Williams and I trucked up to Boston this past November to see the Giants visit the Patriots, in a chapter I've cheerfully titled "Patriots Facking Football". You'll have to bear with me. Even though I've edited it down some, it's pretty lengthy.
Originally written November 8, 2011
For whatever reason, the number 42 has a tendency to show up more often than most. In the most obvious of sports terms, 42 was the number worn by Jackie Robinson. In my favorite book, Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the number 42 is determined to be the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. And perhaps most notably for my purposes, 42 was the number of what so far has been the greatest night of my life.
That night came on February 3, 2008, when a group of friends and I watched in my basement as after more than a decade of watching our hearts pounded repeatedly by the New York Giants, they finally reached the pinnacle in the biggest game there is against the greatest team I ever saw in the most dramatic way possible, defeating the undefeated New England Patriots 17-14 in Super Bowl XLII. Some might question that this was actually the greatest night of my life, but they need to understand the unique culmination of events. Not only was the game as riveting as it was, but it was something I had waited for since I was eight years old when I finally caught of whiff of professional football. The Giants were the first team I fell in love with and my childhood dedication, so strong that I made my mother drive me around to multiple malls so I could get a 1997 NFC East Division Champions hat, was repaid with continual heartbreak in utterly brutal fashion. The Giants postseason collapse in 1997 against Minnesota, the 24-point blown lead in the postseason against San Francisco in 2002, the Jay Feely misses three field goals with a share of the NFC's best record on the line game against Seattle in 2005, the blown 21-point lead in the final ten minutes against Vince Young and the Titans in 2006 and worst of all Super Bowl XXXV against the Ravens.
It all stung.
After experiencing all of that, the Giants finally won it all in a dramatic run that could not be anticipated nor predicted, and I witnessed it at home with my friends whom I had experienced all those painful blows with. It also happened while I was still in the midst of a difficult personal period and it proved the right lift at the right time. At the end of the evening a friend of mine text messaged me and asked "Be honest, what was better? This or losing your virginity?" My response was "This was better, and it's not even close."
Who enjoys their first time anyway?
Given all this it seems strangely appropriate that as I journey to see 122 different teams, No. 42 would happen to be the New England Patriots in the first game of any meaning between the Pats and Giants since that night in Glendale, Arizona. Because of the NFL's rotating schedule system, I had known New York's next visit to Foxboro was going to be during the 2011 NFL season and as a result I looked forward to it for nearly four years. That it happened to be No. 42 on the list was done without planning or organization. It just happened that way.
I did have the considerable issue of finding someone to go with me as my friends from Boston had either moved away from the city or balked at the ticket prices. In the end I was able to convince my friend Frankie to bite the bullet. Frankie and I had traveled once before on a weekend trip to Montreal with some friends in 2005, a jaunt that included my first experience with casino losses, arguments about the legality of drinking in cars if you weren't the driver and an odd run-in with border guards on our return to the U.S. in which Frankie said just about everything wrong thing you could even though we had nothing to hide.
Frankie and I have known each other since we met at Fairview Lake YMCA camp in 1996 and with 15 years in our back pockets I know what to expect from him and he knows what to expect from me. There are few secrets between us that one doesn't know about the other. We laugh at all the same inside jokes that no one else in their right mind could possibly consider funny, we have a similar sense of humor, similar sports allegiances and on more than one occasion we've pursued the same woman. Somehow we're still friends in spite of that last one.
Amazingly I later found, Frankie had also never seen the Giants play in person before so he was more than eager to jump at the opportunity. Frankie also, however, forgets things constantly. More than once I've invited him to a BBQ only to have him ask me what I was up to that night when the day finally arose. With that kind of tendency, Frankie would reaffirm to me multiple times how excited he was for the game, which he genuinely was, and then would ask me again each time when, exactly the game was. He had finally remembered about a week and a half before we were ready to go, but I half expected him to forget the day of. Fortunately, as I waited for our bus to Boston on Saturday morning, he arrived just two minutes after me ready to go. Our plan had originally been to take a bus up early Sunday, take a train directly to the game, and then work the operation in reverse once it was over. However, that Sunday was also the New York Marathon. Because I am a Jew born to New York-bred parents I am prone to a significant amount of anxiety and neuroticism when it comes to travel. Fearing the Marathon might cause these best laid plans to run astray as they often do, Frankie and I decided to take the bus up a day early and stay with his friend Dan for the night.
This was further complicated by my desire to make sure I got to at least see the first quarter of the Northwestern-Nebraska game before the Huskers put it too far out of hand, and as a result we took an 11 a.m. bus from New York to Boston when a 4 p.m. one probably would have sufficed. That weekend most eyes in college football were actually on Tuscaloosa, where No. 1 LSU was taking on No. 2 Alabama in a game that was hyped more in SEC country than General Sherman's burning of Atlanta. I was far more preoccupied with my Wildcats, who had watched a promising season more or less go down the tubes with a shocking loss at West Point, which I got to see in person, blown double-digit leads to Illinois and Michigan, and a loss to Iowa in which the Cats statistically dominated.
Most of the ride was spent playing Scrabble on our smart phones and arguing over just how old the girls in front of us were while I re-watched Super Bowl XLII in my head. The Giants had a daunting task in front of them if they were to repeat the magic. Not only was New England one of the dominant franchises in the NFL – they had won a record 126 games over the previous 10 seasons – but they were coming off a loss at Pittsburgh and if beating the Patriots in general wasn't a tough enough proposition, doing it as an NFC team in New England when the Pats were coming off a loss made it even tougher. New England lost its first game against an NFC team in Gillette nine years ago and hadn't lost one since. The Pats hadn't lost a regular season game at Gillette Stadium, a building where they boasted a 63-12 regular season record since it opened in 2002, in 20 games. Tom Brady hadn't lost a regular season start there since losing to the Jets five years earlier in 2006, a span of 31 games. Oh, and the Patriots hadn't lost two regular season games in a row in 27 games.
Super Bowl XXXVI ten years earlier to League-wide Darth Vader, Gillette Stadium was their Death Star. Luke Skywalker and the rebels may have pulled off the unthinkable, but that was fantasy. This was reality and I wasn't sure Eli Manning had the force on his side enough to do the same. Eli had stoked the flames of the game in the preseason when a radio interviewer asked him if he viewed himself as "an elite quarterback" like Brady. Manning said that, yes, he did believe himself to be "in that class", a reaction that prompted scoffing from nearly all corners of the NFL universe. Sure Eli had won the most important meeting between the two, with a thrilling last-minute touchdown drive, no less, and if you watched him on a weekly basis, you knew he had a preternatural calm in the fourth quarter that had bred several rallies. But the numbers were the numbers. Eli had thrown 25 interceptions in the 2010 season. Tom Brady threw 25 in the previous four seasons combined. Brady also stalked the field with a quiet confidence that made him appear as if he was the John Wayne of the NFL, knowing he was the man in just about any situation and you probably didn't have the talent to stop him nor the stones to try. Tom Brady looked like he could save Natalie Wood in The Searchers. Eli looked like a child on The Andy Griffith Show.
This weekend would be Manning's chance to prove he was one of the League's best and lost in all the amusement over the season's first eight weeks was the fact that Eli was playing, well, like he was an elite quarterback. He had engineered multiple fourth-quarter comebacks already during the season and his wide receiving corps seemed to be in tune despite no longer having Plaxico Burress from the Super Bowl team, nor slot receiver Steve Smith who had signed with the rival Eagles in the offseason. Instead, Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham and Victor Cruz were lining up for passes and they and Eli seemed to have plenty of chemistry. This combined with the fact that he had kept the interceptions dramatically down and was facing a Patriots pass defense that had quietly been among the worst in the NFL gave a spark of home to those traveling from New York.
When we finally arrived in Boston I had nothing on my mind, however, other than finding a place to watch the Northwestern game. This would be kiboshed, however, when Frankie volunteered to have us meet Dan and his friend James at a restaurant in Chinatown that would have no TVs. I decided to handle it calmly and instead follow the game painstakingly on my phone. As I found through twitter, ESPN and a deluge of text messages, something crazy was happening in Lincoln. The Wildcats were winning. And I was missing it.
I was walking on air. And Frankie and Dan did not care one bit. Instead they were far more concerned with what we were going to do that night, and the answer was go to a party in Arlington that was being hosted by Dan's rock climbing friends. I point out that they are his rock climbing friends because it became very apparent from the first moment you walked into the party that these people loved rock climbing. Yes, Dan had his rock climbing gear prominently displayed on a wall of hooks in his apartment, but that merely seemed like an effective use of storage space. At this party, not one conversation occurred that did not include some reference to or discussion of rock climbing. There was a brief period where we instead watched funny YouTube videos on a large projector screen, but nearly every other bit of chatter involved climbing in the morning, how many days in a row they had climbed, how five times a week was not enough to climb or how if they left right now they could get to Tennessee by morning to climb.
The walls of the house were decorated by framed pictures of people rock climbing, a number of books on their bookshelf were dedicated to rock climbing and their coffee table had past issues of Climbing Magazine lying on top of it. Worst of all, due to their love of rock climbing everyone was in far better shape than I was. There was so much rock-climbing talk that I was almost distracted from the fact that they had not just one, but two cats, which everyone seemed to adore except for me, the cat-allergic stranger. One other attendee was also allergic to cats, and an asthmatic at that, but because she loved animals so much she just had to nuzzle the first kitten she saw when she arrived. She then wondered why she was having such a strong reaction.
After the party we moved on to a bar, which refused to open up their kitchen despite our arguments that with daylight savings time ending that weekend – albeit in the wrong direction – they should still be open. The bar also sold us a round of drinks before announcing that it was almost 2 a.m. and so they were closing and couldn't get us out of there fast enough. It's times like this where I miss the 4 a.m. closing times in New York. After grabbing some very mediocre pizza, Frankie, I and Dan's friend James all went back to Dan's apartment to pass out, only to find that Dan had very little in the way of sleeping arrangements. He had no extra pillows or blankets, which meant that Frankie slept on the futon in a sleeping bag while I slept on an underinflated camping mat in a sleeping bag liner. Dan assured me that the liner added 10-15 degrees to a standard sleeping bag, but on its own the added heat was, shall we say, underwhelming. In addition, the temperature in the room dropped to about 60 degrees for some reason and my attempts at fiddling with the thermostat were futile. I eventually covered myself with my coat in an attempt to add some warmth only to find that it had gotten covered in cat hair at the party.
I don't want to seem ungrateful, but let's just say I've had a better night's sleep before.
Of course, by the time I woke up I wasn't thinking about it much anymore. It was game day, after all. Dan and James had left early for their early Sunday morning climb (Because who wants to sleep past 10 a.m. on a Sunday?), and shortly after Frankie and I packed up our stuff and headed out for some brunch before the game. We ended up at the East Coast Grill, a creole-infused restaurant that Frankie had been to before and was keen to try again. Judging from my chicken fried steak and garlic greens he was on to something. I was also excited to find a plaque outside the restaurant noting that it stood on the former site of Jake & Earl's Dixie BBQ, "a favorite hangout of local patriots destroyed by a regiment of British troops in the spring of 1775." That kind of revolutionary war history is the thing I find most interesting about Boston, but, and perhaps my history is failing me, something seemed very anachronistic about a dixie-themed BBQ joint in colonial Massachusetts. Wasn't Dixie a civil war term that wouldn't come into the vernacular for decades?
I had mostly forgotten about being perplexed by the time Frankie and I got to South Station. Gillette Stadium, or as it's sometimes called "The Razor", isn't in a particularly convenient place for Bostonians. It sits in Foxboro, Massachusetts, some 20 miles or so southwest of the city, and for those who wish to go there using mass transit, the options are slim. In fact, the only real way to get there is by taking a commuter train that doesn't exist unless there's a special event happening at the stadium. The Massachuetts Bay Transit Authority doesn't typically run trains to Foxboro, but for Pats games, they do run a train to Walpole that then moves onto the much older, slower, seldom-used tracks leading to the stadium. The train has operated on and off over the years, but has experienced a significant uptick in recent seasons due to its relative ease, it's relatively cheap cost (a round trip ticket was $15), the enormous cost of parking at the stadium (upwards of $40), and the fact that if you stuff it in a brown bag, you can drink easily without worrying about being behind the wheel.
Because Gillette did not allow bags into the stadium and had no bag check facility nearby since it's in the middle of nowhere, Frankie and I checked ours with the Greyhound bag depot, but not before the attendant made a point to tell us the cost would be $30 instead of $5 once he saw our Giants jerseys. While that bluster was all in good fun, I did get a nasty stare from a teenage Pats fan passing by me on the escalator moments later.
Frankie and I had some time to kill before the train and spent it walking around downtown and investigating the local Occupy Boston protest. Anyone who remembers the cultural climate of the United States in the fall of 2011 will probably mention the movements to "occupy" certain institutions in major U.S. cities, and later cities around the world, that the common people, or "the 99 %" as they referred to themselves as, believed were integral to creating divisions in society that left most of the money and power controlled by a very few. This was spawned mostly by the statistics that a dramatically disproportionate fraction of the money earned by workers were, in fact, paid out to merely the top 1 % of Americans. This was mostly symbolized by those who worked in the financial industry and thus the protests started with "Occupy Wall Street" in New York City – though it was first suggested by an activist in Canada – and then spread from there. The people occupying various cities had developed almost a mini society complete with democratic representation and food distribution in a somewhat remarkable organic development.
On the surface, the idea that too much money and power was in the hands of too few is not terribly unreasonable. However, "Occupy Wall Street" lacked a coherent message or any sort of specific demand. In addition, many people who occupied Wall Street by sleeping in nearby Zucotti Park were simply there because they had nothing better to do or to join the party. In many parts of it, drug use was widespread and public sexual displays weren't uncommon. As well, recently released prisoners were rumored to be coming down to the demonstrations simply because there was free food there. In many ways it was both a meaningful, sweeping sign of political change and completely disorganized, cacophonous clusterfuck.
numerous signs were clamoring for different things. Some touched on public acceptance of gays, others on the need to fund public education, still more complained about student debt and many of them touched on what many felt was an unfair tax code that tremendously favored the rich. Amidst the tents in Boston were an independent media group, a functioning library and a generator room. Perhaps most notable for both Frankie and I, however, was that as a group of people who had gone weeks without showering were wont to do, it smelled awful. There was definitely a sense that some people were there just to be part of the show, and out of desperation, and there was a group of people holding hands in a circle that I can only believe were some sort of cult. Perhaps most telling for me was that one man was begging another resident for a cigarette, and was told that he could have a cigarette for $1.
Capitalism never sleeps.
After killing some time along the River Charles, Frankie and I finally got ready to board our train amid the mass of Patriots fans and the occasional person in a Giants jersey. The train ride itself was uneventful until the switch at Walpole, at which point it lurches along very slowly in the middle of a forest and you get the idea that trains are not supposed to run here. When you finally arrive you have to walk along the train tracks through a very dark and dreary stretch that just turns into a long column of people walking slowly and, for lack of a better comparison, looks like a group of immigrants shuttling from one train to the next in Eastern Europe. On the plus side, however, it did give me an opportunity to take a picture of one fan who had bought a beautiful authentic Patriots jersey and gotten it personalized with the name "Lord of Beer." Because, clearly, when you spend over $300 on an authentic football jersey, you want a name that is dignified on the back.
massive shopping and dining complex known as "Patriot Place", as well as several apartment buildings that sit right next to the stadium, though whether or not these places are particularly well-trafficked during non-game days remains to be seen. Attached to the side of the stadium is a museum called "The Hall", where one can learn about Patriots history, see who is in the team hall of fame, view mementos of historic moments in franchise history and stand in a room with the three Lombardi trophies the Patriots have won while steel blue, red and white confetti rains down on you. As cheesy as it seems, that last one does sound like an awful lot of fun. Unfortunately, the museum actually charges money for entrance unlike the ones you'll find at most stadiums, and on this particular Sunday, for no real reason the museum was closed, rendering the whole thing moot.
Frankie and I simply went inside to check out the stadium and find our seats, but first I received many knowing glances of contempt from the security as they saw my Giants jersey beneath my overcoat. For some reason, they were all under the impression that I was wearing the coat because I was trying to hide my Giants fandom and not because it was a cold afternoon in New England. One jokingly told me, "You better hide that Giants jersey" as I walked by. Finally, at the station where you get patted down before entering the building, security noticed my jersey and said the words that anyone would fear while passing through an inspection.
"Full body search for the Giants fan!"
Fortunately, he wasn't serious. I passed through with ease and Frankie and I began our walk around the stadium. The concourses are nice and wide, there is plenty of space to walk, and the building is very clean, but beyond that, as is the unfortunate case for so many football stadiums, there isn't much else of note unless you happen to be in the more expensive seats. Patriots logos are everywhere, though unfortunately they are of the current "Flying Elvis" variety and not the far superior throwback Pat Patriot version.
each of their three Super Bowl titles for all the world to see.
The Patriots also have a similarly massive banner commemorating their perfect 16-0 regular season in 2007, the only such feat in NFL history, but one that is somewhat tarnished by the fact that the Patriots didn't actually win the Super Bowl that year because You-Know-Who spoiled the party. As a result, that banner is at the opposite end of the stadium in a different color, where it won't sully the grandeur of the Super Bowl titles. Rather than being out in the open it hangs underneath the upper deck stands in plain view, but not exactly the same plain view as the others. It almost appears as though they are sheepishly trying to hide it, which begs the question of why they would bother making a banner to celebrate the accomplishment in the first place.
On the way to our section and as we hunted down some food before the game, we passed a stand called "BBQ Blitz", which featured a stunningly muscular pig with a Patriots helmet on and horns coming out the top of it ramming into the words "BBQ Blitz". It is bizarre for several reasons and is right up there with the stir fry stand in Safeco Field known as "The Intentional Wok" for my favorite of any silly-named stand I've seen in a stadium. The food, however, did not win me over, and instead Frankie and I opted for what wound up being a very tepid and lukewarm serving of buffalo chicken tenders and fries.
The teams were still doing warm-ups as we arrived at our seats – or rather, Frankie's seat. In an attempt to keep costs low on the trip, I bought two single tickets that weren't actually together. Most upper deck seats were going in the neighborhood of $200 for this game, an enormous increase above face value. The two seats I found were not next to each other, nor were they even in the same section, but they were only $140 a piece, which was actually roughly face value for the tickets even though they weren't in the bottom bowl.
Given the potency of both teams' passing offense and their relatively weak secondaries, I had assumed this would be a relatively high-scoring and entertaining game. Most fans and prognosticators had pegged the winning team to score somewhere between 25 and 35 points, with the loser not being far behind. Over the course of the first half we learned that predictions, on the whole, are pretty stupid. What ensued over the first 30 minutes was a surprising comedy of errors in which both teams struggled to move the ball into any semblance of field goal range, and in some cases struggled simply to keep possession. Giants' punter Steve Weatherford would prove his worth to the team by punting eight times and landing five of those kicks inside the 20-yardline.
For whatever reason, that wasn't happening today. In the first half, Brady threw an interception (he would add another pick and a fumble in the third quarter) that riled up the Boston faithful in an unseemly kind of way. The middle-aged fans in front of us were on the verge of outrage, verbally butchering Brady's faults at every path and seemingly ignoring his track record. At one point, one of them angrily yelled out, in a phrase that could not have been more comically crafted to stereotype the South Boston accent, "THIS IS NAWT PATRIOTS FACKIN' FOOTBALL!" As I tried my best not to laugh, I couldn't help but wonder how short the memories of these fans must have been. This was the golden boy. Tom Brady had won them three Super Bowls, two of them on last-minute drives. He had been one of the top passers in the game for a decade and was destined to the end up in the Hall of Fame. Oh, and he hadn't lost at home in 31 starts, a span that stretched across five seasons. Surely they could give him a break considering the game was still scoreless.
It soon became clear that the people in our section were far more entertaining than the people on the field so far. Prime among them was the couple behind us who were not in their ticketed seats and were clearly very drunk. This manifested itself in the girlfriend constantly voicing her anxiety about being caught by stadium security and her boyfriend's increasing desire not to listen to her. They did prove very helpful in the second quarter, however, when someone passing behind us spilled a beer all over the back of Frankie's chair and his overcoat. The woman quickly came to the rescue with a pile of napkins she had stowed in her purse, though we would later find out that in doing so she accidentally knocked her digital camera out of her purse and under Frankie's seat.
Later in the game, long after the couple had moved to their actual seats, Frankie discovered the camera and asked if it was mine. When I told him it wasn't he flipped it on and found a picture of the woman who had been behind us performing mock cunnilingus between her fingers. As much as we might hope to return it, Frankie and I both realized that searching for one person you didn't know in a sea of 70,000 was completely pointless. Instead we turned our attention back to the game which continued to be as lively as a morgue until the Patriots finally put a drive together late in the second quarter. As the final moments of the half ticked off, New England wound down the clock and with seconds to go lined up for a gimme 27-yard field goal. Sensing the inevitability and eager to avoid the wait at the bathroom, I made a quick line towards the exit. As each of us stood at the urinal listening to the radio broadcast, all of us wound up amazed when we heard that Patriots' kicker Steve Gostkowski had shanked the chip shot wide. It was a surprising, but strangely appropriate ending for the first half.
As I returned to my seat, Frankie and I settled in for the second half still bewildered by the unexpected lack of points. Fortunately for us, Brady had picked up where he left off in the first, as he threw an interception on the opening drive of the half. The Giants responded by marching down the field and notching a field goal for the first points of the game. It was around this time that Frankie and I noticed the woman who had left her camera frantically looking under the seats in each row of our section. Frankie got her attention and gave her back her camera, which prompted an emotional reaction that was, shall we say, not exactly an appropriate level of relief. The woman broke out in tears of joy and then gave Frankie a massive, intense, tight bear hug. And she didn't. Let. Go. Frankie began rubbing her back in an attempt to assure her that everything was ok, but mostly so that she would release him. It took a while before she finally obliged.
Meanwhile, the Giants had recovered a Tom Brady fumble on the ensuing drive and Brandon Jacobs scored a touchdown on a 10-yard scamper to give New York a surprising 10-0 lead. New York was slowly wresting control of the game, but after Aaron Ross muffed a punt on the next drive and the Patriots recovered the stadium came alive. New England quickly marched right down the field to put its own points on the board, but a solid defensive stand kept it to a field goal. This gave the Pats some legs though as they stuffed New York on a three and out to force Steve Weatherford back on the field, but then the Giants got a gift when Julian Edelman bobbled his own punt return giving New York the ball. This shouldn't really be surprising since Edelman's hands appeared to have had a life of their own lately. A week earlier he was arrested at a Halloween party for allegedly reaching under a woman's skirt and grabbing her crotch.
Sexual mishaps aside, this could have been the turning point of the game, and an anxious crowd at Gillette knew it. With the fourth quarter nearing, the Giants had a very real chance of scoring another touchdown and putting the Pats away with a 14-point lead, something that seemed insurmountable with the way the New York defense was playing. Manning brought the Giants down to the two yardline and with the game possibly in the balance, Eli's old habits reared their ugly head as he lofted a duck into the corner of the end zone which was picked off on a marvelous play by New England defensive back Kyle Arrington.
This, however, is when the fun began.
Time was starting to run down and Frankie and I both realized that with just a half hour to reach our train once the game ended, navigating the crowd could make it a close call from our seats. We decided that late in the game we'd do our best to move down to a standing room section near our exit so that we could avoid some of the masses and resolved to do so once the Giants finished their next drive. At this point, it occurred to me that the Pats fan behind me who was mistaken because of my Bruins hat might have been on to something. With the sun setting on the late afternoon game, it had gotten markedly colder at the stadium and I had been unwilling to remove my hat.
But what if it was bad luck?
Yes, superstitions are stupid, but if there was a man on the sidelines who could understand, it was Eli Manning. In NFL Network's "America's Game" documentary recounting the 2007 Super Bowl Champion New York Giants, Manning tells the camera in an interview "I'm not superstitious, but I'm a little stitious." Ironically, the line is later referred in the documentary with hallowed reverence, but research has since shown that Manning pulled the line from an episode of The Office as a joke. Either way, he has a point and I'm not in disagreement. Sometimes, the irrational seems rational.
I took off my hat.
With the Giants starting their drive with the ball at their own 15, Eli started to work the field. Bit by bit New York chewed up yards and chewed up time until Manning capped the drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Mario Manningham on third down, giving the Giants a 17-13 lead with 3:03 to go. After the touchdown, Manningham, ever the hothead gave New England a lift with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that gifted the Pats 15 yards, but it may have wound up working to New York's advantage by leaving time on the clock for another drive if New England made quick work of the defense with a shorter field.
As Frankie and I moved down to the standing room section in the end zone, it was now Brady's turn. The Pats marched down the field in the quickest nine plays you'll ever see, dicing up New York's secondary and getting to the 14 before starting to stall. Suddenly, Brady was forced with 4th and 9, and with 1:40 to go and not enough timeouts to force the Giants to punt the ball back, this was the game. As Brady faded back he had what felt like an eternity to throw. For much of the game the Giants had given him the same treatment they gave him in the Super Bowl four years earlier, bringing nonstop pressure and forcing him to dance in the pocket. The only way to make him make mistakes is to make him uncomfortable. If the Giants front four could do it one more time they'd have the win, but Brady stood in, cool and collected, and delivered a strike to Rob Gronkowski to put the Pats up 20-17.
Patriots fans at this point assumed they had it won. One in particular, a drunk oversized, red-bearded man turn to me with a smile and tried his best Michael Jordan shrug as he said, "Sorry, bro!" The taunt reeked of cockiness that was unfamiliar for someone who was used to watching his team with anxiety rather than confidence. But I also had faith in Eli, who seemed to make fourth quarter comebacks his M.O. for most of this season. I also knew we were witnessing something special. In 1994 John Elway and Joe Montana delivered a stunning duel on Monday Night Football at Mile High Stadium in which the two legends, arguably the two best quarterbacks of their time, went back and forth in the closing minutes until Montana got the last laugh in the closing seconds. Color man Dan Dierdorf said afterward, "Lord, you can take me now. I've seen it all." Brady's history proves that he belongs in that same echelon. Manning had not yet done the same, but he was starting to show he belonged among the elite and this was his opportunity. We, as fans, were watching a very similar game to the one 17 years earlier in Mile High. These were two of the top quarterbacks in the League dueling. Two of the true heavyweights of the position were trading blows in an amazing display.
And Manning would get to throw the last punch.
At this point I started feeling stitious again. Because of the mass of people in front of me, I had watched the Patriots drive on the enormous jumbotron, making sure that I wasn't blocking the view of the man behind me, also a Giants fan. When I asked him if he was blocked, the man, who stood at 6'6", nearly a foot taller than me, laughed and said, "I can see over you just fine, buddy." Don't feel bad for me. I'm used to it. Regardless I realized that if the Pats moved the ball with ease while I watched on the screen, it was probably best if I craned my neck around the crowd and watched the field instead. I turned around. Off came the Bruins hat again. I looked at the red-breaded fan and calmly said, "It's not over yet," and Eli took the field.
Manning had become accustomed to almost excessive preparation over the years and as such, was phenomenal in the no huddle. New York started to move the ball, but soon was left with a third and 10 at its own 39-yardline. Giants and Pats fans alike will remember the David Tyree play well from the Super Bowl. As Manning slipped out of a certain sack on third down and winged it down the field, Tyree pulled the ball down in against his helmet despite having Rodney Harrison all over him, setting up the winning score. It's been called the most miraculous play in Super Bowl history. Tyree, who wore No. 85, called it "fairytale stuff." He would never catch another pass in the NFL. This time on third down Eli looked down the middle of the field again, and threw a strike to tight end Jake Ballard, the man who now wore 85 for the Giants. Ballard made a spectacular catch 28 yards down the field, and just like that, anxiety began to set in at Gillette.
On the next play Eli saw the entire right side of the field was wide open, and tucked the ball under, running for 12 yards to pull New York easily within range of a potential game-tying field goal. Manning then tossed a ball up for Victor Cruz in the left side of the end zone, and Cruz was taken out by a Pats' defensive back, drawing a pass interference call. With the Giants having the ball at the one yardline the result appeared a fait accompli, but after an incomplete pass and Brandon Jacobs getting stuffed at the goal line, New York was suddenly on third down at the 1 with 19 seconds to go. Eli took the snap, saw Ballard in the left flat of the end zone and hit him. Ballard pulled it in as he rolled to the ground.
Giants 24, Patriots 20.
I, Frankie and the small group of Giants fans around me in front of the jumbotron erupted. High fives were everywhere. Other Giants fans joined the mosh pit. Patriots fans angrily shuffled out by the thousands, one of whom angrily rammed his shoulder into one of us on his way out and pretended it was an accident. The incident was unfortunate considering most of the Pats fans had been perfectly pleasant all afternoon, but none of us could have cared less at that moment. It was all about the football. I still told anyone who walked by me that with 15 seconds left the game was not over, much like I told my friends after New York took the lead with 29 seconds remaining in the Super Bowl four years earlier, but after one incomplete pass by Brady and a botched attempt at the Annexation of Puerto Rico it was.
I try to keep myself calm and collected in most cases, but there was no helping it this time. I was bouncing and jumping everywhere I went. This felt too good. I high fived every Giants fan I saw as we left the stadium, and Frankie and I literally ran to the train after we hit the exit not because we were worried about missing it, but because we had so much energy and no other way to burn it. After looking forward to this game for four years, it was everything I could have wanted it to be and more. A stunning victory as two great quarterbacks went back and forth in the final minutes and mine pulled it out. I was positively euphoric.
It was, without hyperbole or hesitation, the greatest football game I have ever seen in person. Period.
As Frankie and I sat on the train the emotion and excitement of what had just happened started to settle in. I was physically and mentally exhausted. We returned to South Station, got our bags, I ate a celebratory McRib at McDonald's, and then we jumped on the bus back to New York. The man across the aisle from me was watching that night's Ravens-Steelers game on his phone and I caught the final minutes, amazed that we live in a world now where we can watch football on a cell phone on a fast-moving bus. That will probably sound quaint when my children read this.
I should note that when I say the bus was moving fast it was moving very fast. We made it to New York in three and a half hours, which makes me somewhat nervous about how fast the driver was barreling down I-95, but I made it home a half hour earlier, which I suppose, in the end, is all that matters. The earlier I got to bed the better, and I was as spent as could be. It was an exhausting – and expensive – whirlwind trip, and as a result, I was sure to be spent when I came into work eight hours later.
But it was worth it. It was worth every facking penny.