14 years ago today, on a snowy, cold night in Foxboro, Massachusetts the New England Patriots defeated the Oakland Raiders 16-13 in the AFC Divisional Round. The game would go down in infamy as “The Tuck Rule Game” where referee Walt Coleman reversed the ruling of a fumble on the field due to a little known technicality at the time. Charles Woodson’s sack on Tom Brady was not really a sack, the supposed fumble recovered by Greg Bierkert not a fumble, and a game that looked to be won by the Oakland Raiders was once again up for grabs. With the drive alive the Patriots were able to get within FG range allowing for the heroics of Adam Vinatieri to put the game into overtime and then win the game for the Patriots.
This was more than a simple playoff victory for New England, though it didn’t seem like it at the time. Sure, it may go down in Patriot lore like the Snow Plow game vs Shula’s Dolphins, but it became so much more than that. It heralded an age of unparalleled success for the Patriots franchise as it was the first postseason game started by then 2nd year QB Brady. It was the final game played at Foxboro Stadium, nee Sullivan Stadium, the only home the Patriots had called their own as an NFL franchise. A building that had housed a frustrated fan base and largely irrelevant franchise ended up, on the final scene of its swan song, playing host to one of the most significant plays in, one could argue, NFL history before its demise. In the process, it gave birth to what has become the most successful NFL franchise in the 21st century.
More than all that though, January 19, 2002 was the birth of a fan.
I was 14 when I was in the stands that night. A chubby, awkward, bespectacled kid packed in well-meaning layers between my father and my uncle. I can still picture the view from our seats. The snow packed tight under the under the freezing cold aluminum benches and on the intersections of the steps leading to them. The breath frosting in the air as snowflakes glided gently down around a bundled and boisterous crowd. Breathing in the cold air, shocking my chest. Mittens wet from throwing celebratory clumps of snow up in the air.
I saw the hit but as the stands rose in dread wonder I lost sight of the play. Through covered ears I heard the moan that rippled through the crowd. The dejection on my Dad’s face, answering any questions I may have had. The PA system began booming its dreaded ruling. Angry expletives leaking out over the distraught crowd as the Raiders celebrated and the Patriots walked to their sideline.
After that all I remember is the announcement that the play was reversed. The shift in feeling was so palpable that it felt like the stadium shook. That it was vibrating. The look of happiness on my uncle’s face, my father’s repetitive high fives muffled as our gloves smacked against one another. Feelings that were redoubled as Jermaine Wiggins makes that catch. Those feelings redoubled yet again as Vinatieri hits a 45 yard FG in the worst conditions imaginable to send the game into overtime. By the time the Patriots actually won the game it felt as though my mind had left my body. Like I was watching everything happen as if it was a movie.
I wandered out of the Stadium in a dreamlike stupor. Running ahead of my father and uncle I began writing on snow covered cars “I ❤ The Pats” or “We Won!”. I remember seeing drunken revelers on top of RVs jumping off into snow piles. Of smiling happy faces around garbage can fires talking with slurred, joyous words. Strangers hugging and laughing. Of the glow of the stadium lights exaggerated by the still falling snow making the whole scene look like a wonderful, life sized snow globe.
Most importantly, I remember the feeling in my chest.
I don’t know if a lot of fans can point to the moment they became a fan. For many we are simply indoctrinated into a fandom through family and friends. I had always been a Patriots fan. I watched Drew Bledsoe and Terry Glenn play. I remember being enamored with Shawn Jefferson’s speed and Zefross Moss’ name. I LOVED Ben Coates. All of that was born through osmosis though and the wonder of a child. My dad and uncles like them so I liked them. It was a natural, tribal sort of instinct.
This was different though. I don’t know if it was the feeling of crushing disappointment so quickly tempered by redemption and then capped off with triumph. Maybe it was that I was 14 and my mind finally comprehended something other than boobs. Perhaps the moment being shared with my father and uncle. Whatever led to it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I felt, in that moment, running breathless between darkened cars in Foxboro stadium, was my fandom crystallize. It matured from the fandom of a boy with no real sense of what the word meant to that of a man who fully comprehended it all in the span of one legendary football game.
I know every fan has a story like this. That moment where there is a deep connection that goes far beyond the playing field. Its why sport, in all its forms, captures the human imagination like it does. Its not just about the feats on the field or the personalities presented in media. Its not about the hardware or the money. For the fan its about the feeling. Its about that pit in your stomach, that fluttering of your heart, that ache in your breast, the tears of joy and sadness.
Its about being 14 and running through the snow.