June 11, 2012
As I sprinted toward Tom Brady's blindside, I wondered what would happen if I just decked him. I imagined the fallout. Belichick would have me put away. I'd be ostracized by my friends, become New England's version of Steve Bartman, and Giselle would hate me. (On the positive side, at least Giselle would know who I was.)
And another thought entered my mind: what the heck was I doing here?
Three days earlier, my brother had called me in New York and informed me that he had an extra ticket to the Executive Combine at Gillette Stadium. This wasn't the type of thing to which I normally had access. I'm a high school guidance counselor in Brooklyn, not an investment banker. Most of the attendees had shelled out big money to be there. But my brother and I had found a loophole. His boss's boss's boss passed the tickets down and somehow fell into my brother's lap. He was told to bring someone who would truly love to be there so he naturally called me first. The details were fuzzy, but my brother told me the event involved meeting some players and coaches. I had five minutes to decide. I would miss a day of work, but even my students were encouraging me to do it. I was in.
On Monday morning, my brother and I made the quick trip to Foxborough from his house. We flipped through a brochure, but were still unsure of the specifics of the day. We discussed taboo topics not to bring up: the recent Super Bowl loss, Brady's hair, Welker's excruciating drop, and Gronk's infamous nightlife. The rational and cynical part of me assumed we'd watch some of the backup players toss the pigskin around, and maybe we'd even get to walk onto the field for a few minutes. But the dreamer in me envisioned playing side by side with Brady, Welker, and Gronk. I began stretching in the car. I wanted to ready if the whistle blew.
We arrived to the stadium first thing in the morning. The sun was out, the sky was blue, and breakfast was served. We sat outside and chatted with a few other golden ticket holders. There were about seventy of us winners in total. Some guests flirted with the Patriots' cheerleaders, but long legs and cleavage didn't hold a candle to the entire receiving corp. They chilled by the egg burrito station, and despite my phobia of eggs, I made my way toward them. Within moments, I was conversing with Wes Welker, Deion Branch, and Julian Edelman. When Edelman learned that I lived in New York, he gushed about the meatpacking district, the nightlife hotspot. "You like the clubs?" I asked. Edelman, known to be a partier, just smiled. Of course he did.
As I talked to the receivers, it was shocking how much they looked like me. They were unassuming with my same height and build. Then I met Danny Woodhead, who looked like the kid who sold me my sneakers the other day. My brother and I, both under six feet tall, blended right in.
After breakfast, we ran through the inflatable Patriots tunnel and were announced on the loud speaker by company. I flashbacked to the Patriots first Super Bowl win when they asked to be announced as a team. Patriot Pat high-fived me, the cheerleaders frolicked on the side, and the stadium and the entire offensive squad including Tom Brady stood before me.
The starting offense, mostly in shorts and t-shirts, conducted a brief walk through. It was casual, but remarkably precise. Even while fooling around, it was clear that these guys were pros. A svelte Brady, in warm up pants and a Patriots cap, shouted out signals and threw a short slant to Wes Welker. Then there was a handoff to Danny Woodhead. Then there was a tap on my shoulder. I was going in to play defense.
I felt like Rudy running onto the field. I didn't know where to go, but I didn't care. Ten other participants joined me including my brother who played corner on the other side. I lined up opposite Julian Edelman, and the next play, Deion Branch. I took pride in my game, and my adrenaline was pumping. There was some good natured smack talk between me and the Pats.
"I'm only playing at sixty percent!" remarked Edelman.
"I'm not even trying!" I replied.
I could do this. I had trained for it all year emerging as a stud in my weekly four on four two-hand touch game called the Goose League. I could take these guys. Brady elected to stay away from Cooley Island, and instead threw to Gronk, who looked limber and back to decent health as he sprinted away from out of shape 40-somethings.
On the next play, the defensive coordinator told me to BLITZ. Brady hiked the ball and I shot up the side. He didn't see me coming...
After the slow motion practice, we took part in drills. Every fifteen minutes the buzzer rang, and we shifted to another station. The O-line was massive and resembled a line of Incredible Hulks. Logan (Mankins) and Dan (Koppen) showed me how to block. I did some footwork drills and slammed into their pads, but they were immovable. Woodhead ran us through cones, and Brady pitted me against my brother in receiving drills. Brady relished being the instigator and seemed to enjoy the drills as much as we did. Later, I burned Donte' Stallworth on a stop and go. He shook his head afterward and said: "Wow, you're fast!"
The entire day was filled with smiles, laughter, and trash talk. Brady called Gronk a plethora of curse words, and Gronk retorted: "What round were you drafted in again?" I wondered if everything was staged. Were these guys really this nice and cool and fun to be around? The day was so special because there were no boundaries so I simply asked the team: "Is this for real?" They all responded the same way: "Absolutely!" They were equally psyched to not have Belichick crushing them for a day. It was just as fun for them as it was for us.
During breaks, my brother and I did what came natural to us: we threw the ball around the field. I was surprised that the pro footballs were the same size and weight as the ones that I used in my league and in our annual Turkey Bowl. We ran slants, posts, and bombs across the green grass. At times, I forgot where we were. It was just another game of catch with my big brother. Then I'd look around and remember...holy crap! I just caught a touchdown pass at Gillette Stadium. I stared out at the stands and imagined the fans chanting my name. Then I performed the patented Gronk Spike and soaked it all in.
We toured the locker rooms, met the trainers, equipments managers, and staff. My brother and I passed by Brady whose hair was out of place, and was chilling by his locker. The quarterback, to my shock, actually initiated conversation. "It's the brothers!" he shouted. He gave us both a pound and egged us on about who was the better athlete. Tom announced that the big brother was doing some damage, but of course he didn't know which one of us was older. Cleverly, he found a way to motivate both of us at the same time. This was the Tom Brady that teammates raved about.
Later, I shook hands with Belichick and thanked him for having me. He was courteous, gracious, and even smiled. I chatted with Bob Kraft whose voice was gentle and soothing, like a grandfather with decades of wisdom. He did everything but offer me a Werther's Original. He actually asked me questions, and then praised me for my commitment to education and helping our youth as a guidance counselor.
The players were dispersed to different tables at lunch. Brady was at our table, but was too busy schmoozing with everyone to make it over. I chilled with Gronk for a bit who lived up to his endearing meathead status. He spent much of the time texting who I presumed to be a bevy of beautiful girls.
After lunch Belichick stepped up to the mic. On the side, he was cracking jokes, but as soon as he hit the podium, he went into interview mode. His monotone robotic voice took over. Occasionally it was lighter and monotone upgraded to dry. He referred to himself as a "half-decent coach", which got a few chuckles, and then he took questions from the crowd. I asked two questions, my brother asked one, and a few others chimed in. I felt like a reporter: "Paul Cooley from the Sharon Advocate over here. Coach, what have been some of your favorite memories coaching with the Patriots?" I looked forward to an anecdote about the Snow Game or the undefeated season, or at least one memorable quote. Instead, Coach listed off a series of favorite players and games in no particular order and was not attached or emotional. Classic Belichick.
After lunch, we practiced with the defense, and I learned that each unit had its own personality. The offensive weapons were wise guys, brash and confident. The O-line was steady, subdued, and calm, creatures of habit and routine. And the defense. They were all out mad men, and I instantly connected with them. They played hard, they played mean, and they played together. My over competitiveness was encouraged and nurtured. I stepped offsides on one play, and Vince Wilfork made me do pushups. On the next whistle, I tried to tackle the giant. He carried me for five yards like I was a bug on his shoulder before carefully dropping me to the ground. My scrappiness was no match for the mammoth 330 pound gargantuan.
I chatted with Devin McCourty who I learned returned to his high school during offseasons to assist the team. He and Sterling Moore both loved my intensity. I jumped over my brother for a sick touchdown pass. The Patriots "oohed" and "aahed", but it was short lived as my brother re-aggravated his ACL injury. He was carted off to the side, and in that one moment was baptized into the game. When he's asked about the injury in the future, he can respond: "I tore my ACL playing with the Patriots." For the last hour, nearly all the players that remained stopped by to check in on my brother. He was one of them now.
At the end of the day, Bob Kraft addressed us again. He eloquently spoke about surrounding oneself with good people, and I understood why the Patriots were so successful. It felt like a family. My brother and I had dinner and a few beers with some of the defense and the other guests. Everyone was smiling, even my brother who later hobbled out of Gillette Stadium.
On the way out, we collected our parting gifts and took one last look at the field. On the Jumbotron, a montage of the day appeared. And there I was on the big screen.
I sprinted toward Tom Brady's blindside. He didn't see me coming. I pulled back just before impact, and gave him a light two hand touch before he released the ball. The spectators cheered, I slapped hands with Tom, and then motioned for a safety. After the play was blown dead, Tom Brady stared directly at the camera. For a split second, his eyes widened, his smile flattened, and he shook his head. He made a face that read: "Who was that guy?"
It was me.