I was surprised and pleased when watching the Patriots accept their sixth AFC Championship trophy two weeks ago that the presenters were none other than John "Hog" Hannah and Andre Tippett, two former Patriot stars of the 1980's. I've always been a football fan, and growing up in New England, was exposed as much to the Pats as possible, even though I always rooted for my Dallas Cowboys. See, back then the Patriots were an afterthought; in Boston, you had, in order:
- The Red Sox. This was not a team, it was a religion, based on tradition and misery. They crushed the souls of all who dared to root for them, but since it had happened every year for generations, it was practically required.
- The Celtics. Ah, a team I was lucky enough to see in its heyday, in a sport I actually played and loved to watch. The C's had dominated the sport for so long, they made the Yankees look like rookies in baseball. And the 1986 Celtics were the culmination of the greatest team, of any sport, of all time. This was a team that was so powerful, so dominant, so full of fire and heart, you instantly knew you were watching greatness.
- The Bruins. Boston's one of the great hockey towns, and, even though Bobby Orr had retired, and Ray Bourque and Brad Park were not quite there, the allure of the Boston Garden echoed with the excitement from the great 1970's Bruins teams.
And then there were the Patriots. They were the last major professional sports team to make Boston home, and, truth to tell, they weren't all that welcome. See, Boston fans had enough to watch back then that the Pats were never really embraced. Hell, even playing in hallowed Fenway Park wasn't enough to draw crowds to the Boston Patriots, so they headed to the hinterlands of Foxboro and changed their name to the New England Patriots, hoping to draw a larger fan base. Shafer Stadium, that cement and aluminum bench hole, was horrible: you had to drive 45 minutes out of civilization, then sit on the freezing metal, while the snow, wind, and bad food/beer worked you into a stupor, all to watch a bunch of bums get their heads handed to them by Marino and the Dolphins.
But, like this year in Boston sports, in 1985-6, something happened. The Celtics were at the peak of their greatness, battling the Lakers every year for the title. The Red Sox were one out away from Bill Buckner's knees from breaking the curse. The Bruins were handling the Canadiens like an expansion team. And, of all things, the Patriots started to win. Their players were, for a change, personalities. Steve Grogan, one of the gutsiest players I've ever seen, was in his quarterback sunset; the young Tony Eason, a first round pick, was slinging balls like a first-rounder should. Irving Fryar, when not catching knife wounds from his wife, was hauling in deep balls that would make Randy Moss smile. And the Pats had a real rarity: a white running back who could actually run, in Craig James, and even a great thrid down back, Mosi Tatupu (father of today's NFL'er, Lofa Tatupu).
But the soul of this team was the defense, and Andre Tippett led the way, with a challenge he placed with the team after an early season loss to the Browns. All class, and all performance, he helped those Pats get to their first Superbowl with grit, determination, and grace. They won a wild card berth to get them into the elusive playoffs, when no wild card team had ever gone to the Superbowl before. They grounded the Jets, and the fans started to notice. They ransacked the Raiders, and the excitement grew, with signs springing up in New Hampshire and Rhode Island. They Squished the Fish, crushing the Dolphins in the AFC Championship game, and New England started to get football fever. Andre Tippett was there the whole time, smiling gently, showing that fire in his eyes, as he laid out yet another quarterback, while Ronnie Lippett laid out the theatrics, and Nellie held the running backs in check. Fred Marion and Raymond Clayborn knocked down passes.
Alas, Andre and the Patriots were not rewarded with a Superbowl win on their first visit, as they fell to what was considered the most dominant NFL team ever, the 1985 Chicago Bears, in Superbowl XX; that dominance has finally been eclipsed by this year's undefeated Patriots team. But today, on the eve of an amazing sixth Superbowl appearance by the Patriots, and a possibility of a 4th championship in 7 years, Andre Tippett was surprisingly elected to the Hall of Fame. This is an organization that kept Art Monk out for a decade, only to finally correct it this ear, and John Madden out for a quarter century. Yet today, finally, one of those great Patriots who did all the hard work to make it easy for those crusty New Englanders to root for Brady, Belichick, and Bruschi, was recognized for the great champion he was, and is. Congratulations, Andre: you deserve it.
Good luck to the Pats tomorrow! As I felt in 1986 when the Celtics played the Knicks, or the Bruins squared off against the Rangers, and especially when I sat in upstate New York with my fellow Boston transplants watching the Red Sox among rabid Mets fans: please, Please, PLEASE...make New York lose. :-)