Sept. 23, 2001 was poised to be one of the most memorable days in Patriots history for many reasons, well before why we ultimately came to remember it so well.
For starters, it was the first game of the final season at Foxboro Stadium, an outdated sports facility that had been through many names, and many losing seasons. She was ready to be replaced by then CMGI Field (ultimately Gillette Stadium), which was under construction for the start of the 2002 season.
More importantly, it was the first game following the terrorist attacks on America on September 11th. The previous Sunday’s NFL games were postponed, and our nation was still in shock. Even though the team fans were headed to see had lost their first game of the season, and were coming off of a 5-11 season under now second year coach Bill Belichick, emotions were running high all around and in the stadium that day.
Little did all of us in attendance that day realize that what we’d ultimately come to remember that day for was something completely different.
I remember standing in the kitchen of the house I grew up in, in Braintree, MA, more excited than usual to go see a team that didn’t have high expectations pinned to it. I’d been home for the better part of the two weeks following the attacks, away from NYC, where I lived at the time. Like many I was looking for any sort of positive wave to ride.
One of my best friends from high school picked me up, and after my mother painted our faces with American flags, we made way to Foxborough to see Jets at Patriots, a 4pm kickoff.
My friend and I were beyond excited, not only to attend the first real mass gathering in the area after a week-plus of shock, mourning and seclusion, but also to represent for America as fans of the Patriots. Patriotism was running high, and on this sunny day we were sporting the colors of a nation mourning but united. We donned our jerseys and painted our faces, ready to immerse ourselves fully in what would be a surreal experience.
Up and down Route One flags were being waved, cars honking horns in solidarity, strangers were hugging and high-fiving, nonstop chants of “U-S-A!” filling the air.
Riding that wave of pride we filled the stadium for the pregame ceremonies where the brothers of then Patriots guard Joe Andruzzi, who’d been on site at the World Trade Center towers, joined other firefighters on the field for a pregame tribute. Joe himself ran onto the field holding two small American flags, and the place erupted, the loudest many had ever heard the old bowl (and that includes Otis Smith’s fumble return against the Jaguars in January 1997!).
For many it was the first time they’d felt something positive in almost two weeks. A truly unforgettable scene.
Once the game began reality set back in and the game seemed to be very forgettable. The Patriots, then lead by Drew Bledsoe, the best QB in Patriots franchise history to date, were stagnant on offense. The Jets bottled up the Patriots all day, and all of the pregame excitement turned into bleacher murmurs and Foxboro frustrations. Still trailing 10-3 in the fourth, Bledsoe, who as having a miserable day, tried desperately to rally the Pats for a game tying score.
And then it happened: the hit heard round Patriots Nation.
You could hear Mo Lewis’s hit on Bledsoe no matter where you were sitting. It almost sounded like an explosion went off. At the time we had no idea just how hurt Bledsoe was. He was tougher than he got credit for during his Patriots days, but at that moment he needed to be removed from the game.
In Bledsoe’s place came a second-year player out of Michigan, drafted the previous year in the sixth round, who’d worked his way up the depth chart that summer: Tom Brady.
It was Brady’s second time seeing the field as a pro (he got some mop-up duty his rookie season in Detroit), but the first time his fans would get to see him in-person. The second he trotted out a new energy took to the stands, and a chatter, a buzz, was felt. Fans had heard this hotshot out of Michigan looked sharp and had something about him. Belichick seemed to like him and maybe, though Bledsoe had recently signed a big fat contract extension, maybe this Brady guy could provide the spark this stagnant squad needed.
But hold on right there! People forget that Bledsoe, tough SOB that he was, actually came back into the game once Brady spelled him briefly. Yes, he of the shorn blood vessel in his chest, which would require hospitalization later that night, came back in briefly, only to be replaced again by Brady. And that’s when it happened. That’s when you could see, in his final two-minute drill that ultimately came up short in his final two-minute drill that ultimately came up short), that there was something about this Brady guy.
He was sharp, decisive, accurate and looked like a natural leader. There was a different energy on the field as there was in the stands as fans exited in defeat, yet somehow this unfortunate set of circumstances was a major victory for the team and its fans. The conversation on the way out of the stadium went from, “This team stinks!” to “Hey, that Brady kid looks pretty good!” He sure did, and then some.
How could we have known how drastically history would change that day with one hit? The Boston Globe’s headline the next day read, “Drew Bledsoe Hurt As 0-2 Patriots Lose To Jets." Bledsoe was the greatest QB in franchise history. If he’s hurt then the hopes of an already winless team, coming off a bad season, with a second year sixth rounder under center, should be gone.
And yet, well...the rest is history. Brady took over, lead the team to a massive 29-point home victory over Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts the next week, and, well, the rest is history, culminating in Adam Vinatieri’s 48-yard, championship-winning kick in New Orleans. Go ahead and relive Gil Santos’s epic call of that kick if you need some sports serotonin today. Never gets old.
Sept. 23, 2001: a remarkable, memorable and unforgettable day in so many ways for all in Patriots Nation.
Tom Brady unexpectedly begins a career with the Pats, that’s still continuing elsewhere (or so I’m told), as the greatest QB in NFL history. Drew Bledsoe sees his time as starter with the Patriots come to a sudden and violent end, though he did contribute in the AFC Championship Game to the only title he ever won. Bill Belichick’s coaching genius began to flourish, as the orchestrator of the wild run his 2001 squad went on, not to mention the shine he felt being the guy who took a chance on Brady. And Mo Lewis, to this day, lives in New York Jets infamy. A hit by a member of the team Belichick famously resigned as HC of just a year and a half prior was the catalyst to the greatest Super Bowl run in NFL history, and the light of hope finally shone on a losing franchise in what felt like a moment of despair, coming off perhaps our nation’s darkest hour.
Over the 20 years since that incredible day, I still speak frequently with the friend I went to a game with that day. We talk of so many things men our age do, like family and friends who we went to high school with, our kids, sports and especially the Patriots. Now, though Brady is gone, our shared love of the team and appreciation for what Brady did continue to unite us, just as the Patriots and our love of country did that unforgettable day.