ATLANTA -- It had always been a rite of passage. The dances. The struts. The players' time to have their few seconds on national television to put on a one-man show. This was part of the dream when it came to playing on football's biggest stage.
The Super Bowl player introductions were always part of the payoff.
Feb. 3, 2002, the Patriots changed all of that.
"I’ve talked to a lot of guys who have been in Super Bowls who said, ‘Man, I wish we thought of that,’" said former Patriots' linebacker Tedy Bruschi.
What the Patriots did was turn their back on tradition -- and, in some ways, the National Football League and the television network -- in order to send a message that continues to this day. In one moment just prior to Super Bowl XXXVI, just seconds after the Rams executed the traditional individual introductions, New England came out as one.
It had never been done before. Now? It's almost unthinkable for teams to not follow suit.
"I’ll always remember the feeling when we came out and literally feeling everyone in the stadium went, ‘Ooh!’ Like something we had never seen before. Now it’s how they do it," Bruschi said. "I’m glad we started it but still I know there are a lot of teams who would like to be introduced individually."
"I look back and reflect on what they did so many years ago I love it because so many people were making a big deal about the players, the individuals on our team," said former Rams quarterback Kurt Warner. "We knew it was a complete team effort but they made such a big deal, especially about our offense — the Greatest Show on Turf and everything. I love the idea that you win and lose these games as a team so for them to come out as a team I thought it was a great statement for them to kind of galvanize them, but more importantly what our game is all about. I say all of that to say I wish I would have thought of it. All I was thinking about was what I was going to do between those lines for 60 minutes. I give them credit for doing something like because I think it brought them together as a team in a unique ways."
"That was the guys. It was a different atmosphere," recalled Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears. "A bunch of hungry guys who had never won. We had a chance to put something together and they were fighting for each other. That was important to them. I’ll tell you what, when they came out I was like, ‘Gosh! Woo!’ It wasn’t going to be an individual who won the game. It was going to be a team effort that won the game. That’s what it was all about."
It's strange to think how individualistic these introductions were prior to that Super Bowl. But really the pregame process had simply been a turn-key tradition for years upon years upon years, especially when it came to living life under the spotlight that came with participating in the biggest of games.
But really the story behind how the Patriots changed the tradition started well before that season's Super Bowl. It actually happened by accident in the season's very first regular season game.
"We sort of fell into it in Cincinnati when we were at the goalposts," remembered Bruschi. "We came out a little late and they were already introducing guys and we just said, ‘Screw it fellas, let’s just go out as a team.’ And we went out together and from there we all did it the same."
But the regular season was one thing, the playoffs were another.
The NFL made it very clear to the Patriots heading into their AFC Divisional Round game against Oakland that the expectation would be that players -- either from the offensive or defensive units -- would be individually introduced. It was part of the pageantry. It was also part of the television network's timetable. So, that's what New England did, both in Foxboro on that snowy night prior to taking on the Raiders and a week later in Pittsburgh.
But then came the Super Bowl. The Patriots were going out on their terms.
"I remember doing it as a team because of 9-11 and the devastating travesty our country went through. We wanted to say we were all one," said former Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest. "We felt that way as a team so we wanted to everything together, do everything as a team. We felt we were America’s team, the red, white and blue and all that. It was just an internal conversation saying we wanted to do it. We actually got fined for that Super Bowl because we didn’t come out individually. We threw off programming."
"What I remember is the guys still not being sure right when we got to the tunnel," Bruschi recalled. "Captains had talked about it during the week. I do remember the defense was supposed to be introduced. Imagine that, your name, your college, your position, all that stuff, you still have that urge to hear all of that. I heard a guy saying it right before we went into the helmet we’re going out as a team."
It was the perfect message at the perfect moment.
Along with the nation's thirst for unity, the juxtaposition of the gritty, gutty underdogs against the star-laden Rams made for a perfect storm of pregame opportunity.
"It’s funny to me because I see people all the time in the games that they think about when they set a record what they are going to do, or when they score a touchdown what touchdown dance they are going to do. I just showed up to the game and if they told me they were going to announce me than I ran out of the tunnel and if they told they weren’t then I didn’t," Warner said. "But now I look back at it and I think it was pretty cool."
Seventeen years later, the pregame pioneers will be continuing the tradition.
As Pat Summerall said, "And now ladies and gentlemen, choosing to be introduced as a team, here are the American Football Conference champions, the New England Patriots ..."