Wednesday, February 6, 2008

A Fan's Near Perfect Season

A great piece from The Stool's Jerry Thornton, paying a kind of twisted homage to the Simmons article which put the Sports Guy on the map and deftly explained what it meant to be a sports fan.

As for this sports fan, I personally blame the missed opportunity for perfection on Bill Belichick and his decision to wear that red hoodie for Sunday's game. A red hoodie? I mean, who wears a red hoodie when the ratty grey one has gotten you to 18-0? That's like talking to a pitcher in the dugout between innings when he's throwing a perfect game.

It was pretty obvious to everyone on the planet (including the 15 people I was plowing through that keg with at my buddy Sully's place in Oakville) that the Pats were playing well all year because Billy B was steadfastly trotting out every week to man the sidelines in that ridiculous looking shabby grey sweatshirt. And for him to switch it up when he was on Mercury Morris' block, getting ready to move his furniture in next door... The transgression was simply inexcusable. Because in the words of Crash Davis:

"A player on a streak has to respect the streak. You know why? Because they don't happen very often. If you believe you're playing well because you're getting laid, or because you're not getting laid, or because you wear women's underwear, then you ARE! And you should know that!"

Everybody knows that you don't mess with a streak. But Bill Belichick's inability to respect that streak cost both The New England Patriots, and perhaps more importantly, Jerry Thornton, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for perfection. And it is for this reason; above spygate, leaving the field early, or his terse interaction with the media; that he should be ashamed.

I guess it's true what they say: nobody's perfect... well, except for Curt Henning, of course.

A Pats Fan Achieves (Near) Perfection
by Jerry Thornton

It was 10-something PM, Super Bowl Sunday. In spite of the fact that when it comes to the cold I’m the biggest weenie in the world, I was in a t-shirt, sitting by myself on my cousin Phil’s back deck listening to the Patriots last possession of the season coming from inside of the house. They were the only plays I missed all year. I sat there and all I could think was how I deserved better than to have it end this way. I’d given everything to the 2007 Patriots. They got more than my best effort. I’d given them The Perfect Season.

It’s hard to say exactly when talk began about the possibility of me having a perfect season. It might have been Week 8 when the Patriots faced the Redskins. It was a perfect, clear, crisp October Sunday afternoon in New England. The sun was shining, the leaves were falling; it was the kind of day they use as a setting for romantic chick flicks and penis medicine commercials. The Patriots were in the process of blowing out Washington 52-7 in one of the most lopsided wins in team history, which could’ve freed me up me up to do any one of about a hundred other things. My loving sons wanted to play football in the yard. My adorable Irish Rose needed help winterizing the pool. The untended leaves in the yard were beginning to decompose. But deep into the 4th quarter I made a decision: I would stick to my plan, stay in, watch the game to the final gun and finish that 12-pack I’d started.

As the final seconds ticked away, my spectacular MILF came into the den, looked at the score, and without a hint of malice in her honeyed voice said “Wow, 52-7 and you’re still watching this thing? Are you planning to do this all year?” That’s when I first started to think that maybe.. Just maybe... my Perfect Season was possible.

Of course it didn’t start there. You can’t just show up for the kickoff of Week 1 and expect to pull off a Perfect Season. It takes preparation. It takes hard work in the offseason. It takes time and commitment. It takes a completely misplaced set of priorities.

For me the 2007 season began as soon as the 2006 Patriots season ended. They were going into the NFL Draft with two first round picks, Nos. 24 and 28, so I went right to work. I searched mock drafts. Watched the scouting combine on NFL Network. Looked at YouTube clips of the potential first rounders. I formed concrete opinions on guys I’d never seen play. Even through March Madness and the start of the Red Sox season I always kept one eye on the Draft. When Draft Day arrived I was as prepared as I could be. I went to the house of my brother Jack, the most informed Draft nerd I’ve ever known. We had beer, cigars, Draft guides, laptops and a variety bucket from KFC. We were ready. Brandon Merriweather at 24? No surprise. A trade at 28? Saw it coming. Monday morning at work I was telling a guy a Draft story and he said “Wait. You didn’t actually watch it did you?” “Just the first six hours,” I replied.

That’s how you achieve perfection. You do the little things. As in Bill Belichick’s favorite metaphor, you start with the foundation and build the house brick by brick. Every time the Pats make a personnel move and you declare it to be the greatest acquisition in team history, you add another brick. “Wes Welker will catch 100 balls.” Brick. “Donte Stallworth will stretch defenses.” Brick. Sammy Morris is an upgrade from Dillon.” Brick. “Randy Moss and Brady will set records.” Brick. You harp on Ron Borges for talking out of both sides of his mouth on Adalius Thomas and he gets fired? Brick, brick, brick.

Training camp was long and grueling. But it’s a necessary evil if you want to make history. In the heat of July and August, I was checking football blogs... two a day... keeping up on Pats news. When all eyes were on the Major League trading deadline, I kept my focus, checking Mike Reiss to see who was winning the punting job. While the Yankees were in Fenway, I was combing through Pats message boards for breakdowns of the new zone blocking scheme. Because I knew I had the chance to be great. That’s why I worked so hard. That’s why I lifted all them weights.

Part of having the Perfect Season is backing your team perfectly, 100%, no slip ups, and I never wavered. The first challenge was when Rodney Harrison was caught using HGH. It was a tough situation, but I rose to the challenge. Rodney’s a warrior and a personal favorite so I ignored the shady nature of what he’d done and backed him to the hilt. When Spygate hit I remained the shameless homer. In the face of relentless pressure, I not only withstood the heat, I went on the attack and laid into anyone who dared criticize the Hooded One. Not only did the episode not make me lose faith, it steeled my resolve. I used it as motivation to be the best I could be each week.

As the season began and the wins piled up, I gained confidence. I felt like every week I was capable of going onto that couch, watching every play through rose-colored glasses and refusing to find even the slightest flaw in the team. I ignored the piss poor early season Red Zone defense. Refused to fault the pass coverage. Turned a blind eye to Laurence Maroney’s ineffectiveness. I stayed perfect.

As the season wore on, more and more the focus turned to my Perfect Season. I found myself constantly being asked if I could keep it up. Could I continue to watch every play? Could I avoid saying one negative thing about the Pats? Could I keep up my level of in-game beer consumption? I of course would have none of this talk, focusing only on the next game, the next play, the next controversy, the next trip to the package store.

Watching every play, even through the blowouts was the easy part. Others might tune out in the 4th quarter when the game was in the bag, but I refused. I stay tuned at all times, just in case I got to see Brady take flight or Belichick summon the Mother Ship to take him back to his home planet. Never doubting the team was a bigger challenge and there were scares along the way. Down 10 in the 4th quarter at Indy, I almost had a thought that the Pats could let the game slip away as they’d done the previous January, but I caught myself and recovered in time to preserve my streak alive. During the Baltimore Monday night game, when any of six different 4th down snaps could’ve spelled doom, I kept my poise, even while I was having stroke-like symptoms.

My biggest challenge was Week 16 vs. Miami. Every year my mother-in-law hosts a Christmas Mass at her house down the Cape. Not a party... a Mass. Imagine all the fun, happy, holly jolly aspects of the Yuletide season. Now subtract them from your holiday. What you’re left with is this joyless, desultory, soul-sucking night. And this years Mass started at exactly the same time as the Dolphins game. To my horror, just before game time I realized I’d forgot to record the game and my Perfect Season was in peril. But with ticks still left on the clock, I called my brother Jimbo, got him to go to my house, and like the control tower telling the stewardess how to land the plane, talked him through setting my DVR. It took until 3AM for me to see the game in its entirety, but my season was saved.

It got harder as the season wore on. Before Week 17 against the Giants, I was feeling the pressure as I drove to Uncle Buck’s house to watch it with him. I was so close to making history, what if I blew it at that point? What if Buck was a channel flipper and I missed something? What if the Pats fell behind? Would he and I feed off each other and say something negative? What if the long drive home (he lives just outside Buffalo, I think) intimidated me into sobriety? Of course the Pats did fall behind, but UB and I stayed calm, regrouped and focused on the next play and just doing... our... jobs. 16-0 on the season, .160 blood alcohol level. We should’ve made up t-shirts and hats for the occasion.

I breezed through the AFC playoffs, but that was easy. The pressure of the perfect regular season was over and I’d had perfect postseasons before. I was a heavy favorite to keep it going in both games and I didn’t disappoint. During the buildup to the Super Bowl, I testified perfectly my lifelong hatred of the Giants to the world, flawlessly touted the ways in which the Pats would eviscerate them, and faultlessly ripped the haters and politicians who tried to drop a turd in the Patriots punchbowl. I was on top of my game; I was pluperfect.

Only to have it all come crashing down around both of us like Mordor imploding when Frodo destroys the ring. And as the final seconds ticked off the clock and they turned the TV off inside, I sat there looking at the condensation of my breath while I hyperventilated and asked myself if I had it in me to ever do this again. And the answer was a flat “no.” Not a chance. Never. Now with a couple of days to think about it, I admit it was good ride right up until the last two minutes. And the Pats are holding the 7th pick in the Draft, so maybe.


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