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Book Review: The Complete Illustrated History of the New England Patriots (the early days)

Christopher Price's book goes all the way back to the first days (photo from sports-logo-screen-savers.com)

The Complete Illustrated History of the New England Patriots, famed Pats expert and journalist Christopher Price’s most recent book, gets old school.

Price goes back to the very first days, of the “foolish club,” also known as the AFL when it decided to challenge the world.  Back to the days of leather helmets, when football players never heard of a forward pass.  Back to the days when a guy with no money, no stadium and no research to justify an investment could become the owner of what became Forbes’ fifth most valuable sports franchise in the world.

And there are a few things about the “nomad” days, as Price calls them, of the Patriots that we can familiarize with today. The onset of the Patriots shows the kind of loyalty that Boston-area fans pride themselves on today. The history of the Patriots starts out with a team that had to split their practice field with an elementary school playground, until they were kicked out by the teachers. Price documents a team that had to issue season tickets for multiple venues because there was no telling if the Patriots would play at Fenway Park, Harvard, the Boston Braves’ baseball stadium on Commonwealth Avenue, or even drive up to Lynn if the other three were taken up. While the book documents these intricate details, it opens a question that has yet to be answered.

How did a team like that hold on to fans without any success until 2001?

Of course, Boston sports fans stuck around for 86 years waiting for the Red Sox miracle in 2004.  But that was after fans were given five world championships before its historic drought.  Throw in professionals sports’ best rivalry to bring Red Sox fans together as the David versus New York’s Goliath, and Red Sox fans were given all the ingredients to form a loyal fan base.

But the Patriots took a different route, and paid for it by losing support to the Giants.  (For those of you who, like me, stuck out growing up in Connecticut as a Pats fan and wondered why it was flooded with New York Giants fans, Price’s historical account of Boston sports trends finally answers your questions.)

The Patriots’ ownership didn’t make it easy to be a fan, either.  They struggled, both on the field and in the accounting books, to stay afloat.  They neglected to pick up a stadium for 40 years.  Then, when the merger finally forced it, they took the team to a small time town 40 minutes outside of Boston that some fans would have had to look up on a map to find.

And yet, people showed up.  The “strategic” placement of Schaefer Stadium (which would go on to be renamed Foxboro Stadium and, later, Gillette Stadium), seemed to accidentally differentiate the Patriots from the Celtics, Bruins and Red Sox that dominated competition for fans in the city.  Price explains how Foxboro attracted fans from Providence, Boston, Worcester and every other surrounding town, crossing state and city borders to create another professional team that was different than the exclusively Boston Bruins, Boston Celtics and Boston Red Sox. And it worked.

As a result, the New England Patriots were born, although that name was the result of the shift away from the “Bay State Patriots,” which the owners decided would create a press fiasco when readers opened the newspaper to see the score of the ”BS Patriots” game.

Price’s historical accounts of the beginning of the Patriots also comforts today’s fans by mirroring some of the dynamics of today’s NFL.  For example, Price’s account of Gino Cappelletti sounds no different than the legend of Troy Brown.  Both became famous among the fans, as underrated offensive players who excelled on special teams and even played a little defensive back when the team needed them there.  Then there’s the story of Bob Gladieux, who, like Danny Woodhead or Hank Poteat, was given a last second chance to contribute, as they called his name on the loudspeaker to dress up and play because they had a roster spot open. He was sitting in the stands drinking beer and port-wine, lamenting the team that cut him just before the season opener, before he dressed and made the first tackle of the game. And there is absolutely no difference, other than about 50 years of technology, between San Diego receiver Lance Alworth making home-movies on the sidelines during a blowout win against the Patriots and Chad Ochocinco tweeting from his cellphone during a preseason game.

The Complete Illustrated History of the New England Patriots is full of these anecdotes and small details that put the old school in high definition.  As a resource, it belongs on the coffee table of any room where fans gather to watch the Patriots every Sunday.

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