Gillette Stadium Memories

The construction site bustled just a few feet from the old, dilapidated Foxboro Stadium. The New England Patriots new home was to be called CMGi Field and construction was cranking forward when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks halted football and our way of life. For some reason, I relate the two. When I think of the stadium’s construction, I am sadly reminded of that day. One of my first memories of the new stadium was the American Flag flying from the unfinished lighthouse structure as a show of America’s resiliency in the days after 9/11. That picture, which donned the cover of Patriots Football Weekly, is engrained in my head.

A few months later, there was a much more positive tone. The Patriots had won their first ever Super Bowl, Foxboro Stadium had been knocked down and the new stadium with the new name, Gillette Stadium, was set to host its grand opening in the September 9, 2002 season opener on Monday Night Football.

It was a banner night – literally. Robert Kraft welcomed fans to their new home and unveiled the Super Bowl XXXVI championship banner. The trash-talking Pittsburgh Steelers were in town for a rematch of the 2001 AFC Championship Game. All of Pittsburgh would tell anyone that would listen that the better team did not win that AFC Championship Game, so the season opener packed a decent amount of hype beyond the new stadium and the banner unveiling.

The celebratory night was complete when the Patriots steamrolled the Steelers, 30-14, in a game that wasn’t that close. Tight end Christian Fauria made history when he scored the stadium’s first touchdown on a pass from Tom Brady. He did a leaping split and spiked the football. Donald Hayes and rookie Deion Branch also caught touchdown passes and kicker Adam Vinatieri did Adam Vinatieri things to reach the final tally.

The memories of that night remain. The only downside was the anticipation of seeing the new lighthouse at work. It disappointed, but that’s being nitpicky. The first season in the new digs certainly left memories – both good and bad. The final game of the season featured a comeback win over Miami at Gillette. The Pats needed Terry Glenn and the Packers to beat the Jets to earn the division title and a playoff berth. But it wasn’t to be. The players and their families watched the end of the Jets-Packers game in a tent next to the stadium. They left with their eyes set on 2003.

The 2003 season featured many indelible memories of the still-new stadium. The image of Ty Law limping into the end zone after returning a Steve McNair pass 65 yards for a game-clinching touchdown in a 38-30 win over the Titans remains vivid. The win was the first of an NFL-record 21 straight Patriots victories.

I remember something else about that game. The Boston Red Sox, trailing the American League Division Series, two-games-to-one to the Oakland A’s, were on the brink of elimination while the Pats played the Titans. Many fans at Gillette were listening to the Sox game on their radios while watching the Patriots. With 4:40 left in the Patriots game, McNair plunged to a 1-yard touchdown run while David Ortiz simultaneously hit a go-ahead, two-run double in the bottom of the eighth inning to give the Sox a 5-4 lead. The Gillette crowd was cheering despite the fact that McNair had just given the Titans a 27-24 lead. Third-year defensive lineman Richard Seymour was angry about it after the Patriots win and suggested that if fans wanted to watch the Red Sox, they should do that elsewhere. He couldn’t believe the crowd reacted with cheers despite the opponent’s touchdown. That always stuck with me. He’s not from New England so maybe he didn’t quite get the local fan, but he also wasn’t wrong.

The 2003 season also featured memorable defensive performances and a massive snow storm that led to the surreal Snow Fireworks moment at Gillette. The Patriots were clinging to a 3-0 lead over Miami in a December matchup. Tedy Bruschi intercepted Dolphins quarterback Jay Fiedler on the 5-yard line and pranced into the end zone while sliding to his knees in celebration. The fans, as if choreographed, tossed snow into the air to the beat of the touchdown celebration music. It was… well… very cool.

The Pats had started the 2003 season with an ugly 31-0 loss at Buffalo, but ended it with a memorable 31-0 win over the same Bills at Gillette. Larry Izzo’s interception in the end zone with 17 seconds left preserved the vengeful shutout.

The Patriots played the coldest game in team history in January of that season. It was 4 degrees at kickoff when the Patriots eliminated the Titans from the playoffs, 17-14. A week later, they sent the Colts and their explosive offense packing in the first AFC Championship Game in the new venue.

The Patriots championship era was in its infancy and we were all along for the oh-so-memorable ride.

The team kicked off the 2004 season in the Thursday night home opening spot typically reserved for the defending Super Bowl champions. So, banner No. 2 was unveiled before another rematch of the previous season’s AFC Championship Game – this one against the rival Colts. The Patriots held a 27-24 lead as Indy drove into position to tie the game. A 12-yard Willie McGinest sack made the game-tying field goal try a bit more challenging.

Bill Belichick called a timeout to ice Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt, who proceeded to glare at the Patriots sideline and rub his fingers together as if to say, “I’m money.” He then missed outside the right upright by at least 10 yards. It was satisfying and memorable.

The 2004 season brought us a record-winning streak – the record-breaking 19th win in a row came in October over Miami and eventually reached 21 straight. The Gillette Stadium portion of the 2004 championship season ended with a memorable 20-3 Divisional Playoff win over those annoying Colts.

The two-time defending champions went 10-6 in 2005, but the top-of-mind play from that season at Gillette came in a 28-3 playoff win over Jacksonville. Brady tossed a short pass to tight end Ben Watson on third-and-13 late in the third quarter. Watson broke a bunch of what looked to be sure tackles and raced away from the Jags defense for a 63-yard touchdown. A week later, Watson chased down Champ Bailey in a memorable non-Gillette play in a playoff loss at Denver. Kudos to Watson for his efforts.

Trying to be selective so not to pen something as long as the Dead Sea Scrolls is challenging, so I’ll jump around a bit more. The 21-12 AFC Championship Game win over the Chargers has to be included on a list of memories since it staked the Patriots to an 18-0 record. There is nothing about the win that jumps out and we all know how the season ended, but 18-0 had never been accomplished and warrants a mention here.

The 2009 opener vs. Buffalo also deserves a mention. It was Brady’s first game back after missing the entire 2008 season with a torn ACL suffered in the season opener vs. Kansas City (yes, at Gillette, but a moment I try to forget). The Patriots scored a touchdown with 2:06 left in the game, but still trailed, 24-19. New England elected to kick it deep. All returner Leodis McKelvin had to do was take a knee and the game would be all but over. Instead, he raced out of the end zone and was hit by Pierre Woods, who forced a fumble that Stephen Gostkowski recovered. Three plays later, Brady to Watson gave the Patriots a spectacular 25-24 win.

The Patriots largest margin of victory in history came in 2009 as well. During a rare October snowstorm, Brady threw five first half touchdown passes in a 59-0 win over the Titans while wearing the red throwback uniforms as part of the American Football League’s 50th Anniversary season.

The 2011 AFC Championship Game win over Baltimore is on my list as well. New England was clinging to a 23-20 lead over a Ravens team that never seemed intimidated coming into Gillette in January. Pats cornerback Sterling Moore broke up a potential game-winning touchdown pass with 27 seconds left. Baltimore called on kicker Billy Cundiff to try to tie the game with a 32-yard field goal. But his kick hooked so badly, it missed the netting behind the goal posts and sent the Patriots to Super Bowl XLVI. In a season dedicated to late Patriots matriarch Myra Kraft, we all wanted to believe that she pushed the kick wide.

The 2013 season could be dubbed the Year of the Comeback for the Pats at Gillette Stadium. It started with an October comeback win over the Saints. New England trailed, 27-23, when it took over on its own 30-yard line with 1:13 remaining. The drive ended with Brady connecting with wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins in the back left corner of the end zone with five seconds left for a dramatic 30-27 win.

Six weeks later, the Patriots were hosting Peyton Manning’s Broncos and found themselves trailing, 24-0, after an ugly first half. But New England stormed back with 31 straight points to take the lead before Denver evened the score to send it to overtime. When former Patriot Wes Welker misplayed an overtime punt, the Patriots recovered a loose ball that had hit a Bronco, and then won on a Gostkowski field goal to complete the greatest regular season comeback in team history.

Two weeks after that miraculous win, the Pats trailed Cleveland, 26-14 at home, with 2:39 left in the game. All Brady did was guide an 11-play, 82-yard touchdown drive in 1:38, which left 1:01 on the clock. Kyle Arrington than recovered the Patriots first successful onside kick since 1995, and three plays later, Brady hit Danny Amendola for a 1-yard, game-winning touchdown pass.

We have been so fortunate, as a fanbase, to have so many incredibly positive memories since 2001.

Of course, the 2014 AFC Divisional Playoff Game against the Ravens is one of the best in Gillette Stadium’s history. New England twice trailed Baltimore by 14 points and twice rallied to erase the deficits. Using some rarely seen formations and trick plays, the Patriots rallied to a 35-31 win highlighted by Julian Edelman’s 51-yard touchdown pass to Amendola on a double pass call. The comeback win sent the Pats to the AFC Championship Game, where they dismantled the Colts, 45-7. A 16-yard TD pass from Brady to left tackle Nate Solder was particularly memorable in that win. To quote Forrest Gump, “That’s all I gotta say about that.”

Brady’s first home game of 2016 following a four-game suspension for alleged football tampering was also memorable as Patriots fans gave him a hero’s welcome before a 35-17 win over the Bengals. The Pats lost only one game the rest of the way and it came at home to Seattle when the Seahawks fittingly made a late-game goal line stand to win. The Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl.

The highlight of the 2017 season at Gillette also came in a playoff game. New England trailed Jacksonville, 20-10, in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship. Brady, playing with a severe throwing hand injury, and Amendola then went to work, connecting on touchdown passes of 9 and 4 yards, the latter coming on a terrific, fully extended, toe-tapping grab in the back of the end zone for the 24-20 win.

The 2018 season included a 43-40 Patriots win over high-flying Kansas City that lived up to its pregame hype. The Patriots kept the explosive Chiefs out of the end zone in the first half and went to the break with a 24-9 lead. The second half was all fireworks. It was 27-26 entering the fourth quarter, but KC took a 33-30 lead midway through the final frame. The Pats then scored 10 straight only to see KC tie it. In a game that would clearly be won by the team to have the ball last, Gostkwoski’s 28-yard field goal as time expired gave New England that win.

The Gillette Stadium portion of the 2018 season ended with experts predicting the Patriots demise despite being at home for a playoff game against the Chargers. New England, not surprisingly, responded to the so-called disrespect with a resounding 41-28 win in a game they led, 38-7. In an on-field, postgame interview with CBS’ Tracy Wolfson, Brady said, “I know everyone thinks we suck…”

The Pats went on to win their sixth Super Bowl.

The 2021 season was notable because it wasn’t 2020, which is when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the team to play home games without fans in the stadium. So, the 2021 opener not only featured the first start for rookie quarterback Mac Jones, but the glorious return of fans to their home stadium and a needed sense of normalcy.

It will sure be tough over the next 20 years for Gillette Stadium to match the quality of memories it achieved in its first 20, but as a massive new video board is installed as part of stadium upgrades, let’s all hope it comes close.

I am just so appreciative that we all got to witness so many great moments, and (shameless plug), we get to re-live them at the Patriots Hall of Fame presented by Raytheon Technologies. I also appreciate watching many great players over the years, but Matthew Slater sticks out to me for playing such a critical role on the team for so long despite almost all of his playing time coming on fourth down.