During my senior year in college, I was lucky enough to intern in the Boston Globe sports department and work near some of the sportswriters I had grown up admiring: Will McDonough, Bob Ryan, Kevin Paul Dupont, and so on. The Globe internship program was also famous for churning out some well-known and respected scribes, such as Peter Gammons. Our group, as time would show, was a pretty nice collection of talent. There was Chris Mannix, who covers boxing for Sports Illustrated, and Chris Forsberg, now of ESPNBoston.com. There was Dani Holmes-Kirk, who works for the Chicago Cubs, as well as Chris Gasper, an online columnist for the Globe and occasional panelist on The Sports Reporters. ESPN’s Michael Smith had recently graduated from college and hung around often during the day. It was an immensely fun group of people to hang with and learn from as we were all college kids and, in our own ways, getting our feet wet with real-world sportswriting. (Plus, the Globe copy editors gave us all nicknames, which made us feel like we were cool. Mine was “Peyton,” bestowed on me, I presume, due to my close-cropped haircut and mangled Pennsylvania twang that sounded ever-so-vaguely like a certain quarterback.)
Aside from the people, what made that fall ‘01/spring ’02 time at the Globe so enjoyable was the Patriots’ improbable run through the regular season and playoffs. I often worked Saturday nights at the paper, manning the high school sports desk, usually hunched over some relic of an Atex terminal, typing in college football box scores or golf leaderboards from the AP wire. But in between all that grunt work, Tom Brady’s rise as Patriots Football Savior had captivated all of New England, and no one at the Globe was immune to these newfound feelings of joy. When people say they realize they’re witnessing some kind of history before their eyes? That’s how we all felt.
But these Globe staffers, for the most part, were hardcore Patriots lifers. They had been burned before, and the darker areas of their souls fully expected to be burned again. But as the Patriots rose to prominence, the Globe readers wanted all the coverage they could humanly consume. So the paper put out special daily sections focusing on the Patriots. They were excellent, jammed with smart commentary, the latest beat writer reports, and innovative design. But there was an internal conflict among all these editors that slowly became apparent. Each Patriots playoff win meant another week of special sections and overtime hours and missed family engagements and trudging through the deepening New England snow, and for what? Because there was no way the Patriots were actually going to go that far in the playoffs, right?
To get to the Globe by train, you take the Red Line into Dorchester and get off at the JFK/UMass stop. Then you walk about a half-mile down a usually deserted sidewalk before coming upon the paper’s compound. As I approached the building on January 19, 2002, MiniDisc player cranked up and my headphones acting as makeshift earmuffs, the wind was bitter cold and the snow was already falling in heaps, perhaps two to three inches on the ground. I knew my usual 4:30-midnight Saturday shift would be a fun one, with the Pats hosting Jon Gruden’s Oakland Raiders a half-hour away, and the excitement was palpable inside the newsroom. But as the game wore on, it was clear the hometown team was overmatched. The Raiders were a year away from their own improbable Super Bowl run, but you could see the talent was already there. The mood shifted, and as more snow fell outside – prompting the old guard to start recounting tales of being snowed inside the building on occasion – a pervasive gloom took hold. Heads were down, work got done, but the dusty row of TV monitors hanging high didn’t hold much hope for a Patriots win.
Perhaps it was the Patriots’ poor play earlier in the game, but as the team clawed its way back into contention, the mood in the newsroom didn’t fully shift into pure fan-induced hysteria. It was clear, now, that a Patriots win over the Raiders would merely prolong the inevitable. Everyone knew the Steelers would win the next day over the Ravens. (Elvis Grbac against the Pittsburgh’ secondary? Please.) And no one figured the Patriots had any chance in hell to win at Heinz Field the following week.
So when The Tuck happened late in the fourth quarter, there was an instant sense of relief. Well, that was a fun run. Makes sure Cafardo gets his game story in for first edition. What are Ryan and Shaughnessy doing? Someone tell Page 1 what’s going on. The gears of a monster newspaper began cranking in their natural, instinctive directions.
Then the replay came and a stupefied hush came over us. Eyes started darting around, as if to say They’re not really going to overturn this fumble, right? Then, someone actually dared to say out loud, “Jesus, they might fucking overturn this …"
Before I could ever make out Walt Coleman’s explanation over the TV, all I heard was "Oh, FUCK!” Yes, the Fumble was actually a Tuck, and football in New England was granted a momentary reprieve. Sure, Adam Vinatieri still had to tie up the game and he still had to win it in overtime, but everyone was resigned to the eventual outcome. It was useless to stop guessing what would happen next. This game was beyond all of our collective comprehension.
It stayed that way throughout the rest of the Patriots’ posteseason. When they beat the Steelers at Heinz Field behind Drew Bledsoe the following week, well, that meant another week of special sections, extra work, longer hours, all to watch the Patriots get their inevitable spanking at the hands of Kurt Warner and the Greatest Show on Turf in front of a global audience. Of course, that didn’t happen either.
I also worked that Super Bowl Sunday at the Globe. Actually, I got off early and made it back into the city in time for a friend’s party in Allston. Afterward, as the city of Boston exploded, celebrating its first championship since the ’86 Celtics, I saw drunken slobs walking between the lanes of Commonwealth Avenue, high-fiving cars’ side-view mirrors. Having never been to war or the Gathering of the Juggalos, it remains the only time in my life when I was convinced I’d actually see someone die in front of me. (No one did, amazingly.)
For me, what the Tuck Rule Game, and the remainder of that Patriots postseason, showed was that a well-coached team with just enough talent can go as far as it desires. It showed that heart, however intangible and unquantifiable, does matter to some degree. It showed me a glimpse of the conflict that the news media, especially those working in sports, occasionally feel when the unfettered joys of fandom bump up against the objective demands of the job.
But mostly, I think, it showed that when it comes to matters of football, no one really knows anything.