On Sept. 23, 2001, I walked into the old Foxboro Stadium for the first NFL game following the attacks of September 11 to see the Patriots play the Jets. I remember the scene: the passion and the patriotism (no pun intended) surrounding the game, a grieving nation brought together on football fields around the country. The feelings I had during the pre-game flyover an enduring image after seeing hardly any planes during the preceding two weeks proved once again the power and the emotion of sports.
What I also recall from that game was Mo Lewis’s brutal hit on Drew Bledsoe that would sideline the Patriots’ star quarterback for the majority of the season. I turned to my dad and asked him, ‘Who is our backup quarterback?” and ‘Will we win a game all season?” His answer was succinct ‘Tom Brady, probably not.”
Fortunately, my dad was wrong and Brady went on to lead the team to its first-ever Super Bowl victory that season. Over the past seven seasons, the sixth-round draft pick became an NFL star as well as an American celebrity. We Pats fans began to expect greatness from our quarterback, which is what made last year’s Super Bowl so hard to accept. From 2001-07, whenever the Pats were in trouble, all seemed OK because we had Brady. Right up until the final whistle of Super Bowl XLII, Pats fans were certain Tom would figure out a way to pull out the win.
With 2007 in the books, nobody looked forward to this year’s football season with more anticipation than the Patriots and their fans. Seven months, an NBA Championship and three-quarters of a baseball season and yet we were still not over that guy catching that ball on his head and yada yada yada…. Not until Sept. 7 when we could finally see Tom Brady and co. back in action.
Then it happened. It was worse than Lewis on Bledsoe. It was worse than Eli to Tyree. It was our worst nightmare. Our hero, our quarterback, our MVP, the one guy that any man in the greater Boston area could call attractive and nobody else would think it was remotely strange was sprawled on the ground, out for the season after only seven minutes and 33 seconds. My dad called me from the stadium to see if I knew anything more than he did. ‘Is he done?” ‘I think so.” He paused, ‘So Matt Cassel… do you think we will win a game all season?” My answer was succinct ‘What the f*@# just happened?”
Cassel led the Patriots to an uncomfortably close 17-10 win against the woeful Kansas City Chiefs, but we all knew that week two, on the road against Brett Favre and the Jets, was a horse of a different color. I already had my tickets for the Jets-Patriots game before Brady went down and, even though I didn’t want to face the facts, I figured it was a good thing I was going to support Cassel the seventh-round draft pick in his first start since his last high school game back in 1999 (at University of Southern California, he had backed up Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart, and he had done the same for Brady for his first three NFL seasons).
When we arrived at the Meadowlands, my friend Josh (a Jets fan) had no idea that he would wind up sitting next to the four most nervous people in the entire crowd Cassel’s mother Barbara, his wife Lauren, his grandmother and me. We did not even discover who they were until the end of the first half although I did find it a little strange that during every offensive play the three women sitting next to us would scream ‘C’mon Matty” or ‘You can do it, baby,” but I figured maybe they were just really big fans like me.
During a pivotal point in the third quarter, a Jets fan stood up and yelled, ‘Here comes a pick, everyone knows Cassel is due for an interception.”
‘You know that’s his mom right there?” another fan said.
‘Just kidding, I think Cassel is great,” the first fan replied sarcastically. As the game drew to a conclusion, the phone calls were pouring in to the Cassels.
‘He did it, he won, I have to go I have a beep,” Barbara Cassel repeated to several people between her tears. I never imagined that the people sitting next to me in East Rutherford, N.J. could be even more emotional about the Pats victory than I was, but boy was I wrong.
The comparisons are being made and the similarities are there: Brady in 2001 to Cassel in 2008. There is no telling what the rest of football season will have in store for the Patriots or the Cassel family, and I wouldn’t dare make any hypotheticals. But this past Sunday, I once again found the power and the emotion of sports watching a mother and a family cry in joy because their 26-year-old boy had just won his first start in nearly a decade.
Starr is a member of the class of 2009.