There's something special about New England Patriots fans. We share a unique bond. We weren't all there to witness the earliest days of the franchise, but we were there to experience the critical turning point, when Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady changed everything forever.
We don't need to dig up archival footage to experience what it was like when the Patriots won three Super Bowls in four years, because we saw it with our own eyes. We were there. Even the youngest Patriots fans among us can speak with authority about seeing Brady hoist trophies, smash records and win MVP awards.
How many fanbases can say that? How many fanbases can point to three banners and feel a personal connection with each one?
Amazingly, despite all the greatness we've seen, we're still seeing more of it. We're watching this team grow. And, in many ways, we've grown along with the team over the years. We've been evolving with Kraft, with Belichick and with Brady. It's a unifying factor that has linked Patriots fans together on an emotional level, turning this fanbase into an extraordinarily passionate community.
Here are six ways you know you're a Patriots fan.
You remember every detail of Super Bowl XXXVI. You remember where you were, who you were with and the emotions you were feeling during the final drive.
You remember the game being tied at 17 with 1:30 left in the fourth quarter. You remember Drew Bledsoe telling Tom Brady to "go out there and sling it."
You remember the cool eyes of a young quarterback, wise and poised beyond his years. You remember him twisting out of a near strip-sack and tossing the ball to J.R. Redmond then pounding his chest. You remember him throwing a series of fearless receptions then spiking the ball with seven ticks left.
You remember Gil Santos calling the game in legendary fashion:
For Adam Vinatieri, 48-yard field goal attempt, set to go, snap, ball down, kick up, kick is on the way...and...it is good! It's good! It's good! The game is over! The Patriots are Super Bowl Champions! The Patriots are Super Bowl Champions!
If you're getting chills thinking about this, you know you're a Patriots fan.
Joe Montana has some extremely loyal fans who are adamant that he's the greatest slinger ever. They'll argue that he never lost a Super Bowl, going a perfect 4-0, while Tom Brady only went 3-2.
If you're a Patriots fan, you've led a crusade to combat that argument.
You've refined your speech down to a science, to the point where you can whip it out and recite it on a dime. You know the stats, the records and the unparalleled accomplishments that push Brady to the forefront of the great quarterback debate. You've been to the ends of the earth, pitching your argument, hammering your conviction with such zeal that you've swayed everyone on the fence to your side. You've single-handedly expanded the number of people on this planet who place Brady at the top spot.
But no matter how much progress you make, Montana's fans won't budge.
Still, no matter how much they resist, you'll continue making the argument that Brady's the best ever. Why? Because you're a Patriots fan. And also, because you're correct.
The Patriot Way is a humble code of conduct. You don't trash-talk your opponents, you show them respect. You highlight their attributes and heap praise on them. You exist the way a Samurai exists, in complete honor. This is how the Patriots operate. It's how the fans operate, as well.
But within this strict culture of etiquette, there exists a strange, tangled cobweb of emotions, specifically with regards to Eli Manning.
Manning authored the two darkest days in the history of the Patriots franchise. In winning Super Bowl XLII, he prevented the 2007 Patriots from becoming the best team in history. In winning Super Bowl XLVI, he thwarted Tom Brady's storybook quest for vengeance, which would've been the most dramatic way to seal the Brady/Montana debate forever, across the board.
Patriots fans have every reason to violate the code of etiquette and harbor some genuine dislike for Manning, except for one thing: Patriots fans actually feel a genuine respect for him. And why shouldn't we? Manning's awesome. In those Super Bowls, he showed physical genius and mental toughness. He deserved those rings. He's an amazing player.
At heart, Patriots fans are true football fans. We recognize Manning's excellence and respect his dazzling accomplishments.
Still though, the bitter taste does not wash away so easily.
If you're caught between a genuine admiration for Manning and an equally genuine rage towards him, you're a Patriots fan.
It's the dead of summer. Most fanbases are thinking about ways for their team to take small steps. Eighteen teams ended 2012 at or below .500, so those fanbases are just thinking about collecting some more wins during the regular season. Other fanbases are concentrated on quarterback competitions or potential divisional adversaries that may thwart their playoff hopes.
Sure, it's only June, but if you're a Patriots fan, you're already thinking about February. You've got your lasers set on Super Bowl XLVIII. Nothing else will do.
Not many fanbases can get away with that audacity, but this isn't a normal fanbase and this isn't a normal team. The Patriots have been to five Super Bowls since 2001 and they don't appear to be slowing down. Brady's playing the best football of his career. Also, there's about a dozen new additions to the team who have the potential to be game-changers in the biggest regard.
So, from time to time, perhaps your mind starts thinking about potential Super Bowl matchups. Patriots vs. 49ers? Patriots vs. Packers? Patriots vs. Giants? Patriots vs. Redskins? Patriots vs. Seahawks?
You've thought about this because you expect greatness.
In other words: You're a Patriots fan.
Rob Gronkowski's back surgery qualifies as his fifth surgery since November, following four trips under the knife for his forearm. Gronkowski's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, described the back surgery as "minor" and more about "preventative maintenance" than anything else.
Deep down, you know that statement sounds ridiculously fishy.
Still though, you're trying your hardest to believe it. You never thought you'd listen to an agent, but you're trying it on for size. You're trying to believe this isn't a big deal, even though these surgeries are coming after two straight seasons of Gronkowski's body ending up in battered condition, requiring a knife.
If you've been giving yourself pep talks all summer, something like, "He doesn't have a bad body, it's just a run of bad luck, everything's OK, Jake Ballard will cover the time he misses and he'll come back better than ever," then you're a loyal Patriots fan.
Yes, I've been giving myself the same pep talk.
Patriots fans rarely feel hatred. It's a meaningless emotion, a waste of time. We're too busy winning, too busy planning ahead, too busy taking care of business.
Sometimes, though, exceptions simply must be made.
If ever there was a reason to stoop below the standards of the Patriot Way and harbor some genuine animosity, it's for Bernard Pollard, the safety known as "the Patriot Killer."
This is an appropriate nickname.
In the first game of the 2008 season, Pollard plowed into Tom Brady. Brady tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. In 2009, Pollard was the nearest player to Wes Welker when he blew out his knee.
In the 2011 AFC Championship, Pollard dragged Rob Gronkowski to the ground. Gronkowski injured his ankle, rendering him totally ineffective for Super Bowl XLVI and ultimately resulting in surgery.
Finally, in the 2012 AFC Championship, Pollard laid a brutal helmet-to-helmet hit on Stevan Ridley and knocked him out of the game. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh referred to Pollard's hit on Ridley as "football at its finest."
If you loathe Bernard Pollard, right down to the core of your guts, you know you're a Patriots fan.