Read more from Greg Sheehan at www.turningtwo.com
A perfect time for a camera would have been in the Summer of 1990, when I looked above the red and white checkered counter top at a Pizza Hut in Lowell, Massachusetts and saw a drawing to be, “The Official Tee Boy of the New England Patriots.”
I’m sure my eyes popped out of my head. Could this have been the precise moment that I became a fan of the Patriots?
No, because their Playoff run and appearance in Super Bowl XX in early 1986 against Chicago was quite memorable. I wanted the Patriots to win desperately and I felt embarrassed that a team with a music video and household appliances filling in at running back could make us look so bad.
Where was our Super Bowl Shuffle? Why didn’t we have a Washer/Dryer combination stand up unit at defensive line/running back?
After 1986 we would still wear our “Squish the Fish” T-shirts and if you took good care of your “Berry the Bears” T-shirt you would later be rewarded with stares, hugs and enormous props (Raymond Berry was the Head Coach at the time). I “borrowed” one of these rare vintage t-shirts from one of my close friends and he took great exception, as you can imagine…I gave it back, that’s how close a friend he is.
If it wasn’t wearing T-shirts from 1986, there were still lingering effects and notable flashes to the team that kids could love, some more painful than others. My personally painful example came when I was playing football in my front yard on a chilly, fall New England evening, 2 on 2 of course, no pads…like 11 years old. When it came time for the extra point I tried to show off and I kicked the almost frozen ball barefooted like Tony Franklin.
Lets just say that was a mistake I never made again. For a while I was timid to kick a halfway inflated soccer ball barefooted, even on a mild summer afternoon.
By the time 1990 came around I was a seasoned fan—although Sundays were pretty tame for me in those days, and Patriots games weren’t always the feature of the networks like they are today. Author Ken Knight points out that “From 1988 through 1990, the New England Patriots were mired in a seventeen consecutive home game blackout streak.”
If you are going to like your local team even when you can only see half their games on television, you really have to want to like the team. I’m happy to say, looking back on that drawing in 1990, my actions proved that something really excited me about the New England Patriots. The team had just gone 5 and 11 and the upcoming season they would go 1 and 15.
I stayed at that Pizza Hut in Lowell for hours with my aunt filling out these forms; name, address, home number—they didn’t ask for email or cell back then—until my hand was sore and there was no pizza left.
A couple days later, I went back with my mother and we filled out more slips.
The entry deadline passed and what felt like an eternity was probably only a couple of months later when I found out that my name had been drawn. Week 8 against the Buffalo Bills was MINE.
As part of the prize, I could bring four more people, I would get a tour of the erstwhile Foxoboro Stadium, I would get a team autographed ball, some media and other press materials, five tickets to the game, passes to watch the game from the sidelines, a T-shirt that announced my role as the Pizza Hut Tee Boy, and of course, after the Patriots kicked off to Buffalo I would run out on the field and pick up the Tee.
We got to the Stadium pretty early in the day, there was no tailgating for us, it was all business. Standing tall, I led my guests into the Patriots offices after declaring our presence to security and before long we were on a tour of the brick and mortar team headquarters.
After making it down to the locker rooms we took the team’s well traveled route to the playing field, and my friends and I sprinted immediately.
I noticed things that day that I would never see on television, that the field was pitched down toward the sidelines to drain water from the playing field; the distance between the stands and the field was much further than it looked on from a higher point of view, the angle of the seats from field level, they seemed to be stacked straight upward on top of each other. As I strode toward the far end zone it felt like a professional NFL yard was so much longer than the yards at my school’s football field. After the type of run that epitomized the fantastic transient spirit of youth I will always look at the NFL’s gridiron with some familiarity and also a great deal of respect.
Before long I was directed to the sideline for the video promo; they recorded me in an empty stadium running out to a naked Tee at midfield, where I picked it up and ran back to the sideline and smiled into the biggest camera I’ve ever seen, it seemed to have more moving parts than the Batmobile.
Did I say empty stadium? Well not quite…there was a beefy human running laps around the field, a massive physical specimen with agility.
I didn’t want to bother him, but I had just collected the Tee for the video promotion and the cameraman was directing me to stand still on the sideline and smile. I was standing directly in the middle of the large NFL player’s circuit, only seconds away.
I was caught like a deer in headlights and to this day I don’t know if the camera got what would happen next. Adam Lingner, #63 was an offensive lineman for the Buffalo Bills and he absolutely manhandled me, picking me up like an empty potato sack and he hoisted me over his shoulder and continued to run for a few yards.
If you were to ask me, at what moment did the Buffalo Bills become my second favorite NFL team, that would be it.
I composed myself eventually, and for long enough to get the publicity shot that would be featured on the huge Diamond vision screen, and over the next few hours the stadium filled and I prepared myself for the coin toss.
As the teams came out and took the field the action was a blur from eye level. The speed was blinding and they were only practicing.
I watched Marc Wilson and Steve Grogan play catch on the sidelines and with no effort the huge football shot out from their perfected release points. It was a windy day and the perfect spirals moved from release to target with little turbulence.
Standing on the the sideline and looking at 53 professional football players is pretty intimidating for a 12 year old kid but there was so much to take in—the mosaic audience was a visual puzzle but to the ear, it blended together into a monster that could erupt at any moment. I learned about the interplay between the television and the game itself, that commercial timeouts had to be yielded their fair pragmatic sanctions. Behind the bustling line of players along the sidelines I noticed for the first time a dotted line that reminded me of Les Nessman’s office on WKRP in Cincinnati reruns.
Security and staff treated this line as sternly as Les Nessman treated his office, I was not allowed inside for any reason, even if I knocked.
I held my breath during the coin toss and the Patriots took the ball first, so my moment in the sun would have to wait until halftime. I led my faithful guests to our complimentary seats and we sat there for about five minutes before we realized that we had passes to stand on the sideline, we might as well get back down there and enjoy the once in a lifetime opportunity.
I was on the Bills sideline when something hit me on top of the head and felt like a football. I was jostled, my eyes shook a little bit in my skull.
It was a roll of toilet paper. This is where I learned not to taunt the masses, I turned around and faced that mosaic again and there was no way to identify the miscreant who just hit me on top of the head with a pin-point throw. I clenched my jaw and turned back around, it would be years before I could give that phantom some props for toilet paper accuracy.
Before long I was distracted by the awe of the moment, and a game in which Thurman Thomas dominated. He would go on to lead the league in yards from scrimmage and be the most reliable weapon heading in to the Super Bowl against the Giants.
I talked a lot of trash that year because in fact, in Week 8, when the Patriots hosted the Bills I stood about three feet from Thomas, just across a dotted line on the ground. I told him “Good game Thurman” and he gave me a thumbs up.
He must have known I was the Tee Boy. Pizza Hut. Official.
When the first half came to a close we went over to the Patriot's sideline and I defiantly crossed the dotted line into the empty players and coaches section and sat on the bench. Unlike my and many other schools, their bench had a long bag of hot air behind it, being filled by a wind powered heating unit, so that hot air would blow out underneath the bench and warm up your legs if you were sitting there.
And we were sitting there. And it was cold, and the hot air felt great, so my friends and I put our feet inside the heated air vent—it wasn’t dramatically hot because we weren’t close to the heat source, and it made halftime seem to fly by.
Halftime passed so quickly in fact, that we forgot that the players would come back out of the locker rooms with plenty of time to spare, so there I was with my feet in their heating unit, on their bench, and a herd of red and white came thundering in my direction. I remember struggling to get my feet out of the heating vent without falling down or getting caught, it wasn’t a very close call, but it sure felt like it.
Before long the Patriots were lining up for kick off and my big moment was here, I watched the ball soar away into the sky and get lost in the crowd, then a mess of jerseys meshed together and the action heeded to a series of whistles, and I was off. I don’t remember running out there or picking it up or running back, and it was over as quickly as it began.
My promotional video was shown on the Diamond vision screen, the crowd acknowledged the PR move by Pizza Hut and the Patriots and somewhere a clandestine group of toilet paper thieves and archers celebrated their own efforts.
I stayed on the sideline as long as I could, reading the names on the jerseys; Mosi Tatupu, Irving Fryar, Hart Lee Dykes, trying to watch the plays develop from field level, watching the team recycle itself and pause, then jolt into action again for a few moments, and as the lights came on and the sun went down I took with me an unforgettable template of NFL reference.
The long wait to leave the parking lot was not a chore but a journey into the next part of my life, not as a new Patriots fan, but one a bit more blessed than most.
That was the best 1 and 15 season I could have asked for, and its 2009 - that autographed team ball rests about a foot and a half away from my computer.