Today’s New England Patriots are football royalty. But a quarter-century ago, the franchise nearly moved halfway across the country. From those uncertain days emerged a mid-’90s team that won the fans back and changed the narrative on Patriots football.
Part one of a three-part series.
On Jan. 26, 1997 – 25 years ago – the Green Bay Packers won Super Bowl XXXI. The indelible images of the night include Brett Favre running with his helmet aloft, Desmond Howard alone in a sea of green turf, and the scoreboard displaying a 35-21 final as Reggie White thrust the Lombardi trophy in the direction of the Superdome roof.
The Packers’ opponent in New Orleans had been 14-point underdogs. They lost by 14. And when all was said and done, the AFC had come up short against the NFC for a 13th consecutive time.
But those snapshots and numbers don’t tell the story of the 1996 New England Patriots.
Twenty-five years of unprecedented success later, it’s easy to forget just how much the team meant to the region.
“That season’s not talked about enough,” says former Pats All-Pro and Super Bowl champ Lawyer Milloy. “That was the beginning.”
As three-time Super Bowl champion Ted Johnson notes, “You can’t tell the story of the 2001 Patriots without talking about the 1996 Patriots.”
It almost didn’t happen.
Defensive back Willie McGinest #55 and linebacker Chris Slade #53 both of the New England Patriots jump for joy at the Patriots stopping the Jacksonville Jaguars on the 4th down in the AFC Championship game at Foxboro Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts on Jan. 12, 1997. The Patriots won 20-16. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
Rewind another four years, to the winter of 1993. The Pats hadn’t made the playoffs in six years. They’d lost a combined 50 games over the previous four seasons. They were last in attendance. Third-to-last in merchandise sales. A franchise that had made it to the ‘86 Super Bowl (their lone appearance in team history) had faded into obscurity.
“The Patriots were No. 4 [on the Boston pro sports scene] in a big way,” Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy told the Kraftwork podcast in 2018.
“I didn’t watch the Patriots much growing up in Southern California,” Johnson remembers. “They weren’t on much.”
“I didn’t really know anything about who played in New England or what major city it was near,” admits Milloy. “I got drafted and was like – oh, s***, I’m going to London somewhere.”
The stadium was as nondescript as the team. The Pats toiled in one of the worst venues in the league: a facility built on the cheap in way back in 1971. It hadn’t aged well, and you could probably say the same for some of the fans of who inhabited it.
“The place was a s***hole and everybody was drunk,” remembers Joe Murray, co-host for Patriots postgame coverage on 98.5 The Sports Hub. “It was crazy. I had a buddy at a Dolphins game who wore a Dan Marino shirt and got punched in the face. He didn’t say or do anything. He just had a Miami Dolphins shirt, and got punched in the face.”
“No seats, just a sliver of metal bench,” recalls Pats fan Brian Brickley of Acton. “The benches would burn your ass when the sun was shining and froze when the temperatures dropped.”
“There was nothing to like about the stadium. The most charm the place had was the greyhound track in the parking lot.”