Early Patriots Were a Comical Traveling Sideshow
The Patriots played at Fenway Park in the 1960s.
The New England Patriots play in a $325 million palatial stadium complex, their star quarterback appears on fashion billboards nationwide and the team has won three Super Bowls. They are one of the N.F.L.’s glamour franchises and a model for the prosperous professional sports operation.
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When the Patriots played at Boston College in 1970, a fire broke out in the stands.
But the resemblance between the polished, 21st century Patriots and their antecedents who began in 1960 as the Boston Patriots is almost incomprehensible. Those early Patriots, charter members of the upstart American Football League, were unheralded nomads, more like a traveling circus that won games by hook or crook on a shoestring budget. Most memorably, or endearingly, the Patriots had a knack for peculiar outcomes, comedic episodes and continuingly imperfect karma, even in the best of times.
How humble and bizarre were the Patriots’ beginnings?
In one of their earliest games, a fan ran into the end zone to bat down an opponent’s last-play, game-tying touchdown pass attempt. The fan then retreated, vanishing into the crowd with a Patriots victory assured.
In another game, the stands caught on fire, interrupting play as evacuating fans congregated at the 50-yard line. Several other Patriots games were delayed by power outages, impromptu snowball fights or referees who refused to take the field until they were paid. In one memorable pregame sequence, an ex-player was plucked from the stands to suit up, then made the tackle on the opening kickoff.
The team’s practice site was a grassless high school field. For more than a decade, the Patriots’ home field changed so often that tickets were sometimes printed without listing a location for the game. It could end up being any of the Patriots’ “home” sites: Boston University, Fenway Park, Boston College, Harvard Stadium, even San Diego or Birmingham, Ala.
“There were elements of Mel Brooks mixed with Knute Rockne,” said Richard Johnson, the curator for the Sports Museum in Boston. “The Patriots were the underdog team in an underdog league. But there was also a Horatio Alger aspect to it all; they persevered and found their place.”
But not without some notable fits and starts. One of the home games in the first season drew only 8,446 fans. “And most of those tickets were given away free at local supermarkets,” said Larry Eisenhauer, a Patriots defensive end in the 1960s.
The first two Patriots seasons were played at Boston University Field, which a few years earlier had been Braves Field, home to the National League’s Boston Braves. It was a cold, windy spot beside the Charles River, but on Nov. 3, 1961, it became famous in Boston sports history for “the man in the trench coat.”
Clinging to a 28-21 lead over the Dallas Texans, the Patriots were trying to make a last-second goal-line stand. Dallas quarterback Cotton Davidson threw into the end zone from the 1-yard line for wide receiver Chris Burford. Fans standing on the field had crowded five deep around the perimeter of the end zone, and one — reputedly wearing a trench coat — suddenly leapt forward and swatted at the ball.
“Then all the fans rushed the field and it was like everyone wasn’t sure what they saw,” Eisenhauer said this week. “But we watched the film on Monday and we saw this guy jump from the crowd and knock it down.”
For years thereafter, Patriots owner Billy Sullivan, who was commonly seen in a London Fog-style trench coat, was rumored to be the Patriots’ 12th man on the play. Famously, Sullivan never denied it.
In 1963, the Patriots moved to Fenway Park. They walked into the Red Sox locker room and gaped at what had been Ted Williams’s locker.
“We felt like we were legitimate because it was a major league venue,” Gino Cappelletti, a wide receiver and kicker from 1960 to 1970, said. “But we still had a ways to go.”
At Fenway, one goal post was positioned on the third-base line with the other goal post in front of the bleachers in right field. A temporary grandstand seating about 5,000 was assembled in front of the left-field Green Monster.
To prevent one team from blocking the view of the low-rising seats along the first-base line, both teams’ benches were on the sideline in front of the Green Monster grandstand.