Boston is a city soaked in nostalgia. We hold our history dear — from the Battle of Bunker Hill to the rise of the Kennedy clan — but perhaps nothing is more important to this city than its sports history. Much like the shot heard ‘round the world and the Boston Tea Party, Boston sports aren’t just notable within the confines of route 93, they’re inextricable from the history of the sports themselves. In a state that’s home to teams from all four major professional leagues, only one is absent from its sports’ origin story—The New England Patriots. Boston rejected football for decades while it slowly took hold in the surrounding region. This is not a football city, but the Patriots are our most popular professional sports team, and that’s the Patriots paradox.
Professional football came to Boston in 1929, the year the Bruins won their first Stanley Cup championship. The team was called the Boston Bulldogs and they lasted one season. Three years later, the Boston Braves Trojan-horsed their way into the sports scene by choosing the same name as the popular Boston baseball team. The Braves soon relocated to Fenway Park and became the Boston Redskins in homage to New York’s corrupt political machine, Tammany Hall.
Redskins owner George Preston Marshall was so frustrated with the lack of local support that he forfeited the Redskins’ championship home field advantage against the Green Bay Packers and moved the game to New York, where he knew attendance would be better. The next year, in 1936, he took his team out of Boston altogether and settled in DC. His
parting words were, “We certainly don’t owe Boston much after the shabby treatment we received.” From 1944 to 1948 one more football team would try, and fail, to make it in Boston. The Boston Yanks played to sparse crowds depleted by the WWII draft until the team’s owner requested a complete dissolution of the franchise so he could start fresh in New York. It would be 12 years before football dared to make another go in a disinterested Boston.
The Boston Patriots played their first game in 1960 on BU’s Nickerson Field. In a city of storied venues, from Fenway Park to the Garden, the Patriots didn’t even have their own field. They drifted from park to park for ten years. They had a greater following than the Bulldogs, Braves, Redskins and Yanks, but none of the respect given to the Celtics, Bruins and Red Sox. When owner Billy Sullivan decided to legitimize the team by building them a home stadium, mayor Kevin White denied his request. Sullivan had a few locations in mind for the field, but when even his suggestion of building on a Dorchester dump was rejected, it became clear that the Patriots were not wanted in the city of Boston.
Cast-off by Boston, Sullivan considered relocating his team to Birmingham, Alabama before a free parcel of land became available in Foxborough. This move outside of the city limits came with a name change. When Schaefer Stadium opened in 1971, the Boston Patriots officially dropped the city that had already rejected them and became the New England Patriots. The stadium was a cheaply built, skeletal structure. The toilets overflowed and were supplemented by porto-potties, the metal benches often froze and the parking lot was unpaved. Named after a frat-house beer, it was a stadium of low standards.
The Patriots were largely unremarkable through the 70’s and 80’s. They made the playoffs a few times and competed in the 1985 Super Bowl, but it wasn’t until Bill Parcells was hired in 1993 and Robert Kraft bought the team that the Patriots began to gain momentum. Once Bill Belichick came on as head coach in 2000 it became clear the momentum was driving towards greatness. Since the millennium, the Patriots have won 4 Super Bowl championships. Their success, combined with football’s indisputable take over of America and Tom Brady’s superstar turn as a quarterback, officially solidified the Patriots as New England’s favored team.
To be a sport town requires deep-seated history. Two decades ago, Boston and football barely had a relationship. Again and again, the city pushed the sport away, turning down every opportunity to become a football town, and as a result there’s not a football legacy here. The New England Patriots are a product of the modern age, conceived in 1959 during the era of shopping malls and suburban sprawl. There’s no grainy black-and-white photo or swirling origin story surrounding their beginnings because they’re as old as you are. Or, they’re as old as your parents. The Patriots are Boston’s favorite team, but it’s not yet a football town because their legacy is growing in real time. Soon, it’ll be inextricable from the history of Boston in the 2000’s, but right now it’s our present.