NEW BOSTON, New Hampshire ó One second everyoneís chanting ó "Itís o-ver! Itís o-ver!" ó the next theyíre scrambling.
The big TV has gone black just as officials appear to be getting ready to confirm that the Patriots-Bears game is, in fact, all but over. The connection has gone out, with the exquisite, painful, seemingly sentient timing of cable TV.
It takes a few seconds for us to figure out whatís happened. Then thereís a rush to change the channel on the little TV and adjust the rabbit ears on top of it.
A rough picture forms just in time for us to see the Patriots lining up to try a two-point conversion. And though weíve missed the actual announcement, the fact that the game is progressing this way means the refs have upheld David Pattenís huge go-ahead touchdown catch. Thereís an excited cheer before we snap to silence, bottling the urge to celebrate the Patsí win until itís just a little closer to certain.
The Patriots, up 31-30, are attempting to bump their lead to three points with 21 seconds to play. If they pull off the two-point conversion this time (their previous attempt ó a mere two minutes of game time ago ó had been stopped short), Chicago wonít be able to win at the end of regulation with a field goal.
This is big. Teams win NFL games on wacky plays in the closing seconds all the time. And while the guys gathered here have been as unfalteringly confident in their team as any Patriots fans Iíve ever seen, believing even through the darkest periods of an extremely difficult game, thereís no such thing as a professional football fan who doesnít know that games this close are never over until the clock ticks down to :00.
Itís tough to score a touchdown in 21 seconds, but itís anything but unheard-of for a team to steal a long field goal with that kind of time. If the Pats succeed here, itíll mean that the long field goal would do nothing but tie it. And everyone watching this game ó in New England and in Illinois ó knows the Pats would win in overtime.
They make the conversion this time. Tom Brady hits Troy Brown to pick up the two points. The Pats are up 33-30. And here, in the basement of Keith Gentiliís colonial in the woods of New Boston, eight thirtysomething men commence a dancing, hugging, high-fiving, laughing, and yelling celebration most of the sports world is better off for not having witnessed.
All I can do is sit gape-jawed, awed by the Patsí impressive comeback ó they had trailed Chicago 27-6 with less than seven minutes remaining in the third quarter ó a little scared by my fellow fans' celebration (part of me wishes my wife were here, just so she could see that other guys do victory dances as goofy as my own) and mindful of the fact that there are still those 21 seconds to play.
Keith emerges from the celebration, giant grin dominating his flushed, round face. He takes a step toward me, bends down just enough to make it clear heís addressing me, laughs, and says, "I think theyíre fucked." My words from earlier in the quarter, when things looked a good bit less rosy for the Pats.
As usual, Iím the last person in the room to start believing in the Pats (in fact, Iím still 21 seconds away from it); as usual, Iíve expressed this (though this time only because I was asked); and as usual, at least when the Pats win, itís coming back at me.
Iím okay with that today. Iíve been here long enough to have more confidence in my assessment that Keith and his buddies are a good-natured lot than Iíll ever have in any football team. I can take a little playful ribbing from this kind of crowd, especially given how great it is to have been wrong.
ITíS BEEN a busy afternoon here in the basement. Busy as NFL game days go, anyhow.
Thereís been a steady stream of food ó chicken, sausage, ribs, shrimp, pizza ó since, I suspect, long before I arrived at three oíclock. There have been dart games. Thereís been an almost continuous round of this game Keith invented involving a ring, a piece of string, and some hooks screwed into a two-by-four that hangs from one of the ceiling joists above. And there have been Strat-O-Matic baseball match-ups playing out all over the basement since I arrived. Itís opening weekend in Keithís Strat-O-Matic Old-Timers league, and guys have been getting some of their games played while theyíre all together.
Strat-O-Matic is the Dungeons & Dragons of the fantasy-sports universe ó with a lot more yelling and a lot less pewter. Sports geeks gather in basements all over America with statistical charts for their teams (usually current teams, but in this case itís classic squads, mostly World Series contenders, like the í67 Red Sox and í54 Indians) and play games based on strategies too complicated to absorb in a single November afternoon and executed by rolling dice and interpreting the rolls against team stats.
I donít play Strat-O-Matic. Iím not playing anything today. What Iíve been doing, when I havenít been watching football, is learning about the world of sports collectibles. Thatís Keithís business. A former editor of a collectibles magazine called Tuff Stuff, Keith currently works as director of hobby sales for Pacific Trading Cards, a manufacturer of hockey and football cards.
There are two basic categories of sports cards, Keith explains. Thereís retail, the cards you can buy at the discount department stores and corner drug stores; theyíre priced to move. And thereís hobby, higher-end cards sold (for between $3 and $20 a pack) at specialty stores. Keith has something of a dream job for a sports nut. He creates events for hobby-card dealers, which means he spends a lot of time traveling to cities across the country and hobnobbing with people who have tickets to see their home teams. All of which means that Keith gets to go to a lot of pro-sports events. And ó this is the one that evokes my envy ó he gets to go to the Super Bowl every year.
Of course, thereís danger in turning something you love into the way you make your living. Itís one thing to get excited about a team or a game, to collect cards, autographed photos, and whatnot. Itís quite another to tie your mortgage payment to the hope that other people will share your passion. And even in businesses where the economics are likely to work out, thereís always the risk that the thing you so enjoy will become nothing more than your job. In Keithís case, itís the risk that watching a game will become so indistinguishable from working that itís no longer fun.
Keith has experienced a little bit of that. He confesses to skipping Super Bowl XXXV (Ravens-Giants), partly because heíd had enough of the New York fans after two weeks of trading-card events, but mainly because he just wanted to get home. It hasnít affected his lifelong passion for the Patriots, though.
He canít explain that. He canít say why heís able to watch the entire Pats game without once mentioning work; or why, having seen innumerable games, heís able to get as excited about this event as anyone else in the room. Itís just working out for him. And heís not about to pick it apart.
ALTHOUGH KEITH and I have never met before today, he knows where my head is at when it comes to football. We played in the same fantasy-football league a few seasons back. Weíve spoken on the phone a couple times. And Keith has been reading this column. So he knows Iím a nonbeliever. He knows exactly how reluctant I am to jump on the Patriots bandwagon.
Thatís why he turned to me earlier, during an argument over whether the Pats should have accepted a holding call against the Bears late in the fourth quarter. With the Pats trailing 27-19, the Bears were facing a fourth down at the Patriotsí 16-yard line. It could have been a third down at the 26 if the Pats had taken the penalty, giving the Bears an extra opportunity to pick up the first down, but making it more difficult to hit a field goal if they failed. The Pats declined, allowing Bears kicker Paul Edinger to hit an easy chip shot to make it 30-19.
The guys divided over whether Patriots coach Bill Belichick made the right call on the penalty. I simply sat back, taking it in, assuming it didnít much matter (that the Pats were out of the game anyhow) until Keith sucked me into it. "What do you think?" he asked.
I said what popped into my head: "I think theyíre fucked."
It was less than three minutes of game time later that those words began coming back at me.
When the Pats scored with 2:36 remaining in the game to close the gap to five points, Keith looked at me sideways and whispered the sentence back to me, an oddball, inexplicable confidence that his team was anything but fucked shining out of his eyes. I thought about pointing out that the Pats had just missed a key two-point conversion (which would have brought them to within three points), but there was something about Keithís certainty that stopped me.
When the refs overturned an interception that would have handed Chicago the game (calling it an incomplete pass, which gave the ball back to the Pats), Keith glanced at me, saying nothing but thinking it hard enough that I could feel it.
And now, with 21 seconds to play and the outcome all but certain, thereís no reason Keith shouldnít just come right out and say it. Heís earned it ó and so have I.
I keep my sense of humor about me. "I guess theyíre not fucked," I admit.
Keith laughs, then gets back to celebrating with his buddies.
Thereís a little bit of staring at the little TV just to make sure. Then with the final seconds ticking off the game clock, guys start getting ready to leave. Itís getting late ó 20 minutes to eight oíclock ó and most of us have long drives ahead (New Boston isnít close to anything).
Something strikes me as I head for the door. "Seems like the kind of comeback that can turn a whole season around," I say, hardly believing the words are coming out of my mouth.
"Youíre right," Keith answers. "It does."
But Iím as committed a skeptic as Keith is a fan. So as I walk down the long, dark driveway to the street, I canít help but wonder if those words wonít come back to haunt me too.
Sean Glennon is a freelance writer living in Northampton. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.