- Tuck Rule Game 15 Years Later – From a Fan’s Perspective
A CHARMED SPORTS FAN’S LIFE: I have been fortunate enough to have witnessed many defining and memorable sporting events in person. One could say I have lived a charmed sport’s fan’s life. From witnessing Carl “Yaz” Yastrzemski’s 400th home run and 3,000th hit, Jim Rice’s first career hit in 1974 and even Hank Aaron’s only Fenway Park Home Run in ’75. I’ve also been to a number of memorable Bruins and Celtics games as well as some very memorable Patriots games over the years. I was even positioned just off of the 17th green at The Country Club in Brookline when Justin Leonard sank an incredible, impossible looking putt to cap the most improbable comeback in Ryder Cup history! But for the longest time, the pinnacle of my most memorable, historic games was the October 2, 1978 one game playoff game for the Sox against the Yankees, aka the Bucky “Bleeping” Dent game back when I was 15 years old. That was, until that fateful Saturday night, on January 19, 2002 when the New England Patriots squared off against the Oakland Raiders in a first round playoff game! Earlier this week marked the 15th anniversary of that fateful night and here is my story of bearing witness to that historic game which marked the birth of the Patriots dynasty!
TICKETS & A FIREPLACE: I had gotten tickets from a friend early that week and by mid-week, the extended forecast was calling for snow for that Saturday night. Already knowing the answer, but doing the “right thing” (marriage-wise), I asked my wife Kathy if she wanted to go to the game with me. She laughed and pointed to the fireplace, wished me luck as she told me that she’d be curled up on the couch, all warm and cozy, while I was freezing my assets off!
THE HISTORIC OLD STADIUM: Fast forward to Saturday night. My brother and I met up with one of our other brothers, who’d gotten an early start on tailgating, before heading into the old concrete pit, known as Foxboro Stadium. The stadium, formerly known as Schaefer Stadium & Sullivan Stadium, was infamous for it’s steely cold bench seats that were as uncomfortable as they were cold (and wet). The old stadium had a date with a bulldozer the following day, so I knew that this night would be remembered from a sort of historic point of view But we had no idea the magnitude or impact on NFL history that laid ahead on this snowy New England night on January 19, 2002!
INSIDE THE WINTRY STADIUM: I turned on my Sony Watchman and ignored the little 3” screen as I plugged in my earphones so I could listen to the TV announcers, Greg Gumbel and Phil Simms. If I remember correctly, we were in Section 124, which put us even with the back of the The snow had already been falling for a while as the game kicked off. It wasn’t the coldest game I’ve been to, the January 2004 Divisional Playoff game vs the Jags and the 2013 November 24th game vs the Broncos come to mind. (That’s the night that the Patriots overcame a 24-0 halftime deficit to beat Peyton Manning’s Broncos in OT).
THE FIRST HALF: Still, the weather was not pleasant and it just got worse as the game moved along. The first quarter saw little offense, though the Patriots first drive got them deep into Raiders territory before they turned it over on downs. Then, late in the 1st quarter, the Raiders scored to take a 7-0 lead. An interception by Oakland that they were unable to capitalize on was followed by 6 punts between the 2 teams before the half closed out at 7-0. And by the way, everyone stood that whole half and really through the whole game. Admittedly, partly because those nasty aluminum seats were so damn cold and caked with snow, but mostly because that’s how playoffs go around here, at least back then.
THE 3rd QUARTER: The second half started out promising as the Patriots drove down the field to the Raiders 5-yard line. But the long, time-consuming drive stalled out and they had to settle for an Adam Vinatieri field goal to cut the Raiders lead to 7-3. The Patriots did nothing on their next two drives while the next 2 Raiders’ drives both ended with Sebastian Janikowski field goals to give the Raiders a 10 point cushion.
THE 4th QUARTER COMEBACK BEGINS: Down 13-3 the Patriots went 3-and-out as neither team could really move the ball as the weather worsened and the game eventually rolled over to the 4th quarter. The Raiders went quietly once again and the Pats got the ball back. I remember thinking they needed to show some kind of life if they had any chance to come back from 10 points down given the horrific, snow-covered field conditions and the ticking game clock. To be honest, watching plays that occurred past the opposite 30 yard line, was tough. As the snow swirled, we could make out blobs of blue and white jerseys as a play unfolded, but making out details or tracking the ball down the other end of the field was next to impossible. But forever being an optimist, I was excited because I knew that if they were to mount a comeback, they’d be doing it down our end of the field!
WIGGINS & A BRADY FACE PLANT: Immediately, the Patriots began to move the ball downfield on that drive. I felt like every pass play went to Jermaine Wiggins. In truth, only 4 of the 10 plays went his way, but it seemed like all of a sudden, this forgotten man in the passing game had morphed into Russ Francis and had become Brady’s go-to guy. They moved the ball inside the 10 yard line and boom, Tom Brady takes off up the middle on second down from the 6 and gallops into the endzone for the touchdown! But the sweetest part is that his semi-iconic spike that resulted into a “Face-plant into the snow” was right down in front of us! Suddenly, it’s 13-10 Raiders with just under 8 minutes to go!
THE BIG STOP: Yikes, the next Raider drive stalled around mid-field but it chewed up about 4 minutes. The Patriots followed with a punt after a short drive. Everyone knew they needed a big stop if they had any hope to win. The Raiders ran twice to set up a 3rd and one around the 45 yard line, with the Pats burning a timeout after each run. The Raider try to ram the ball right up the gut. Did we stop them? I knew it was close, at the very least, but through the driving snow and the distance and angle we were at, we couldn’t tell. It was hard to hear the play-by-play of Gumbel and Simms from my Walkman most of the game because of the buzz of the crowd and this play was no exception. I could make out one of their voices rising emphatically but I didn’t know if it was because the Raiders made it to all but seal the game or that we’d stopped them and still had life. It seemed like eternity they I anxiously waited to find out, but it was truly less than a second, because the stands on each side of the line of scrimmage erupted all at once. They had a bird’s eyes view and knew almost instantly that the Patriots indeed still had life with just over 2 minutes left to play.
FUMBLE, GAME OVER: I had no idea that the anxiety and roller coaster of emotions on that drive was going to pale in comparison to the high anxiety and drastic swing of emotions were in for just a few plays later. First two plays result in quick first down near mid-field with about 1:50 left in the game. The drama is building, there’s plenty of time to score a TD to win or even get close enough to try a field goal. Honestly, not many of us were thinking field goal at that point. The field was covered with several inches of snow, the wind was swirling, snow was still coming down heavily; a field goal didn’t seem makeable in those conditions, at least not a long one! Then it happens, Brady drops back, oh sh%#! here comes a blind-side blitz and just as he pump fakes, BOOM, he gets hit (by Charles Woodson) and the ball squirts out and we watch in horror as a white-shirted #54 (Greg Biekert) falls on the ball for the Raiders! GAME OVER! My heart sank, my chin dropped to my chest as I let out a long, pronounced sigh. ‘It’s over!’
A MASS EXODUS AVERTED BY A WATCHMAN: Fans all around me begin sliding toward the exits. I pull out my Watchman to check out the replay and possibly to hear the announcers. During the game, I had only viewed it to watch key replays or when the ball was deep down the other end of the field due to the visibility issue from the snow. I catch one of the announcers postulating that it was a fumble. I later came to learn that it was Simms. Then, as the replay is being shown on the screen, I hear Phil Simms’s voice rise and there’s a tell-tale tone to his voice, that “hold on a minute” tone. My heart instantly went into overdrive due to the sudden “change” in Phil’s voice via the anxiety, new hope and the sudden urge to scream out, “wait a minute, it’s not a fumble,” as I hear Simms mumbling about not knowing what it’s called but it’s not a fumble. Well, it was more than an urge because evidently that’s exactly what I screamed out! Instantly, I had 30-40 people hovering over my shoulder, trying to get a glimpse of the replay on the little 3” screen I was holding in my now shaking, gloved hand!
A REVERSAL OF FORTUNE: By now, Phil Simms is convinced it’s going to be overturned, but no one else can hear what I am hearing through my earphones. I felt the piercing eyes of those around me. God forbid I’m wrong, because I suddenly felt like I was on the hook for the call and the mob around me was a little antsy! Referee Walt Coleman’s mic comes on and I don’t think he even got halfway through his announcement, “the quarterback’s arm was going forward,” <insert loud roar > “it is an incomplete pass,” with the crowd went nuts. I took a pounding from that mob around me anyway, but I didn’t mind, it was one of those old school “great job” poundings that you get every now and then in sports, lol. It’s game on!
I CAN’T TAKE ANYMORE: I’m thinking, ‘please God, no more crazy, emotional swings, let’s just win this thing!’ But of course there was still more in store for us! The drive continued without any Patriot timeouts left and a few plays later they moved it to around the 30 yard line on a pass to David Patten that gave them a first down with about 1:20 or so to go. After 2 incompletions, I was shocked that Brady then imply dove forward on 3rd down, to position the ball for a field goal attempt. I figured they would take a crack to at least move it a lot closer, rather than attempt a 45 yard field goal in the deplorable conditions. But I figured wrong and out came Vinatieri to attempt a 45 yard field goal that carried a degree of difficulty of, “nearly impossible!” Of course, the Raiders try to ice Vinatieri as Coach John Gruden called timeout. We watch as a handful of Patriots’ players start trying to clear away snow with their feet around the spot where Vinatieri would kick from.
THE HAND OF GOD: Now this is the point I should mention that from where I was sitting, you could have drawn a straight, line, parallel to the ground, from my eyes to the crossbar of the goal posts. Vinatieri waits, there’s the snap, the hold and Adam kicks what appears to be a low, waffling knuckleball. “Oh my God,” I’m thinking as the strange looking kick sends a low line drive just over the Raiders’ helmets, it appeared. When the ball was half way, on its oh so fluttery path toward the endzone, my heart sank again, as my shoulders hunched and my chin hit my chest again in an acknowledgement of defeat. I am looking at the height of the ball, the trajectory, the speed and the fluttering of the ball and then looking at the crossbar and distance the ball had yet to travel and I am totally, TOTALLY convinced that there is no way the ball has the ‘oomph’ to make it that far. As I explained, seemingly thousands of times, when retelling this story, it was as if the unseen hand of God kept the ball aloft longer than it should have, guiding it the extra 10 yards or so, before dropping it gently over the crossbar. Because there is no other logical explanation, in my eyes anyway! I was numb, I think everyone there was numb. Given the conditions of that night and given the magnitude and the see-saw of emotions in that game, to say that Adam Vinatieri’s kick was THE most clutch kick in the history has to be uncontested! (Cross) bar none!
KICK STARTING A DYNASTY: The rest of the game was a foregone conclusion. There was no way the Patriots were going to be denied. The Raiders were emotionally & mentally drained and the Patriots were riding all the momentum, capped off by them winning the coin toss to begin overtime. Brady and Wiggins continued their magic and Antoine Smith ran like the beast that he was. And of course it ended with another clutch Vinatieri field goal to cap off the first drive in OT to kick start the dynasty!
WAS IT WORTH IT?: We’ll never know whether there would have ever been a Patriots dynasty or not had it not been for that game. We’ll never know if Tom Brady would have reached the pinnacle of being an All-Time great, had they lost that game. But it was definitely a defining moment for both the team and for Brady and a nation of Patriots fans! A few hours later, I walk into the house where my wife is still curled up by the fireplace. AS I walk through the doorway, my jacket is still caked with frozen snow on the shoulders and collar, my lucky, Sam Gash signed hat also is capped off with snow. Ice crystals are still evident on my mustache and the ends of my hair. She looks at me and laughingly asks me, “was it worth it?” Without hesitation I raised my fist and bellowed, “You bet your ass it was!” And that sentiment only grows stronger year after year as they dynasty continues and the magnitude of that game takes its place in NFL history.
A VICTORY OF BIBLICAL PROPORTIONS: To this day, I still get goose bumps remembering that tying kick by Vinatieri and how I still can not rationalize how it made it over the crossbar. I had a perfect view to gauge the trajectory, speed, etc., and I knew with 100% certainty that it was NOT going to make it. But somehow, whether a subtle gust of wind or other atmospheric phenomena, the ball did find a way to snuggle over the crossbar. Myself? I like to think that it was some kind of Heavenly intervention as the ball, wafting in the air, was ultimately carried by the “Hand of God” for the last 15 to 20 yards before being gently dropped over the crossbar! Then, a short time later, as the game winning kick burst through the uprights, that the game would be punctuated by long snapper, Lonie Paxton racing into the endzone where he plopped himself into the snow to make a snow Angel! How apropos!!!