FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — In the N.F.L. community, one word might be feared more than any other: Foxborough.
It is where the rosy Super Bowl dreams of visiting teams die a frosty death each January. It is where the New England Patriots, before a raucous southeastern Massachusetts home crowd, rarely lose a playoff game (this century’s postseason record there is 19-3).
It is where N.F.L. road teams are not only defeated, but rejected under peculiar circumstances. See: Deflategate, Tom Brady and the tuck rule.
How did out-of-the way, small-town Foxborough, of all places, come to be synonymous with heartache in N.F.L. cities from coast to coast while blossoming into a shrine to comprehensive Patriots glory?
The Patriots, after all, came to Foxborough in 1971 only because no one else wanted them. It helped that the stadium land, 30 miles south of Boston, was free.
Foxborough (population: 17,000) remains firmly rooted in its pre-Patriots past, with dairy cows visible from the top of Gillette Stadium. Without a doubt, Foxborough is the oddest place to bear witness to recurring N.F.L. history, simply because no one here can agree on how to spell the town’s name.
Since 1778, by decree, in all authorized documents and on all town buildings, it has been spelled Foxborough. But almost immediately after that became official, many institutions in the town — banks, businesses, even the local newspaper — decided it was easier to go by Foxboro. In a quintessential example of New England persistence, the argument has endured for centuries: There are now signs with both spellings throughout the village.
However the name is spelled, Foxborough residents know their little municipality is renowned far and wide.
“I’ve done training across the country,” Tom Buckley, the town’s deputy fire chief, said. “When I’m asked where I live, I never mention the Patriots. I just say Foxborough. And instantly, everyone starts talking to me about the Patriots and how they always win there.
“Does that happen with any other N.F.L. team? I mean, I don’t know where the Miami Dolphins play, even though I know it’s not Miami.”
The Patriots, unbeaten in their last eight home playoff games, will put that streak on the line Sunday afternoon against the Los Angeles Chargers in an A.F.C. divisional playoff game. The Patriots, who have won five Super Bowls since the 2001 season, have had, for them, an uneven season, losing five of eight away games. But they were the only N.F.L. team to be 8-0 at home, a substantial source of pride in Foxborough.
“In the town, we feel like we bring a different type of energy at those home games,” David Tynan, a longtime Foxborough resident, said on Wednesday outside the town’s primary grocery store. “Game days are like holidays. By kickoff, the streets are quiet — you’re either at the stadium or inside watching the game.”
Because there are few hills, trees or other buildings near Gillette Stadium, the landscape is windswept in January and bracing, with temperatures typically in the 20s. The Patriots intentionally built their practice facility adjacent to the stadium, and they almost always practice outside, acclimating to the elements in a way that their playoff opponents — from mostly warmer regions — cannot. The atmosphere in Gillette Stadium is also especially hostile to visiting teams, as Patriots home crowds are considered among the most vociferous in the N.F.L.
Rich Noonan, a lieutenant in the Police Department and a fifth-generation native of Foxborough, recalled the town’s blue-collar origins and said area fans “were protecting their home turf.”
Noonan laughed, and added: “But so much has changed. When I was a kid, they couldn’t give away tickets. They opened the stadium gates at halftime and let anyone in.”
Indeed, the Patriots’ earliest days in Foxborough were as undistinguished as their first 11 years as the vagabond Boston Patriots of the American Football League. Beginning in 1960, those unheralded Patriots practiced on grassless high school fields and played games at Boston University, Harvard University, Boston College and Fenway Park. With the A.F.L.-N.F.L. merger in 1970, the Patriots needed a sizable stadium as a permanent home, and after talks with Boston city leaders repeatedly broke down, Billy Sullivan, the team’s owner, welcomed an offer from Bay State Raceway, which donated land next to its facility for a 60,000-seat stadium.
The Patriots won their first game at the stadium in 1971, although thousands of ticket holders never saw a single play because they were stuck for the entirety of the game in gridlock traffic that crammed Route 1, the only access road to the stadium.
Shortly after the first game, the local health board closed Schaefer Stadium because of malfunctioning toilets. Various solutions were tried, including an exercise that enlisted hundreds of volunteers to flush all of the stadium toilets simultaneously — a tactic referred to as Super Flush in the local news media. Fans came up with another name for the site: the Toilet Bowl.
“It was a nightmare at times,” Jack Authelet, the Foxborough town historian, said. “The stadium would be closed, it would get a reprieve for one game, and then there would be another closing. Another last-minute reprieve would allow a game to be played, then it would close again. This went on week after week.”
When the games did go on, the crowds drank heavily, so much so that Foxborough prohibited the stadium from hosting “Monday Night Football” because of the tumult that ensued after dark. And when the Patriots were not playing, the stadium hosted dozens of rock concerts, where pervasive drug and alcohol use caused nearby hospitals to fill with patients.
Foxborough, with a pastoral common at its center, was wondering what it had gotten itself into. But over time, and with some prudent strategizing, the traffic problems diminished.
Restrictions on events were imposed to make them safer and calmer. The Sullivan family lost control of the team, and the stadium was renamed Foxboro Stadium — not Foxborough — and by 1994, the businessman Robert K. Kraft had bought the team. Kraft knew he needed a modern stadium, and in 1998 seriously flirted with taking the Patriots to Hartford.
Eventually, a deal was struck to build what is now Gillette Stadium, next to the site of the old stadium. The Patriots won their first Super Bowl in an upset months before Gillette Stadium opened in 2002. The last game at Foxboro Stadium was a controversial, come-from-behind, overtime playoff victory known as the Tuck Rule Game, in which an apparent New England fumble became an incomplete pass and saved the day for the Patriots. The home Foxborough magic was born.
“All of a sudden, we had the Super Bowl champions and a real professional stadium,” said Mike Kelleher, a lifelong Foxborough resident and the town’s incoming fire chief. “That’s when everything changed around here. Before a 1 o’clock game, we would see every parking lot totally full with tailgaters by 10 a.m.”
The vibe was transformed. The home victories became a badge of honor for the locals.
“Now you hear it all the time: This is Foxborough; the Patriots don’t lose here,” said Waylon Krueger, who moved from Buffalo three years ago. “It’s a given. Look, I’m a Bills fan. I wish we had that.”
Hosting the Patriots has also been enormously helpful for the town’s municipal budget, even though the stadium site is just a sliver of Foxborough along commercially dense Route 1, where Kraft’s holding company constructed a mall next to the stadium.
Foxborough receives a portion of each ticket sold to events at Gillette Stadium, which amounts to $2.5 million to $3 million annually, according to the town manager, William Keegan. That total is at least doubled by other taxes generated by the Patriots’ presence in town. In addition, the Patriots make six-figure charitable donations annually to Foxborough.
In the last 10 to 15 years, the town’s demographic makeup has been altered. Foxborough has had an influx of home buyers with corporate jobs who commute to Boston and Providence, R.I., which is a little more than 20 miles to the south. Larger homes have sprouted on tree-lined streets, some of them aimed at housing millionaire football players employed nearby.
More than half the Patriots’ roster lives in Foxborough, and many other players live in surrounding towns.
“I’m impressed with the intensity of the fan support in Foxborough; it’s almost like a college football town,” said Patriots center David Andrews, who lives in town. “And people make us feel welcome. They invite us to their homes for the holidays.”
Because it is inescapable, Andrews has noticed the town’s dual spelling. But he would not wade into the 241-year-old squabble over it.
The dispute may not rise to the level of bar fights, but there are strong opinions.
“You spell it long or you spell it wrong,” said Buckley, whose firefighter’s uniform has a Foxborough patch.
Authelet, the town historian, supports the longer spelling as well. But the license plate on his car reads: FOXBRO.
Massachusetts allows personalized plates to have no more than six letters, so he did the best he could.
A few years ago, Authelet was waiting in his car at a stoplight in Philadelphia when another car pulled alongside. The driver honked his horn and held up a sign.
“The guy had written on a piece of paper: Cheaters,” Authelet said, well aware of the rules controversies christened Spygate and Deflategate that have dogged Coach Bill Belichick’s team through the years.
“That kind of reaction happens; it’s a fact,” Authelet said with a smile. “But most people tell me that I live in a sports lover’s paradise where the home team almost always wins.
“A lot of towns would like to trade places.”
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