My Super Bowl XLIX Story
This story is not short, but I think you will find it rewarding. I enjoyed writing every moment of it to you almost as much as I enjoyed living it. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking the time to read it, and hope you enjoy it as well.
My story really begins in 2012, when I was in the Army at a base in Afghanistan called FOB (Forward Operating Base) Shank. During that time, FOB Shank received a record number of IDF (Indirect Fire, such as mortars and rockets) attacks. We also sustained the largest VBIED (Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device) ever recorded. Throughout that year, I was on the night shift (12 hours a day), which was important because we were only ever attacked during the day. I suppose it makes sense really, we have a huge advantage at night, so why would the enemy want to fight at a disadvantage? From May through about November, I didn’t get more than 2 consecutive hours of sleep a day, often receiving only four hours total. Being away from one spouse and newborn, on an unnatural schedule and receiving low sleep can really affect one mental well-being. For me, as a first time deployer, it put me into a deep deployment depression that was exacerbated by marital issues and the passing of a friend of mine at a nearby base in Afghanistan.
When times are dark in one life, I find that we naturally turn to what we can count on. For me, that was Patriot football. I had always been a Patriot fan, but in Afghanistan I dove into it head first. I learned all that I could, from history, to general football knowledge, to predicted roster movements (this was still during training camp). As the season kicked off, I was blessed with a friend of mine who did the scheduling for our shifts. Although he couldn give me a night off, he ensured I was working in the office where one of our Officers had installed a separate TV to show Armed Forces Network. I didn miss a single game that season.
Although I found solace in football, my marriage was disintegrating, due largely to the same reasons that many marriages disintegrate during a first deployment. There was a period where we didn speak for over two months from November through December, where I was convinced it was over. Then football gave me another blessing, during the Ravens @ Broncos Divisional Playoff game. As it went to double overtime, my wife texted me on my Afghani phone, asking me if I was watching. Well of course I was, but the better question was why was she watching? She is a Soldier as well, and although she knew I was a Patriots fan, she knew next to nothing about football. It turned out she had been studying, and used football as a roadmap to re-establish dialogue between us. To this day, that fact still impresses me. Football became our bridge. No real serious conversations, just the commonalities that friendships are built and solidified on. Football, and more importantly, the Patriots, saved our marriage and in a very real sense, my life. Our season ended in defeat in the AFC Championship game, but for me, we may as well have Super Bowl champions for all eternity.
My deployment eventually came to a close, and we found out she was pregnant with our second child not long after (surprising, right?). Football season that next year, where we would lose to the Broncos in Denver in another AFC Championship Game, was filled with the kind of chaos that only the coming birth of a child (26 December) coupled with getting out of the Army can cause. Yet we never missed a game.
For about a year, I would have said this was where the story ended. For about a year, I would have been correct. I got a job as a contractor, working on the same aircraft I had flown in the Army, with my old unit. All was well, and then January 2015 came along. January has always been my favorite month for football, and that probably all that January is really good for anyway. First, we won the Divisional round, in a game against the Ravens that probably aged
me more than Afghanistan did. Then came the AFC Championship and before I knew it, the Patriots were returning to the Super Bowl in an attempt to bring a fourth Lombardi to Foxboro, defend our consecutive Super Bowl win record, and silence all of the Tom Brady haters.
My wife and I were on a lunch date when she brought up to me, wouldn it be crazy if we went to the Super Bowl? I replied in the affirmative. Still, it brought the idea in to my head. I called my father, who has always been my Jedi Master in my life, for some insight. To my surprise, he brought up the family vacations we had used to take before the recession, and told me he thought it would be a good idea. My uncle had been to the first New England Super Bowl victory, all those long years ago. I immediately started looking for tickets. There was so much to plan: How would we, stationed in Fort Hood, Texas, get out there? Where would we even get tickets? Could I get time off from my job and would the Army grant her leave at a moment notice? That last one was nerve wracking; it takes time to get leave approved, and ticket prices were already rising. Finally, after studying the stadium, I found the seats I wanted: Patriot sideline, 30 yard line, Ring of Honor, Row A. Seats with a view like that of a Roman Emperor watching gladiators fight to the death; not too high, not too low. Perfect.
Eight thousand dollars later, and after informing my company I was taking a small vacation (to whom I am still grateful didn put up a fight) and receiving the blessing of the Army, we were off. A fifteen hour straight drive to Phoenix, to a couple home we found on Craigslist. I was exhausted by the time we got there, but resting wasn an option. We had the Victoria Secret Leather & Lace party that night, and the NFL Experience the next day. Finally, Sunday was upon us. I had faced countless questions of, 凡hat if they lose? You l have wasted so much money! from mostly everyone in existence. I believed in this team though. I believed in a team that had given me so much without ever knowing my name.
We were one of the first in the stadium, and as we meandered around, the endorphins rushing through me probably mirrored the first time I had ever gone all the way with a girl. I was downright giddy. As we stood at the lower level, I saw an older couple with Ryan Wendell jerseys on. Now finding Elite jerseys of offensive linemen just doesn happen. The NFL doesn sell them, except for customized ones. I immediately approached them, a huge fan of one of our best Cinderella players.
love Ryan Wendell! I exclaimed, cheerfully thinking I had just found some more Patriots fans to converse with.
o do we! In fact we have loved him since we used to change his diapers, the woman replied nonchalantly. My whole brain did a double take, a soft reboot to process what I had just heard.
sorry, say again? I asked, in that I-feel-like-I -missing-something manner.
凡e e his Aunt and Uncle, they replied. I pretty sure to this day my brain had some kind of explosion resembling the Big Bang, trying to process that. What are the odds in a stadium of over 65,000 people, this couple would be who we talked to? We talked for a short while, and finally I had the courage to ask them if he would sign my brand new Super Bowl XLIX football I just bought for $180. They told me they were sure he would love to, but the only time they were going to see him was at the postgame party at the team hotel (I tried looking for passes to that, I might as well have been looking for the Holy Grail). It was at this moment that I could either accept defeat, or make my own fourth quarter charge. I asked if I could give them my ball, still trusting in my faith in humanity, and if they could bring it to him to sign. I found my
faith rewarded when unbelievably, they said yes. We exchanged information, and I thought that would be the end of it. We went on to the game, I lost my voice for three weeks, and discovered that if you believe really really hard, dreams do come true. I will remember that feeling of confetti, of the interception, of sharing that moment with my wife of five years, a validation of all we as a team and as a couple had been through, for as long as I live.
The next morning I woke up to a picture on my phone. A picture of Ryan holding my ball. I pretty sure I grinned the entire fifteen hour drive back to Texas. They later told me he wasn able to sign it, because those footballs come with a film on them that doesn let a standard sharpie write on it, but that it had gone back to Boston with him. No problem, right?
A few months passed, and in April I had to take a business trip to San Diego, where his Aunt and Uncle happened to be driving through. We had dinner, had another wild experience (a story for another day that involves a drowning puppy), and caught up. I told them the story that I am telling you, and they told me they would continue to check up on my football, as everyone had scattered after the parade to enjoy some hard earned R&R.
I traveled back home, and found a box waiting for me. A box just large enough for a football. My wife had a camera out, and as I opened it, I found so much more than I thought would have ever been possible. The Super Bowl was a gift that kept on giving. It wasn just Ryan that had signed it. He had taken the ball around the locker room, gotten nineteen player signatures, and added a personal message thanking me for my service. Ryan Wendell, Matthew Slater, Nate Solder, Jamie Collins, Bryan Stork, Sebastian Vollmer, LeGarrete Blount, Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower, Rob Ninkovich, Jimmy Garoppolo, Duron Harmon, Brandon LaFell, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Stephen Gostkowski, Malcolm Butler, and Tom Brady had signed it. I thought I might need CPR. It was like something out of time, like a personal touch from the universe to my faith being rewarded. It sits, on a shelf my wife built for it, in a case that spins slowly, a pass waiting to be caught.
Now at this point, the journey should have ended. By all accounts, it was a fairy tale ending for me and for the New England Patriots. However, it turned out I was only in the third quarter of my game, and we still had a whole quarter left to play. As the DeflateGate non-troversy raged on, I was of course the primary target from most of my friends and coworkers. For the record, I one hundred percent believe Tom Brady and the Patriots did absolutely no wrong doing, and it was a smear job by the league from the start. As the appeal was lost and it went to court, I had my own issues to deal with: in mid-September, I would be deploying to Iraq with my old unit as a civilian to assist them in Operation Inherent Resolve, which is where I currently am. My wife and I decided to take one more vacation together. We had seen the trophy raised, and we decided we needed to see the banner raised. I had heard the rumors of the Patriots not raising the banner if Tom Brady was suspended, and to be honest, I was wholeheartedly in favor of it. I was not dissuaded, though. I knew, in my heart of hearts, that he wasn guilty, and I once again believed really really hard that he would play. I bought four tickets (two for my aunt and uncle, who had been to the first Super Bowl win) at the fifty yard line in the upper section, and booked our airfare.
A couple of weeks later, Tom Brady suspension was overturned by Judge Berman, and after doing a happy dance in the dentist office while getting a crown put on, I knew our greatest general was going to take the field to command his Legion. I texted Ryan Aunt and Uncle, who I kept in contact with, and they told me that her sister, Ryan mother, would be at the game and she would pass my number along.
When we got to Boston, everything seemed pre-destined for us. We had been recipients of an upgrade to first class, an upgrade on our rental (it amazing what being nice for the sake of being nice will get you), and got to our hotel not far from the stadium. As we went to eat, we learned of the new Nike Lunar Force One Kraft Editions that happened to be releasing the next day. So my wife, my rock in the storm, my lighthouse in the dark, told me we would go get them. We got to Nike Boston at 0600 (they didn open until 0900), and were still 25th in line. When Robert Kraft showed up and graciously shook everyone hand, I showed him my new Patriots tattoo, and looked him 笓ike a laser eye to eye thanking him for his organization role in helping save my marriage and my life. He stopped and did the same double take I did when I first met Ryan wonderful family, so many months ago. He gave me a look of wanting to know more, but couldn due to a pressing time schedule (the season opener was later that night). I understood, but as he clasped my hand with both of his, I felt a sincerity that can be explained. It just had to be felt.
We got our shoes, and my phone rang. It was Ryan mom, wanting to know when we were going to get to the stadium, so we could meet up. We set a time, and my heart got that feeling again, like I had just slammed 60 ounces of Red Bull. I picked out the shirt she had included in the box with my football (because of course I brought every article of Patriot clothing I owned), and we set off for the hallowed ground that is Gillette Stadium. When we got there, we met her and her husband by the lighthouse. She was one of the sweetest people I had ever met, and greeted both me and my wife with big hugs. It was like I had known both of them for years.
I revealed I had a surprise for Ryan, and asked if she could give it to him. It was my custom unit patch, just big enough for my wallet, a patch that had seen many combat flight hours over the skies of Afghanistan. It was just my way of saying thank you, I didn want anything from him. I just wanted him to know that what he had done had made a profound impact on me. She looked at me and told me that I should give it to him myself. Remember that part about the internal Big Bang that went through me at the Super Bowl? Play that again, except this time turn up the bass by a factor of ten. She was serious, and eventually we made our way to our sections to see the banner raised, to see the culmination of an entire year in one shower of sparks. nother memory for the rest of my life, I thought as I squeezed my wife hand.
As we watched Tom Brady (who is the greatest Patriot because he is that guy on the helmet) eviscerate the Steelers, at the two minute warning my wife and I bid my Aunt and Uncle goodbye and made our way down to the entrance of the Pro Shop, our agreed upon meeting place. As the game ended, and Ryan mother showed up with chocolate chip cookies from the locker room because she is an amazing woman with a heart of gold, she told me Ryan would be coming out shortly. Nearly all the crowd had left when we finally saw him. As we approached, my wife went to shake his hand, and he laughed, telling her to give him a hug. He told us he had heard all about us from his family and felt like we were already friends. It was like meeting a brother. I gave him my patch, and found out that he had planned on the military if football didn work out. Everything about him was genuine, the most down to earth guy you could imagine. The complete mold of a Patriot. We walked past the guards, and then I realized that I was on the field. I realized that my new Lunar Force Ones were probably the second pair behind Mr. Kraft to ever touch this turf. This was the culmination of a pilgrimage, guided by faith, and taking turns I never would have foreseen during that lunch date in January. We took pictures, laughed, and promised to keep in touch. We still do.
Now, as I write this from the sands of Iraq, I can only look to the future with hope. My wife and I have had our share of ups and downs on this deployment, but our bond is ironclad. Our bond, our faith in the New England Patriots, keeps us strong. We took a year off between our three Super Bowl wins last time. Why should it be any different this time?