As a member of the media, I get the benefit of some pretty great team perks. There's nothing the New England Patriots like more than entertaining journalists and bloggers to reveal the inner-machinations of the most successful sports franchise of the past twenty years.
So I wasn't surprised when I received an invitation in the mail to attend Gillette Stadium's first-ever Haunted Stadium Experience. It was signed with a warm sentiment from Bill Belichick and I knew I had to go.
Let me start by saying that I wasn't ready for this. At all. I had explored Patriot Place in the daytime, or even after a night game, where the most harrowing sight would be a vomiting tailgater or the sight of a grown man in a football jersey or a Jets fan. But this Haunted Stadium was beyond my wildest imaginations and I can see why the rest of the league is so paranoid about the Patriots.
Patriots head of Media Relations Stacey James walked me and four other intrepid writers into a back room where he explained we would be prepared for the upcoming evening. James was dressed like Marvin the Android and left us with the hope that we wouldn't question our existence in reality after the evening.
There was a table shaped like a football and warm fireplace crackling at the far end of the room. It was nice to take off the chill from outside. Kevin Duffy, from Mass Live, Doug Kyed, from NESN, and Erik Frenz, from Bleacher Report, were faces I was familiar with. Duffy was dressed like Willy Wonka, Kyed was dressed up like...Paul McCartney? I wasn't quite sure. Frenz was in a standard "Hogwarts Student" outfit. I was wearing my favorite Ned Stark ensemble that I break out every Sunday for my pregame LARPing ritual.
I was unfamiliar with the fourth writer, who was shrouded in a white bed sheet with blue and purple flowers, with pink trim, to look like a ghost. His height made me think it was Mike Reiss, but it could have very well been Ian Rapoport or Jeff Howe. It didn't matter, I'm sure we'd all laugh about the experience afterwards.
Soon after James left, a hologram started playing in the fireplace, with the face of Robert Kraft welcoming us to his Haunted Stadium.
"I hope you enjoy the refreshments on the table," Kraft said. "The only thing I like more than a nice apple cider in Autumn is beating the Colts in their own stadium. We are all Patriots. All of us. Forever and ever. There is no escape. Patriotszzzzz."
The video feed froze with a static slicing through the evening, before the lights flickered and the the hologram cut out. A door opened on the right side of the room, behind Duffy Wonka, and we took that as a sign to start our little adventure.
The first room looked fairly harmless. There were newspaper clippings serving as wallpaper. Video clips of First Take and Mark Brunell were playing on repeat in the corner, with I'm disappointed! and sniffling echoing around. If you looked closely at the walls, you would see headlines like He's just not good anymore! and Are the Patriots finished? and Patriots Deflated!
I started to feel uneasy, but a door soon opened for us to walk through. Duffy was still leading the way, but as soon as we reached the door, Tom Brady came crashing through while holding a football. Duffy tried to get out of the way, but Brady barreled through him before spiking the ball through the MassLive reporter's chest. Brady looked around us and fumed, pointing at us with a glare. LET'S GO! he cried. LET'S GOOOOOO!
Duffy was writhing on the ground as Brady continued to look around the room. Kyed was the first one brave enough to notice that Brady wasn't looking at us. He was looking beyond us, into the horizon. Frenz suggested that Brady was looking at the next game. I thought he was pointing to a vision of Josh McDaniels fist pumping on the sideline. It wasn't until Duffy rolled over that we realized that Brady was on a track- he was a robot!
"I'm done with this," Duffy said, but the door behind us had disappeared. We aren't concerned about the past, the voice of Bill Belichick boomed around the room. We're only looking to next week.
The only way to move was forward.
We carried Duffy into the next room, which was fashioned like a retirement home. There were couches and lace doilies on a coffee table. The fabrics were patterned with more flower patterns, but were covered with a plastic sheet. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh was sitting in one chair, balding, but with gray hair coming out of his ears. Former Colts head coach Tony Dungy was in a wheel chair, muttering to himself, clutching a picture of himself and Peyton Manning hoisting a Super Bowl trophy. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis was sitting on the coach, mouth slightly ajar, staring off into the distance.
"What is this place?" Frenz thought aloud.
A television was fizzling in the corner, with the voices of Jim Nantz the III and Phil Simms introducing the Sunday starting line-up.
"Wait, Jim Nantz the Third?" I exclaimed. The television cutaway to the announcers' booth, where the image of Nantz popped up. But it wasn't Nantz. He had more hair, he seemed younger. More lively. Simms, though...he looked like he was 130, and he struggled to put together a coherent sentence.
"I'll tell you what, Jim," Simms said. "The Patriots starting left tackle Logan Light is looking pretty good this year."
"Phil, the Patriots haven't had a player named Logan or Light in sixty years," Nantz said gently.
The CBS cameras cutaway to the Patriots sidelines where a T-900 machine was wearing a sweatshirt with ripped off sleeves. The head of the creature revealed a human brain suspended inside a jar of liquid. An infographic popped up on the screen. Bill Belichick is starting his 53rd year as the Patriots head coach, looking to record his 176th straight victory, including playoffs, with quarterback Tom Brady.
Harbaugh sat up, his eyes flashing wildly in terror. Dungy wept into his blanket. Lewis continued to stare into the distance, like it was 3rd and long.
"Belichick's still coaching?!" Duffy exclaimed. "That's not possible!"
But we knew in our hearts that this was a vision of the future. It wasn't just the next week that made the Patriots so well prepared, but it was the fact that no team had the same degree of consistency. This was no retirement for Bill Belichick. Waiting for that time was, is, folly.
A door opened into a third room and we hurried in, eager to put distance between ourselves and Harbaugh, who looked like he was about to throw a tantrum. Inside was a a simple room, with white walls, and a solitary table in the middle. On the table was a Gatorade cooler, typical with what you would see on any sideline. There were five cups, one for each of us. We instinctively reached for one, but the ghost stayed off towards the side of the room.
Duffy needed a drink after getting run over by Brady in the open field, so he was the first to help himself to a glass. Lemon-lime Gatorade came pouring out and he gladly drank it down.
It was a split second after he finished that his eyes started to bulge and he started to cough. The cough became a hack, and soon he was spitting up on the floor.
"Dear lord," Duffy said weakly on the ground. "Leave me here. I can go no further. The Gatorade was warm."
The rest of us bolted into the next room, leaving Duffy in a heap. This was becoming too much for us to handle.
The fourth room looked more pleasant as we seemed to be transported outside. The was a grill off to the side of the room, and it seemed like there was a party. We saw Oprah, and Alec Baldwin, and Katie Couric, and Giants owner Jon Tisch.
Over in the corner, we saw Judge Richard Berman, who presided over the DeflateGate case in the New York courts, and he was talking to a shrouded figure with a hidden face. All we could see was a pair of fresh kicks on his feet.
"That's Kraft!," I gasped. "He's palling it up with Berman! You don't think this was what let Brady skate free, do you?"
"Oh knock it off," Frenz tut-tutted. "Don't be such a Borges."
On the opposite side of the room, we noticed that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was trying to hide behind a bush, but his clearly visible face was seething. Flanking Goodell on both sides were Jets owner Woody Johnson and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, pointing at Kraft and shouting obscenities.
"This must be what it looks like to other owners," Kyed noted. "The focus is entirely on Kraft being at the party, but no one cares that the Giants owner was there, too."
A door soon opened on the other side of the cookout and we took that as a sign to keep walking. We entered into a room with mirrors on all sides, with Julian Edelman sitting in a chair, fixing his hair.
"There's no exit," Frenz whispered. "I think it's a maze."
Erik and I started to move forward with the ghost, but Kyed was transfixed by the sight of Edelman.
"His hair is just...perfect," Kyed said. "I have to learn what he's doing."
Doug rushed over to speak with Edelman, but he crashed into a mirror, the sight of Edelman vanishing. Kyed looked elsewhere, trying to chase the next sight of the wide receiver.
"He's deceptively fast! He's too shifty! This floor is getting gritty with broken glass, I hope someone brought their toolbox and lunch pail to get this cleaned up!"
"Doug..." I started.
"We've lost him," Frenz finished. "This is how defenders feel whenever they catch a sight of Edelman. They can never catch him. It's hopeless."
The Ghost pointed towards the opening of the maze as the three of us continued our way through. The sight of Kyed trying to grasp Edelman disappeared in the distance.
"I'm going to be really disappointed with this story if you're Stephen Gostkowski," I said to the Ghost. "I never really got the nickname."
We reached the next room and saw Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, his eyes glazed over. Former Greatest Show on Turf architect Mike Martz was wandering blindly, too. Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio was bumping into the wall, and Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt was sprawled on the ground.
"What's wrong with these coaches?" I asked.
"I think these are the coaches that have said that the Patriots have manipulated head sets over the years," Frenz explained. How oddly specific I mused to myself, before the lights went dark. I couldn't see. It was total darkness like I had never experienced before.
Just was I was about to cry out for help, the voice of Scott Zolak started blaring into the room. "UNICORNS! SHOW PONIES! WHERE'S THE BEEF?!" I started feeling around to try and find the exit, but it was no use. I couldn't see, I couldn't hear, everything was coming up Zolak.
I soon felt a hand grab my arm to pull me away and into the next room. It was the Ghost. Frenz was lost.
This room seemed empty, except for a couple ants crawling along the floor. The fact that it was just me and the Ghost left me disconcerted. I wandered around, trying to see if there were any clues that could get me out of this forsaken Haunted Stadium.
I turned back to the Ghost to see if he could help, but he was gone. All that was left was the bed sheet that had covered him, but the flowers were all gone. It was just a white sheet with pink trim.
"I understand now!," I shouted to the room. "I know why all of these teams are so paranoid about the Patriots!"
The ants immediately ran away into a hole in the wall, as if they had heard my claim.
Rob Gronkowski immediately burst through the wall, showering cement and wood across the floor. "Quickly!" He yelled. "Try to tackle me! I will get you to safety!"
I executed a perfect tackle and wrapped my arms around his body. Gronk started to rumble out of the room, back through the Broken Headsets, through Edelman's Room of Mirrors, the cookout, the horrifying Gatorade, the retirement home, and into the Angry Brady room. In all, he seemed to have carried me over a hundred yards on his back.
"This must be how the average NFL defender feels," I thought to myself.
"You must leave now!" Gronkowski shouted. "I can't hold back that much longer!"
"What are you talking about?" I yelled over my shoulder, as I looked for an exit.
"I have to spike the ball if I've run the length of the field!"
I shuddered in horror, but I quickly remembered the football that Brady had spiked earlier. I rummaged through the wreckage before tossing the ball to Gronk.
"Please!" I cried. "Spike the ball! I have so much left to write about! People need to hear this story!"
Gronkowski slammed the ball into the ground, the resulting ricochet creating a hole in the wall into the outside. I ran out as quickly as I good, not daring to look back.
I was crying as I stumbled away from Patriot Place, looking like every AFC team that had every visited the stadium. Bill Belichick will coach forever. Tom Brady is exacting his revenge on the league. No one can stop Rob Gronkowski. Julian Edelman is too damn handsome. The Patriots are diabolical and nothing can stop them.
I know what the rest of the league sees when the look at the Patriots. I understand true horror and paranoia. I know why the world thinks the Patriots are cheaters; it's all they have left at the end of the day after their team is drowning in defeat, sadness, and warm Gatorade.
All I wanted was to go home, but my night wasn't over. I stared out across the parking lot and fell to my knees.
There was postgame traffic on Route 1.
Bill Belichick cackled in the distance.