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A gift, an MVP, a father, and a son: Why I’m a Patriots fan

Too often we overstate the impact of sports on our lives. This is not one of those times.

NFL: Preseason-New England Patriots at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the refreshed Pats Pulpit! To celebrate the new look and feel of our sports communities, we’re sharing stories of how and why we became fans of our favorite teams. If you’d like to share your story, head over to the FanPosts to write your own post (fewer than 800 words). Each FanPost will be entered into a drawing to win a $500 Fanatics gift card [contest rules]. We’re collecting all of the stories here and featuring the best ones across our network as well. Come Fan With Us!

I sat down this morning at my computer ready to describe how being a Patriots fan is all about the sweet satisfaction of being at the pinnacle for so long, despite all of the cynics. But the tears that began rolling down my cheeks and told the real story.

Why am I a fan of the New England Patriots?

It started with a Christmas gift. I was four or five. I don’t remember unwrapping the paper. I don’t even remember who bought it for me. I just remember peering into that box and seeing Pat Patriot.

My mother cut open the plastic packaging and removed a shiny white plastic helmet with the logo stickers smoothly laid over the outer shell. Tucked inside was a pair of white football pants, a tiny set of plastic shoulder pads, and a jersey that was the same brick red as the hearth and chimney that, with a large black wood stove at its center, kept our quaint Strafford,NH home warm though the cold New England winters.

It was the home my father built for us. It was a cape surrounded by blackberry bushes with thick pine floor boards throughout the first floor, and a narrow stair case leading to two regrettably carpeted upstairs bedrooms — one shared by my brother and I and covered in an odd grayish-blue, with my mother’s sporting an unfortunate deep, rich mauve — both selections were clearly acquired for pennies on the dollar.

It was our home. But throughout the rest of that winter I turned it into a football field with my shiny new Patriots uniform. Racing up and down stairs and through the hall, I would ram into furniture and plants, knifing my way through the arm tackles of my little brother and our “defense” (a collection of our largest stuff animals), eventually leaping high over an arbitrary “goal line” and into an end zone of pillow cases and bean bag chairs.

The only person looking forward to the spring thaw more than me was my mother. If her house was to be turned into a football field, with my brother and I as the players, then that meant she was the head coach, GM, team owner, and league commissioner.

She ran a tight ship. She had to.

After my mother’s turbulent childhood, she married her first love at the age of seventeen and had two boys by twenty-five. At twenty-eight, her and my father divorced, making her a single mother with two boys under the age of four with a house to take care of, all while putting in as many hours as she could as secretary at a local rubber manufacturer.

At five-foot nothing, roughly ninety-five pounds, often covered soot or dirt — and always in sweat — she was always chopping and stacking firewood, mowing our steep and undulating one-acre yard with an old push-mower, and hacking and trimming the thorn-covered branches of those blackberry bushes in the summer months with the same knife that she used to scrape and clean our wood stove in the winter months.

She was, and still is, amazing — living proof that it doesn’t “take a village” — our MVP.

My brother and I didn’t see my father much, but when we did, we usually watched the Patriots. For my father, never a die-hard fan, football became the perfect mechanism to connect with the sons he was unable to see as much as he would have liked.

He took us to our first game at old Foxborough Stadium. He bought tickets from a sketchy looking scalper, and we took our places in the nosebleeds. On those frozen steel bleachers, surrounded by inebriated fans screaming obscenities at Drew Bledsoe.

I was hooked.

Not long after my father moved to Atlanta,GA, my mother remarried and we moved to Clarkston,MI forty-five miles north of Detroit,MI. Contact with my father, a rare occasion before the move, became a once or twice per year affair.

My step father, an incredible man who is likely the most selfless person I know, was born and raised in Michigan, and as a result, is a tortured Lions fan. All of my new friends were too. Up to that point, I understood their pain as a football fan. Aside from the Patriots’ loss in Super Bowl XXXI to the Green Bay Packers, the team had been mired in mediocrity for most of my life.

I was thirteen when New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis changed the course of NFL history.

I remember the phone ringing in our house shortly after watching Drew Bledsoe deliver for the Patriots in the second half of the 2001 AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh — it was my father. We hadn’t talked in a while — maybe six to eight months, which was the norm. He wanted to watch the Super Bowl with his sons. We agreed. Two weeks later he took the long drive up I-75 from Atlanta.

I remember watching the first half in a packed sports bar, eating chicken wings and drinking sodas as the Patriots, two touchdown underdogs against the “Greatest Show on Turf”, methodically controlled the game from the start.

We watched the rest of the game on a tiny TV in his hotel room and screamed at the top of our lungs as Adam Vinatieri’s kick sailed end over end through the uprights to give the Patriots their first Super Bowl victory in the team’s history.

We decided to that it would be the start of a new tradition. We would watch every Super Bowl together.

Even after the Patriots’ disappointing follow-up season, we enjoyed each other’s company as Tampa Bay took Oakland to the cleaners. The following season we flew out to New York City where we explored the Big Apple before watching the Patriots win a second title at my Uncle’s home in Groton,CT. We reconvened back in Michigan in February of 2005 to watch the Patriots officially become a dynasty. They captured their third Lombardi trophy in four years. We didn’t know it then, but it would be the last football game we’d watch together.

In the years following that game, I went off to school, eventually settled in Chicago, and to started my career. Our semi-annual phone calls no longer happened. We saw or spoke to each other every year and a half or so.

When we did talk, it was always about the Patriots.

We spoke before the Patriots’ perfection-busting loss to the Giants in 2008, and we spoke again in 2012 before the team missed out on their opportunity for retribution in Glendale,AZ. Sometimes he’d call in September, just as the NFL season was about to get underway.

I always wanted to show him I knew everything about the team. I would tell him what to expect for the upcoming season, which guys to keep his eye one, etc. With a bit of sarcasm, he’d act like he always knew exactly what I was talking about. We’d laugh, the ice would be broken, and a five-minute football chat would become a half hour where a father could catch up with his son.

In February 2015, in the week before the Patriots were to take on the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX, I didn’t take his calls. I let each one ring through to my voice mail. He had no way of knowing that in the many months or so since our previous conversation, alcoholism, drug addiction, and severe depression had developed a stranglehold on the life of his oldest son.

Two months after Malcolm Butler’s interception sealed New England’s fourth Super Bowl, I called my father. I wanted to let him know I was one month sober, and I wanted to visit him. We didn’t once mention the Patriots.

This September, two and a half years later, my father will be in attendance as I marry the woman of my dreams. The next day, we will get to sit down together and watch our first Patriots game since 2005.

Why am I a Patriots fan?

I’m a Patriots fan because of that little uniform I received for Christmas that reminds me of my mother. Because of old Foxborough Stadium and those ice-cold bleachers. And because even when the connection between my father and I was nothing more than a smoldering ember, the kind you would find in a New Hampshire wood stove, the Patriots kept it burning.

Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter - @BPhillips_NFL