It was the real American experience. A game that requires you to book a full day, the adventures through tight security, the protests of players about what Trump had said, the fans and the sleeping volcano that erupted because of Tom Brady.
Anticipation is the key
The logistics to go see a New England Patriots game were the most complex ever. Airline tickets were purchased the day the NFL announced the schedule: April 21. Tickets for the game were bought in the first five minutes they were available on July 14.
The hardest part was done (half an hour later the ticket price was already out of reach), but there were steps that still had to be taken, especially because the Patriots play in the middle of nowhere between Boston-Massachusetts and Providence-Rhode Island.
You cannot go on foot. You cannot go by bus. The best option is the trains chartered exclusively for this purpose and with limited seats that go on sale only in the week of the game. One train departures from Boston, another one from Providence.
The game is scheduled to start at 1 pm on a Sunday - as the tradition holds - and the Boston train leaves South Station at 10.15 am for a three-stop trip with a duration of around 60 minutes. It is the secret of anticipation that will be so important later on.
An hour before the departure time, the station does not allow you to be lost. It's game day. You start seeing the first jerseys, Brady-12 and Gronkowski-87 being the most common, and all kinds of usual props. As the time approaches, the line to the platform is formed almost spontaneously. In total, the train consists of twelve passenger coaches (eight of them with two floors) and has the capacity for about 1800 people.
The backpack game
The Gillette Stadium station is in the middle of nowhere. There is a shopping complex next to the stadium but the rest is just acres and acres of ... car parks and trees. The small path between the train stop and the stadium has two lines so no one gets lost, but you really just need to follow the crowd.
Waiting for us, there are several staff members with transparent bags. Reason: safety measures in the NFL are tight, even more than in any other sporting event in the United States, and no exceptions are made. There is no room for bags or backpacks.
That's bad news for anyone who, without a car and unexpectedly, has a backpack and is left with no great alternative. In the good Portuguese way, the first solution is to create an illusion: the bag is emptied, a second transparent bag is ordered and the bag is very well folded, almost to the size of a hand, and we try to enter. Access denied! There is no margin: if you want to see the game, you can not take the backpack.
The shopping complex has no lockers. Security guards tell us that there are no such exceptions and that the best option is to ask help to someone with a car. And they add: "Hiding it in the parking lot is not an option, policemen are walking with sniffing dogs and, if necessary, they'll destroy what they find."
We resign ourselves. We return to the parking lot and put into practice all that we have learned with Cal Lightman in Lie to Me. In the midst of the true tailgating American experience, with barbecues capable of feeding all the crowd in most of the Portuguese championship stadiums, we try to study people's expressions and see who will be trustworthy and friendly enough to attend to an increasingly desperate request of those who see the time passing by while the options are running out.
We were successful at first try. Already with the car parked and setting the grill next to the car are two men who do not seem to have any family relationship. "Excuse me, we have a very strange request for you," we begin explaining.
It's not easy. There is a whole lot of logistics that need to be clarified. We explain what is going on but there are details that cannot be solved: How do they give us the backpack back? What if the game is a blowout and they leave early? How can we get in touch, considering they have no active international calling service to call us?
It might have seemed that they were just trying to refuse politely but that was not the case. All questions were focused on ensuring that there was no way to go wrong. One of them, an American of Italian origin with an accent that would not fool anyone, even promptly offered to take us the backpack the next day.
We refused. The confusion was on us, so if it was necessary we would be going where we had to the following day. By this time, it was sure that they were going to keep us the backpack. Relief dominated our minds, and the chat was dominated by the Italo-American. His name was Anthony and he looked like Salvatore's character in the film The Name of the Rose. The other one, whose name flew during the confusion, told us about his trip to Portugal and how he had eaten so much fish. During our chat, they offered us all kinds of food. "Eat, be at ease. We know what they say about the people of Boston not being nice but it's not like that", Anthony told us.
We refused the food one last time, after accepting only one shrimp, and said see you soon. Until the end of the game or, at worst, the next day, at Anthony's company. "Take a card with my contact. I'm going to play golf tomorrow morning but if you want to go to my company, my wife Lucy will be there to deliver your backpack. No problem."
At last, the stands
We finally made it. With tickets for the nosebleeds, the way to get there takes its time and the euphoria among fans is growing. After the defeat at home on the season opener, the hope is it will be possible to get a convincing win.
But this is not any other weekend. Two days earlier, Donald Trump had ferociously attacked NFL and criticized the "motherfu*kers" of players who had knelt during the national anthem, urging the owners to have the heretics fired.
The president's shot backfired with the players' response. At Gillette Stadium, the Texans did not kneel, merely wrapping their arms. But on the other side of the field, about fifteen elements of the Patriots' defensive line fell to their knees and made a large number of fans boo.
The first boos came before the anthem, with "stand up" yells, but the biggest one, after an anthem in which the verse that included the flag was much applauded, only happened after the end. There, as when Colin Kaepernick began the protest against violence in 2016, the division of the country was evident. For some, the interpretation of the protest is an insult to the memory of all those who have defended the flag and freedom of the United States in successive wars.
The game dynamics
American football is a winter sport but on that day it didn't seem to. The heat was hard to bear even for us. The sunscreen factor 50 did its best to protect us and the cold bottles of water were sold like... hot buns for four dollars each.
And one bottle wasn't enough. Not even two. The race to the water, even more than to the beer, was so big during the game that sales had to be suspended more than once. During that time, bottles were delivered with tap water, and we read later that day that people were protesting the fact they had to pay five dollars for those bottles.
Another big part of being seated in the stands is the analysis of the universe that surrounds us. Of course, if the tickets were the cheapest for us, so they would to the Houston Texans fans who wanted to see the game. So, in our row, six places to the left, there were three big fans (XXL format) who had the freedom to express themselves as they wished because... XXL format.
Immediately to our left, there was a father with a son and two daughters. The older one didn't speak much, as he was submerged in the grief of a game far more distressed than he hoped, while the younger ones bombarded their father with rookie questions about the game.
That was the good part. Even in the nosebleeds, the game was seen and understood well. Of course, we can miss the absence of the yellow line that marks the first down, but everything else runs perfectly. The speaker summarizes each play, explaining who ran, who made the tackle, how many yards the play had, who will kick or punt and who will receive it.
And the sound system is perfect, especially when the referees explain the decisions made.
The New England Patriots got a touchdown in their first drive but the Houston Texans never gave up. And when Tom Brady fumbled a play that ended in a touchdown, the silence in the stadium was weird. Curiously, at that time the Texans' supporters had gone to "stock up". "Well, at least those guys are not here!" said the father next to us.
That was a general feeling. That and the scorching heat, of course. As soon as the halftime came, the nosebleeds were naked, while people looked for a shadow. We were no exception. The fans' clothes looked like abstract paintings that reflected the sweatiest spots. No one was different, we were all together in this fight and there was not a single square meter of shade available.
Maybe that's why there were a lot of people missing at the start of the second half. There, despite losing, the Texans took advantage of the Patriots' defensive fragility and easily went ahead of the score. Tom Brady did not even start badly, with a touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks, but Houston was looking even better.
Time passed and the Patriots failed to score. Tom Brady missed the first down in two consecutive drives and next to us a fan lost his patience, demanding the team to risk the fourth down instead of punting the ball. What is certain is that the Texans were winning 33-28 and the quarterback with five Super Bowls was going to have to do magic to secure the win with less than two and a half minutes to the end and about 80 yards to go.
The volcano erupts
By that time we were not together anymore. We did not know the level of willingness to escape the traffic of our good Samaritans, and it would always be better to retrieve the backpack on the parking lot. There were a lot of people leaving. The Patriots might have won the Super Bowl in February with a miracle play, but there is a limit to luck, even in a state with so many Irish.
And, in fact, had the Houston Texans got two yards instead of one on the last play and everything would be different. It would be enough to let the clock run and prevent Tom Brady from getting a chance again. But they didn't.
The 40-year-old quarterback took the responsibility and offered us an unforgettable moment. The succession of plays, which included the chills provided by a recovered fumble and a near interception mixed with the magic downs secured by Rob Gronkowski, was waking up the volcano. Suddenly, we all began to believe. It was still very unlikely, but there it was Tom Brady, considered by many the best quarterback ever, to draw, like Picasso, another turnaround.
It was about the two consecutive plays in less than 25 seconds. First, a pass to Amendola that made the team advance 27 yards. Soon after, with apparently no time for more, Brady made a diagonal pass to the left side of the touchdown zone where Brandin Cooks jumped, resisted the impact from an opponent's arm in the helmet and still had the clairvoyance to grab the ball, set the two feet in the touchdown zone and fall out of the field.
Gilette Stadium was more alive than ever. Screams, expressions of disbelief and trembling bodies, half asleep by the heat, half excited by Tom Brady having performed one more miracle. Suddenly, everyone seemed to know each other. A hug here, a hug there. And high fives. I was not different, first with the unsatisfied woman in the front row, then with the youngest son of the family to my left.
Outside, near the car that had our backpack, the euphoria is expressed through the mobile phone. The pilgrimage towards home had been interrupted by promising noises and the smartphone screen became a window to glory. "It's already in the 27-yard line!", they warn, hinting that there is an opportunity.
Doubled… and tripled celebrations
Brady's pass to Cooks is as spectacular as it is dubious. And, of course, the referees announced that the play was going to be reviewed. Suddenly, on a day when there was no breeze to help combat the heat, we seem to be invaded by cold winds. Is it a disappointment?
As always, the ad appears: "And now, on the big screen, we'll see exactly the same images that the referees are seeing." And there it is: the pass, the reception, one foot, two feet. And the volcano explodes again, celebrating almost like the first time.
But there is a new wind. The reception was good, but the image of the giant screen now focuses on the fall: did he keep possession of the ball? There are more insecure faces, more discouraged expressions and others that did not seem to know what is happening. Anyway, by that time the referees were about to announce the decision, which confirms the touchdown. And, once again, the volcano makes itself heard.
There were 23 seconds to play and the win seemed to be in the Patriots' pocket. Or at least we wanted to believe in it. The Houston Texans were unwilling to fall without one last fight and Deshaun Watson tried a hail mary. What happened next was incredible: the ball was thrown into the middle of confusion and it became impossible to realize where it had gone. Do you know what they say about those times when everything is so fast that you can not even see what happened? There it was precisely the opposite.
For a fraction of a second, the stadium was suspended. The hearts of the 65878 people who were watching the game skipped a beat and only reacted again after, in the middle of the confusion, Duron Harmon ran out of the end zone with the ball. And then, yes, the celebrations were final.
The complete relief
The state of euphoria went on outside the stadium. From the nosebleeds to the parking lot, we have to go down seven floors, each with two ramps of about 30 meters. You can hear everything and most of the conversations circle around Tom Brady.
Already on the floor level, two policemen from different organizations are teased by some supporters. "And you missed it!" they shouted with a pointed finger, referring to the unbelievable moment they had just witnessed and which the police had not been able to see because they were working. They react with smiles. After all, the workday is much better when a full stadium is happy.
Together again, the clock starts ticking: the train returns to Boston half an hour after the end of the game. The car of our good Samaritans is still there. But how long will they take? After exchanging feelings about how those last minutes were lived, in the background, they appear. Anthony laughs. He says we are lucky and says he made a bet: "I told him that she [Sarah] would be so afraid we left that she would come to the car at halftime."
We thank them again and again. What may have been a simple action for them, for us had a greater meaning. And now, with the backpack in her possession and the win in our hands, the relief was complete. We were back on the train and the conversations had a common denominator. We were all Brady's witnesses.