The Goofy Years – The Laughable Patriots of Yore

I attended nearly every Boston/New England Patriots game from 1964 until I ventured off to college in the autumn of 1973. For nine seasons, I saw the Pats play in four different venues in four different communities within the confines of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  Some might say I was a glutton for punishment, given the perpetually wacky state of the Patriots in those days. Perhaps I enjoyed a healthy dose of tragicomedy with my football.

When I started attending their home games as a nine-year-old, the Boston Patriots were prominent members of the American Football League, a league absolutely despised by the NFL. By the time I was a senior in high school, the New England Patriots were part of the AFC East, a conference within the greater National Football League.

Change in professional sports came faster in those days.

As a child, I attended home games at Fenway as the grateful guest of my father. By the time I was fifteen, I was, according to longtime Patriots beat writer Ron Hobson of The Quincy Patriot Ledger, the youngest season-ticket-holder in professional sports. In 1970, after my father had given up his own season tickets because he could no longer be subjected to the pathos that had come to define the team, I secured a job at the Wellesley (MA) Supermarket in order that I could pay my own way as a solitary Patriots season-ticket holder. In the end, I would spend sixty dollars yearly out of my $1.60 an hour job in order to follow what could only be depicted as disorganized insanity.

Legendary Boston Globe columnist Will McDonough, the most acclaimed chronicler of the franchise in its 55-history, once famously called those seasons that I saw them in person as, “The Goofy Years.”        

Indeed, they were. In fact, that may have been an understatement.

In the first seasons of my Patriots adventure, Dad would usually drive us to their games in the Back Bay. Occasionally, however, we would take the MBTA from Woodland to Fenway Park. The local transportation authority never had extra subway cars for the team when they played at the Fens; the Pats then were deemed too inconsequential by the most Bay Staters in the 1960s. If truth be told, the New York Giants were the region’s number one football team at the time. From 1952 until the end of the 1969 season, every Giants contest was televised live on Channel 5, WHDH Boston. Most football fans I knew growing up in the Boston area referred to the Giants as “us.” 

Not me.

Of course, when we finally sat in our seats in Section 12 at Fenway Park, my father would invariably recite from Shakespeare’s Henry V, “We few; we happy few…”

Temporary bleachers covered the left-field wall at the Fens during the football season, room for about 5,000 fans. The left end zone stretched from short left field to the Red Sox batter’s circle. The other end zone was situated between mid-centerfield to the right field corner, fifteen yards beyond the legendary Pesky Pole. 

When I began following the Patriots, nearly one-third of the team was either from BC, BU, Holy Cross, and Northeastern. To save expenses for the financially-challenged Patriots, those local colleges and even high schools in the area would alternate their marching bands for the halftime entertainment. Not surprisingly, Harvard always found an excuse not to have its own celebrated band perform for the people at Fenway. As Dad explained one day, “Harvard probably doesn’t accept payment in green stamps.”

If you sat in the temporary bleachers covered the left-field wall, at the end of the game, you could actually walk across the field in order to get to the exits behind the Red Sox dugout. In a game against the New York Jets in 1965, I did just that, getting very close to Jets quarterback Joe Namath for the simple reason that I wanted to see if his famed white cleats were painted that way – or had he instead taped them? They were taped on. his cleats white. I’m sure that wasn’t the juiciest secret from his playing days.   

Because of where the Patriots played in those days, the Boston Red Sox’s shadow was everywhere. Sox legend Sherm Feller supplied his distinctive calls as the public address announcer for the Patriots in the mid-sixties. In addition, the great Ned Martin served as the team’s primary play-by-play man. Such Red Sox play-by-play announcers as Art Gleason, Bob Starr, and Curt Gowdy also broadcasted Patriots games through the years. The regular Fenway ushers worked the same sections during Patriots’ contests. It felt like old home week every time you walked into the old ballpark.

When I started to attend football games in the Back Bay, Dom and Emily DiMaggio had season tickets a few seats from my parents. At the time, Dom, a former Red Sox outfielder and the younger brother of the legendary Joe, wanted to buy the Patriots outright from Billy Sullivan. In 1964, Dom DiMaggio was a part-owner of the team.         

Don’t get the idea, however, that the Red Sox rolled out the carpet for their neighboring football brothers. The Patriots inevitably practiced at decrepit White Stadium near Logan Airport because Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey refused to let them use Fenway for anything but games. In actuality, “Uncle Tom” tolerated the Patriots during those years, thus mirroring his views on African-Americans at the time. They were allowed on his field, but only at his expressed invitation.

The ever-popular Twins’ Souvenir Shop, situated on what was then known as Jersey Street, was open before all AFL games and did sell a few Patriots jerseys and banners near the famed front entrance. However, their Patriots section was pitiably small as compared to their sizable Red Sox inventory. Nevertheless, I did purchase a Jim Nance jersey there one Sunday afternoon prior to an important Bills game in 1966.  

In my first year as a fan of the Boston Patriots, the team ended up with an impressive 10-3-1 record, tied with the hated Buffalo Bills for the AFL Eastern Division. That year, they were led by such veterans as quarterback Babe Parilli, wide receiver and placekicker, Gino Cappelletti, local linebacking legend Nick Buoniconti, and the four members of “The Boston Pops,” defensive linemen Houston Antoine, Jim Hunt, Bob Dee, and Larry “Ike” Eisenhower.

Thus, the Patriots hosted an AFL game in mid-December against the rivals, the Bills, in an unforgiving blizzard (yes, we took the Green Line in for that game). In a contest that would decide the AFL East Division Championship, over fifteen inches of snow fell at Fenway that afternoon. Sadly, we lost by 8 points to a Buffalo team led by their intrepid quarterback, the late Jack Kemp, who would later serve in Congress and as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Reagan Administration. Kemp was pretty successful in his first career as well. The ’64 Bills went on to defeat the San Diego Chargers in the league championship game, and, with a 13-2 overall record, they are still regarded as one of the most dominant AFL teams of their time. Such was the Patriots luck.

During the Fenway days, backup offensive lineman Justin Canale used to kick off Lou Groza style. That’s straight-on, boys and girls. Ol’ Justin’s kicks would inexorably soar and then tumble out of the sky. One time, he struck a pigskin so long that it landed deep in the end zone and one-hopped into the Red Sox bullpen where it was retrieved by the legendary usher, “The Whale,” a three-hundred-pound behemoth from Southie. Needless to say, he did not attempt to return the kick.

Because the Pats were members of the American Football League, their games were sometimes covered nationally by NBC with Curt Gowdy and color man Al DeRogatis at the mike. The AFL officiating staff all wore orange and white striped shirts – the league’s official colors at the time. It was said that Al Davis chose the fierce black, silver, and white colors of his Raiders because he was so embarrassed by the AFL’s pastel color scheme.

In 1965, I witnessed the Patriots play in a classic, wide-open style AFL game – a 42-42 tie with the Oakland Raiders at Fenway that featured thirteen touchdown passes, a game that renowned AFL raconteur Angelo Coniglio of Buffalo once called, “The quintessential AFL game.”

In 1966, Billy Sullivan, the Patriots principal owner, a man who had once been the Boston Braves publicity director, made a big deal about having two former Heisman Trophy winners on the squad – Joe Bellino and John Huarte. Because quarterback Babe Parilli got hurt at the end of a game, Huarte was announced as the starter for the next contest. Sullivan did a big PR push on “our two Heisman winners in the Pats’ backfield.”  

Of course, the first time that Huarte got the ball, he flubbed the handoff to Bellino who promptly fumbled it. One can imagine how loudly Sullivan must have groaned at that moment.

Nevertheless, for the first three years that I saw them play at Fenway Park, the Patriots were one of the two or three most respected AFL franchises. From my vantage point, they were probably the best team in the league in 1966 until they were derailed on the way to a championship by Joe Namath and the Jets on the last game of the season at Shea Stadium. “Broadway Joe” later admitted that he played that important game in a drunken stupor, a pre-Suzy Kobler moment for the legendary quarterback. If Namath had been sober for that game, the Pats might well have gone to the first Super Bowl. Instead, it was the Kansas City Chiefs who represented the AFL against Vince Lombardi and the mighty Green Bay Packers of the NFL. Once again, the Pats were merely a footnote in history.

In an AFL contest between the Patriots and the young Cincinnati Bengals in December 1968, the city of Boston would host its last professional football game.  At the end of that season, the Red Sox unceremoniously kicked the Pats out of Fenway. The rumor was that Tom Yawkey had had enough of Billy Sullivan’s shenanigans, but the public explanation was that the Red Sox field was getting too torn up as a result of some “challenging autumnal usage.”   

Thus, Boston College’s Alumni Field became the Patriots home for the 1969 season with the capacity at their new venue listed as 26,500. Because the fortunes of the team had taken a turn for the worse the previous two seasons, the team had less than 14,000 season-ticket holders at the time. Therefore, the franchise would not be inconveniencing anyone with a move to nearby Chestnut Hill. As my father said when the Pats relocated to BC, “At least they are still situated on the Green Line.”

In those days before it was entirely rebuilt, Alumni Stadium was little more than an outsized high school field. In reality, when NBC used to show a Patriot or opposing player punting the ball, all one could see on TV was the football spiraling in the air with a veritable forest of evergreen trees in the background. Yes, the stands were that low. When a family friend from Ohio witnessed a game on TV at Alumni Field back in Cleveland, he remarked, “The Patriots really do play in the sticks.”

By that time, we could only shake our heads. After all, despite the fact that the team had played pretty well over the previous five years, the rinky-dink element that had always defined the financially-challenged owner of the Patriots, invariably worked its way down – with unexpected consequences – no matter who was representing the organization on the field. As the Pats entered a period of unswerving ineptitude that would come to define them, humiliation and embarrassment would ultimately form the emotional bookends for all Patriots fans.        

It all began to truly unravel in 1969, when the late Clive Rush (pronounced Cleeve – not Clive), ended up coaching the team. The former offensive coordinator of the then World Champion New York Jets, Rush brought in such ex-Jets as Randy Beverly and Bake Turner to bring “a winning attitude” to the Pats.

He should have brought an electrician instead.

At a press conference introducing new General Manager George Sauer, Sr., Clive Rush almost died when a live wire he touched electrocuted him to his very core. According to those who knew him, he was never the same man again. He would last 21 games as the Patriots coach, losing 16 of them.

As the Patriots began to sputter pathetically that season, the volatile Rush began to drink – heavily. When the Pats lost a blowout game in San Diego late in the 1969 season, ol’ Clive actually ordered the bus driver to drive down the off-ramp of a California freeway in the opposite direction in order to punish the players. “We hung on for our lives,” reported one survivor of the experience. “The BC and Holy Cross graduates on the team began to say ‘Hail Mary’s’.”

Ultimately, Rush’s devotion to Scotch coupled with a team ladened with mediocrity had become a heady concoction for disaster.

The next season, 1970, the team announced that it would play its regular season schedule at Harvard Stadium, the Crimson having acquiesced on their previous disdain for the Patriots after the team offered to front the university a rental fee in cash. However, the Stadium was not available for the preseason as the university’s president, Dr. Nathan Pusey, did not want the NCAA to somehow think that a professional team would corrupt his Harvard varsity players through repeated exposure.“Perhaps Pusey means that he doesn’t want the Crimson to play like the Patriots,” my father surmised.

Accordingly, the Pats played a well-attended game against the mighty Washington Redskins on a blistering August afternoon at BC’s Alumni Field that turned suddenly hotter.

Yes, I was there – running for my life after some malcontent had discarded a cigarette in a trash heat under the stands which had then ignited the wooden structure that served as the frame of Alumni Stadium at the time. In a scene out of a Mack Sennett short, some ten thousand of us hurled ourselves onto to the field while the game was still being played, literally running for our lives. The play was immediately stopped, and we all began to mingle with the stunned players. I ended up chatting with Skins’ quarterback Sonny Jurgensen as the smoke engulfed much of the field.

When I returned to my seat that still felt hot to the touch, I turned on my transistor radio to find out what had happened. It has been left on to the local rock station in Boston at the time – WRKO. When I heard what Dale Dorman, one of the station’s deejays, was playing when I returned to my seat, I could do nothing but smile.  Yup, it was “Fire,” by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Even our local rock station that the Pats were a joke.

Needless to say, the Patriots never played at BC again.

However, they did play a preseason game in Alston at the Stadium – due, of course, to the Alumni Stadium fire – against the Philadelphia Eagles in which “access” to the locker rooms was denied because the Harvard varsity squad was conducting preseason tryouts. Consequently, the two professional football teams had to dress for the game at the Colonnade in Cambridge.

Imagine if you were a guest in the hotel when two completely dressed NFL squads began to show up in the lobby, waiting for a bus ride to Harvard Stadium. When both teams began to alight from the buses outside the Stadium for the game in full dress, my father began to shake his head.

A week later, at the opening game at Harvard Stadium against the Miami Dolphins, one of the Patriots special team players, Bob “Harpo” Gladieux, who had been cut by Clive Rush the previous Thursday, decided to make a sentimental visit to see his old team play. He had partied hard the night before, had smoked a lot of pot with a girl from the Back Bay, and was finishing his sixth beer in the stands before game time when he heard a blaring announcement over the Stadium’s PA system, “Bob Gladieux, please report to the Patriots locker room!”

A shout came from the stands as “Harpo” stumbled to the locker room below the stands. He had been one of the more popular players the previous season – his long, stringy blonde hair was instantly recognizable and thus, he been given him the nickname, “Harpo” – after the third Marx Brother. For the previous hour, Gladieux who had been cavorting with the fans in the stands; now found themselves erupting in laughter as he rushed to get dressed for the game. Within five minutes, ol’ Harpo raced onto the field just as the team lined up for the opening kickoff.

Gladieux, wobbly, pale, and completely looped, ended up making a solo tackle on the opening kickoff. The entire section at the Stadium where Harpo had been drinking shouted out in unison, “Holy shit!”

For years afterward, longtime Patriots fans would bellow out, “Would Bob Gladieux please report to the Patriots locker room,” before the start of every game.

When the great Johnny Unitas and the World Champion Baltimore Colts came to Cambridge to play the Boston Patriots in October that year, the Pats inexplicably played their best game of the season. With less than a minute left in a spirited contest, Gino Cappelletti struck a field goal to make the score, 7-6, Colts. Coach Clive Rush then logically called for an onside kick. To his enormous surprise, the kick went to one of the up-men, Tom Matte, who picked up the ball and ran untouched for six points – and the game.

        How had that happened?  Because the entire Patriots kickoff team had overrun the ball. The Colts fan sitting next to me laughed so hard that he cried. The concept of tears of joy remained unfamiliar to Patriots fans.

Later that season, when Patriots Owner Billy Sullivan decided to sign holdout Joe Kapp, the celebrated former quarterback of the NFC Champion Minnesota Vikings, he had the temerity to put Kapp in a Patriots’ uniform after arriving in Boston two hours before game time in front of forty thousand drunken louts at Harvard Stadium.  

For the next two hours, Pats fans continuously screeched and bellowed for Kapp to get into the game. When quarterback Mike Taliaferro had his bell rung in the fourth quarter, the people in the stands began to scream for Kapp to come onto the field, simultaneously cheering when Taliaferro was helped to the sidelines on a stretcher.

Of course, ol’ Joe entered the huddle not knowing a solitary Patriots play. Thinking quickly, Kapp fingered in the Stadium dirt where each receiver and running back should go. As Dad remarked at the time, “Only the Patriots would reintroduce the concept of pick-up football to the professional ranks.”

For the rest of the 1970 season, Kapp proved to be a failure, probably inevitably. While he was a determined leader in Minnesota, he was a mediocre (at best) quarterback with an arm that reminded me of noodle-armed Red Sox utility man, Jose Tartabull. As Dad exclaimed after watching the Patriots’ quarterback warm-up before a game, “Kapp’s throws look like kickoffs and move like hanging sliders.”

Ironically, Joe Kapp’s best game as a Boston Patriot occurred against his old Vikings team the day after a raging snowstorm in December when he nearly knocked Minnesota lineman Alan Page out after tackling him following an interception.

Another funny thing about that game: the employees of Harvard Stadium forgot to plow out the ancient concrete stands. Thus, we all sat in three-foot snowdrifts, which made snowball throwing that day a must. The referees almost called the game for the Vikings when entire sections of fans decided to target a solitary Viking and hurl their snowballs at the unfortunate player – quarterback Gary Cuozzo. When the gun finally signaled the end of that contest, another Patriot loss, it would prove to be the last game for the Boston Patriots.

For the previous five years, there had been some talk that the city of Boston would build a stadium for the Patriots in the South Boston. In fact, a design for a domed stadium in South Boston had even been approved by the Massachusetts Legislature in 1966, only to see funding halted when the local reps came to their senses.

By 1969, legendary sports icon, Bill Veeck, who ran Suffolk Downs at the time, actually offered the infield of his racetrack to be converted to a playing field for the Patriots. “We could have a series of horse races at halftime!” Veeck exclaimed to stunned reporters one afternoon. Never a man to say no, Billy Sullivan actually considered the idea for a spell.

However, by 1970, the wheel of fortune had turned for the franchise.  When Phil and David Fine offered a generous land grant on the grounds of the Foxboro Racetrack, the Pats announced a move to that Southeastern Massachusetts community for the 1971 season.

One day, my brothers and I decided to scout out the team’s new location as construction began that winter. We soon noticed a sign on the Bay State Racetrack that proclaimed proudly, “Welcome – Bay State Patriots!”

Yes, Billy Sullivan had impulsively changed his team’s home name in order to honor the racetrack that had saved his franchise. Thankfully, it took an intervention on behalf of NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle to have Billy Sullivan change the name from the Bay State to the New England Patriots. 

We were there in August of 1971 for the opening game – a preseason contest against the hated New York Giants. A stadium that had been built in less than two-hundred days and cost only six million dollars had a myriad of problems that day, not the least, of course, were toilets that would not flush and a traffic flow that would not budge. The two season-ticket owners next to me finally arrived midway through the third quarter after fighting traffic for three hours on Route 1. Not surprisingly, there was a flood in one underground restroom which seeped out of one of the exits and began slowly to spill onto the field – on the Patriots side, of course.

When Schaeffer Stadium officially opened up with a regular season contest against the hated Oakland Raiders a few weeks later, some Pats fans hired a local airplane sign firm out of Norwood Airport that flew over the Stadium with a banner that read, “Keep Gayle Knief!” At the time, Gayle Knief was a hardworking, overachieving, diminutive wide receiver who had just been cut earlier that week by Head Coach John Mazur.  

“Who the hell is Gayle Knief?” a Raider fan asked me when he saw the plane’s sign lingering overhead.

Mazur, who took over when Clive Rush resigned in November 1970, had his problems with bigger-name players as well. Enigmatic running back Duane Thomas of the Dallas Cowboys was traded to the Patriots early on in Mazur’s tenure. When, during the training camp of the 1971 season at Amherst, Mazur insisted that Thomas get down in a three-point stance, something Thomas had never done since junior high school. Mazur kicked Thomas off the field, and Thomas then returned to Dallas on the next plane where he later helped them to a Super Bowl win.

While 1971 saw the team improve with its heralded pair of Stanford rookies, quarterback Jim Plunkett and wide receiver, Randy Vataha, the team suffered another setback the next year. In the end, former Green Bay Packers Coach Phil Bengtson replaced John Mazur as the interim head coach in the middle of that horrendous campaign. Bengston, who had been Vince Lombardi’s number one assistant and had even replaced him as the Packers coach, quit as Patriots head coach at season’s end saying, “That’s it. I am never going to do anything connected to pro football again.” A man who had devoted his life to the sport for almost four decades refused to associate himself with football on any level ever again. Like many people, the Patriots had killed his spirit for the game.

One of the most popular players on the team during the Mazur-Bengtson years was Steve Kiner, the team’s own version of the Red Sox’ iconoclastic pitcher, Bill Lee. Kiner also happened to be an outstanding linebacker at the time. Steve was a long-haired, mustached Californian who actually lived in a VW bus in the Schaffer Stadium parking lot along with his hippie girlfriend. According to people in the know, he and his babe used to smoke pot mixed with granola in the bus and then take long walks around the parking lot at dusk. It was well known that Kiner was a Deadhead – his music could be heard blaring from his VW bus all hours of the day. When you walked by Kiner’s digs in the parking lot back then, it invariably reminded you of Woodstock.

In 1972, in their first foray in Foxboro on ABC’s Monday Night Football the day before the presidential election, the Pats decided to hire a circus performer named “Jumping Joe” Garlick to jump from three hundred feet above the stadium and free-fall to a large ballooned mattress in the middle of the field during halftime. Just as the circus aerialist jumped, a gust of wind picked up, and his descent suddenly seemed out-of-kilter, Jumping Joe ended up landing half on the edge of the mattress and nearly died. After Garlick staggered off the field, the fan next to me muttered, “I wonder if that guy works for the McGovern campaign?”

At the end of the 1972 season, I gave up my season tickets, knowing that I would be heading thirteen-hundred miles south for college the next season. While I had seen the Patriots in triumph, it had been the lovable losers – the Mel Witts, the Ike Lassiters, the Halvor Hagans, and the John Outlaws who had won over my heart, beginning with the first time I saw them in person in September 1964. They might have been hapless, but they were mine.

And, so, when I see what the franchise has achieved over the last sixteen years – talk host Colin Cowherd recently called them the greatest dynasty in professional sports’ history since the dawn of free agency – I still shake my head in wonder.

What would my late father, who died thirty-one years ago this January, say about all of this?

Probably something along the lines of…”Well, son, it’s a long way from ‘Bring Back Gayle Knief’.”

 

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2 thoughts on “The Goofy Years – The Laughable Patriots of Yore

  1. Gerry Murphy says:

    Wonderful stories, Shaun and beautifully written. I was laughing out loud at times. However, what about the “it could only happen with the Patriots” incident about the fan who ran onto the field and knocked down a hand off by the Patriot opponent. I don’t recall the team but Hank Stram was the coach. No one noticed until the next day when reviewing the film.Do you recall??? Gerry Murphy

    Like

    • Murph – It was against the Dallas Texans with Lenny Dawson at quarterback. I just posted the clip of the play on Facebook for you under my Blog. Thanks so much for your wonderful comments. Coming from you…..well, you made my year already.

      Like

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