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As Patriots pursue perfection, tailgaters go for it, too

Email|Print| Text size + By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / January 6, 2008

FOXBOROUGH - Back in the day, they showed up at Patriots games with a 13-inch Hibachi grill, makeshift flagpoles, and a measly 19-inch TV. One guy didn't even have a ticket.

That's the way it was -- in the fall of 2002.

Five seasons and two Super Bowl victories later, this particular crew of tailgaters descends on the P10 section of the parking lot at Gillette Stadium in the vehicle they call The Beast, a 2001 Chevy pickup packed with pop-up tents, two propane heaters, a generator, a Weber grill, and a Coleman with a stovetop. The Irish flag and red Patriot banners that mark their turf now fly from 20-foot-tall fiberglass flagpoles. They haul two TVs - a 20-inch and a 32-inch.

"We've got all the comforts of your living room except your recliner," said Jimmy "Wardy" Ward, 36, a plumber from Middleborough, who wrangles The Beast into tailgate position each Sunday.

Like the trucks they ride in on, some tailgaters' parties have inflated to outsized proportions - more elaborate, more lavish, more fully tricked-out than the bare-bones pregame rituals of yesteryear.

Likewise, tailgating by Patriots fans has evolved as the team's owners, the Kraft family, have cracked down on unruly fans and begun building a massive shopping and entertainment complex around the stadium. These days, fans no longer have to dodge frequent fights in the parking lots, but they may have to dodge traffic and negotiate construction zones to reach the areas designated for tailgating.

Yet, amid the change and occasional inconveniences, the game-day tailgate is one of the most enduring traditions in some people's lives. On any given Sunday you will find them there, whether it's a sun-dappled September afternoon or a frigid January night, regardless of their life circumstances or the Patriots' record at the moment.

Take Norman Gray. His father took him to his first game when he was 9 and the Patriots were an AFL afterthought, a breather in every opponent's schedule. Now the Patriots are a dynasty, cruising into the playoffs with an undefeated record and home field advantage. Gray, too, arrives in comfort.

The firefighter transformed a beaten 1985 limousine bus into a plush, if well-worn, Patriotmobile adorned with 18 captain's chairs, three faux-granite tabletops, a bathroom, and an array of high-tech equipment. The dashboard sports a DVD player, two 17-inch flat-screen TVs flip down from the ceiling, a kicker box pumps up the bass, and a 26-inch Samsung TV broadcasts pregame coverage from the hood of the bus on game days.

"You won't find me anywhere else on a home game. If I'm at work, I'm taking the day off," said Gray, of Wrentham. "If it's 0 degrees out, you're going to find us there because we're true fans. If it's snow, sleet, hail, rain, all four together, you're going to see us there."

The license plate announces the vehicle as "THE BUS." A friend helped Gray to paint the sides with Patriots logos, along with red and blue stripes and stars. One of the windows is encased in vinyl with photos of the family at Pats games on the road.

The tailgate is not just about the party, though. It's also the glue that keeps the family close. Gray's father (and namesake) doles out his 10 season tickets to his extended family. "It's kept our family really intact and close-knit," said Kathleen Gray, the younger Norman's wife. "And being that it is a sober bunch, it's nice for the kids."

Pats fans claim not to miss the riotous tailgates of the past - swept out by Robert Kraft after he bought the team in 1994.

"They've made it adamant that if you screw up you're going to lose your tickets," said Shawn D. McDonald, 50, of Dartmouth. "People don't want to do that and don't want to give their friends the tickets if they know they're going to mess up."

Ed Reynolds, 40, of Mansfield, compares 1980s-era Patriots tailgaters to the "soccer hooligans" from England and Ireland.

"It was more of a blue-collar atmosphere," he said. "Tickets were more affordable. . . . They'd start drinking at 8 or 9 a.m. for a 4 o'clock game."

Reynolds's own gang - including Skinny, Big Jim, and Touchdown Tommy - has developed new traditions in recent years. Sean Whalen, 39, of Reading, started bringing "Mystery Meat" to the tailgate for the first game of the season. They have grilled bear. Camel. Emu. Ostrich. Only the rattlesnake was inedible, Whalen allowed.

Randy "Zip" Pierce, 41, gets even more creative at his well-attended tailgate, which he calls the Razor's Edge in homage to the stadium's nickname. To prepare for the festivities, he and his friends bring "Bruschi brew," beer they make at an area microbrewery in honor of their favorite player, linebacker Tedy Bruschi.

Named the Fleet Bank Patriots' Fan of the Year in 2001, Pierce is uncommonly committed: He lost his eyesight to a degenerative nerve disease but still catches rides from his Nashua home with friends who accompany him and help describe the action. Tailgating keeps him connected with friends he has made over the years. "That's a rich culture. There's a lot of folks I wouldn't see if I wasn't still going," he said.

Tailgaters like Pierce do not feel like mere spectators, but partners in the Pats' historic run.

"Fans like to feel like they're a part of the action," he said.

And so, as at many tailgates, there are poems and rituals. There is even, in some tents, a sense that their rituals matter.

"The team needs you inside!" said Jerry "Rochie" Roche, 33, of Holliston, another rider of The Beast, describing his friends' triumphant dash into the stadium after their pregame chant. Roche and his friends wear retro red Patriots jerseys - a tribute to the players who helped build the team but never reaped the glory heaped on today's franchise.

Before each game, Mark Kelleher, 34, of Kingston, transforms himself into "Coach Kelichick," donning a wig and tossing out a football to that week's MVP of tailgating - someone who brought an especially good dish or handed out T shirts. The coach gives a mock motivational speech and leads his friends in a primal pregame chant:

"P-A-T-S! PATS! PATS! PATS!

Bricka-bracka, firecracka!

Shish, boom, bah!

PATS! PATS! Rah! Rah! Rah!"

But it seems you can fancy up a football fanatic only so much.

For this season's Philadelphia Eagles game just before Thanksgiving, "Coach Kelichick" and the crew put out a spread complete with stuffing, mashed potatoes, and cranberries. They brought a Frialator and deep-fried a turkey.

Then they spray-painted the carcass green and smashed it with a sledgehammer.

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com.

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