top of page

The Mind-bending Disorientation of Tom Brady’s Return to Foxboro – Part 2: The Return

Updated: Apr 21, 2023

From the outset of my Foxboro experience on October 3, 2021, it was evident that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs New England Patriots matchup would be like no other game. For starters, it was surreal seeing SO many Patriots fans wearing the opponent Tom Brady’s jersey in every form – Pats, Bucs, Michigan.

From the National Anthem to the final whistle, the fans at Gillette Stadium stood during Tom Brady’s return game.

Patriots fans’ divided loyalties were on display all over Foxboro for the Pats-Bucs game.

Despite the weather being ominous, fans clearly were giddy to see their old friend in person, with the tailgating lots filling up earlier than normal. Although there was a hint of disappointment that another old Patriot Rob Gronkowski would remain in Tampa due to injury, it allowed the fans to focus on the Brady vs Belichick battle. The most common topic that I overheard during the walk to stadium was whether Tom or long-time Coach Belichick would “win” the game, ignoring all the other participants. I later learned that they both won the game on different levels.

Overall, there was a sense of unease in the air, with fans frequently voicing confusion about how to feel about their returning hero. In the “Us vs the Them” mentality prevalent in Boston sports, Tom Brady appeared to no longer be “Us” and now was the part of the villainous “Them.”

Former Patriots Tight End Rob Gronkowski, seen here at his 2018 football camp, missed the return to Foxboro due to injury.

​But I digress… One of the reasons that I personally was thrilled to attend the Brady return game was the opportunity to witness and photograph a major NFL record. As he entered the contest, Tom Brady was 68 yards shy of Drew Brees’ career passing record of 80,358 yards. The game reminded me of one of the first NFL games that I attended as a child – the Chicago Bears vs New Orleans Saints game at old Soldier Field on October 7, 1984.

Entering that game, Bears running back Walter Payton needed 67 yards to surpass Jim Brown‘s 18 year old record of 12,312 career rushing yards. During the 3rd quarter of the game, Walter got 6 yards to become the new rushing king. As soon as he broke the record, there was a huge celebration in the middle of the field with both teams congratulating Walter. The refs even stopped the game for a short ceremony.

Although my memories are strong, I somewhat selfishly regretted that I did not capture Sweetness’ record breaker on film given that I still was a couple years away from picking up my first SLR camera. Given that mild disappointment, I was determined to capture Brady’s big record breaking moment.

Left: Soldier Field in 1986 before it was substantially redeveloped in 2001-2.

Right: Walter Payton during his final regular season game against the Seattle Seahawks in 1987. Although I didn’t get a photo of Walter’s record breaking run in 1984, I luckily learned how to use a camera before Sweetness retired and Soldier Field was rebuilt.

All eyes were on the visitor’s tunnel as Brady darted out of it across the Gillette Stadium turf to give his signature fist pump to the fans. While there was a big cheer during his run, and the only “Brady, Brady, Brady” chant of the night, it felt somewhat restrained. One could sense the jilted lover vibe from the crowd. There was an awkwardness tantamount to a chance meeting of exes on the street.

Despite the uneasiness in the stands, all of the early-arriving crowd was fixated on Tom’s every move. With each Brady handshake, hello or throw, there was a murmur in the crowd. I can only imagine the intense fishbowl feeling Brady must have felt. He later admitted to the media that he came out of the visitor’s locker room as late as possible to minimize the experience. After only a few minutes, Brady returned to the locker room with an intense stride, exuding hunger and bottled up emotions. With his quick exit, he missed the video montage that that Patriot’s showed on the scoreboard celebrating his Patriot days.

Left: Patriots owners Robert and Jonathan Kraft eyeing Brady during pregame.

Middle: Brady’s long chat with the head referee before the game piqued the crowd’s interest.

Right: Former teammate Rodney Harrison during the onsite NBC pregame show.

Once Brady returned to the field, leading his fellow Buccaneers out of the tunnel, the ambiguity in the crowd abruptly ended. Brady and the reigning Super Bowl Champion Bucs were both loudly booed. The sound of Brady being booed in Foxboro felt jarring to me. How could a player who brought unprecedented glory to a team EVER hear the jeers of his former acolytes?

In contrast, Chicago Bears fans still revere each and every player from the team’s ONLY Super Bowl winner from 36 years ago. Some players like soccer legend Lionel Messi are so popular that they sometimes are even cheered by opposing fans. Meanwhile, Tom Brady has won SIX Super Bowl titles for the Patriots fans and those same fans gave a decidely cold shoulder towards Tom. I suspect the “welcome” Tom received was a distinctively Bostony thing. Bostonians display a special level of animosity towards any player that has turned his back on the Hub. It has happened countless times. Despite the history, I truly thought Brady would be different.

Left: The pregame video tribute to Tom Brady featured highlights from his Patriots days.

Middle: Despite booing Brady, fans wore all sorts of tributes to Tom.

Right: Tom Brady leading his new team onto the Gillette Stadium field.

​But I digress again… Despite Brady’s departure from the Patriots, his legacy already is cemented at Gillette Stadium both literally and figuratively. The literal comes in the form of the comprehensive and impressive museum at the Patriots Hall of Fame adjacent to Gillette Stadium. Such team museums are extremely common in Europe at football/soccer grounds, but only a few NFL teams have followed suit so far. The museum features both the Patriot’s team Hall of Fame and a fantastic museum of memorabilia from the Patriots’ glory era.

Over the years, the museum constantly was redeveloped to accommodate new trophies and championship rings. There must be a very fortunate curator who had the enviable task of archiving the Patriots’ and Brady’s accomplishments. There are other players and coaches that get their just due, but Brady’s total imprint on Patriots’ history is evident in every corner of the 20,000 square foot museum. Nevertheless, the man responsible for the vast majority of the Patriots’ trophies and history was booed upon his only competitive return to the stadium where such a museum was made possible.

The Patriots Hall of Fame museum is just steps away from where Tom Brady achieved G.O.A.T status.

Despite being the recipient of boos from the Gillette Stadium faithful, the Patriot’s Hall of Fame museum would be radically different without Tom Brady’s Patriot accomplishments.

Given Tom Brady’s and the Patriots’ unprecedented success, both the Patriots Hall of Fame and Gillette Stadium’s were a constant work in progress to accommodate all the new trophies, awards and banners.

After kickoff, many fans repeatedly performed quick math to determine how close Brady was to the passing record. With each completion, my buddy ticked off how many yards remained. As he got close, I photographed Brady each time he dropped back to pass so that I would not miss the moment. When he finally broke the record with a 28 yard pass to Bucs receiver Mike Evans, none of us even knew Tom reached the milestone.

The refs gave a generous spot and all of a sudden the scoreboard flashed the news. The crowd slowly gave out a cheer, again somewhat muted. Flustered by the sudden realization of what he had just achieved, Brady took a timeout to cap the anti-climactic moment. Unlike when Walter Payton broke the rushing record, or when Drew Brees surpassed Peyton Manning for the passing record, there would be neither ceremony nor pomp. While the game was tight, Brady was all business. He may no longer be a Patriot, but he still exhibits the “Patriot Way” of avoiding any distractions to the mission at hand.

Tom Brady’s record breaking pass to Mike Evans with 6:07 left in the 1st Quarter.

Left: Bucs receiver Mike Evans hauls in Tom Brady’s record breaking pass.

Middle: The fans only realized the record was broken when the scoreboard flashed the news.

Right: The only break in the action to celebrate the record was Tom Brady’s abrupt timeout.

With the record out of the way, the Brady-Belichick grudge match took center stage. After the nonchalant record breaker, the rain started to come down heavier and the crowd grew even more intense. Brady was sacked only one time during the game by Patriot Matt Judon in the 2nd quarter. Again to my surprise, the crowd lustily cheered Brady going down hard to the Gillette Stadium turf.

While I naively thought the fans would literally bow to Brady all night, they instead reserved their love for rookie QB Mac Jones, the ostensible replacement for Brady. The fans in Foxboro urged on the 23 year old from the University of Alabama with the same fervor an overzealous parent cheers on their child in pee wee sports. With that encouragement, the young quarterback demonstrated that he might indeed be a worthy successor to Brady by keeping the game close, albeit not in the same preternatural stratosphere.

With most of the spotlight on Tom Brady, Mac Jones quietly demonstrated on a national television stage that he might be a worthy successor to Tom Brady.

As the game wore on, it was obvious that Brady was both frustrated and desperately wanted to win the game. With the eyes of Belichick looking on nearby, he sailed a number of passes and demonstrably showed his frustration with the Patriots defense, the wet weather and the Buccaneer receivers. Not only was Brady boiling over with intensity, but my clear view of the Bucs’ sideline revealed all his teammates clearly understood this game was much more than a simple regular season non-conference matchup.

The game remained close in the 4th quarter, with a multiple lead changes. Due to the weather and Belichick’s chess match with Brady, the running game was on full display for the Buccaneers. Even Brady took off for a rare six yard run to get a key first down for his new team. Despite all the Brady hype, it was a grind it out game what was ultimately won on the ground.

Late in the game, Belichick mirrored Brady’s thirst for victory by calling a flea flicker from deep in his play calling trick bag. As a result, the Patriots took the lead with a field goal. It seemed like Brady and the Buccaneers clinched the victory when veteran kicker Ryan Succup booted a 48 yard field goal with 2:37 left in the 4th quarter.

Mac Jones, however, attempted his best Brady impersonation and methodically drove the Patriots into field goal range. It all came down to a last minute 56 yard field goal attempt in the driving rain by Nick Folk. I kept my camera trained on the kicker to capture either his celebration or devastation. The latter happened when I heard the ball doink off the upright and heard a collective groan from most of 65,878 fans at Gillette Stadium.

Left: The Bucs took the lead with a Ryan Succup field goal late in the 4th Quarter.

Right: Coach Belichick went deep into his trick bag in an effort to beat his star quarterback of 20 years.

In the end, Brady and his new team beat his old team by only a few inches when Nick Folk’s 56 field goal attempt hit the goal post with 59 seconds to go in the game.

Despite the heavy involvement of the kickers and running backs in the outcome, the story nevertheless would be that Brady barely bested Belichick with a final score of 19-17. By Brady standards, it was a very ordinary day, but he got the “W”. Belichick certainly proved that he remains a strategic mastermind by bottling up his former star pupil. Out of the noise of the day, most in the media deemed Mac Jones to be the big winner by holding his own in a playoff-style game.

As the teams exchanged handshakes and hugs, I had a very weird guilty feeling. While I had hoped for a “Brady” victory, I felt bad for the brooding Pats fans with whom I had been allied for two decades. I’m certainly not a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan, but a Brady fan to be sure. My maize and blue blood runs too thick for me to root against my Michigan brethren despite him heading south for the winter of his career. Perhaps the best result would have been a seven touchdown, 500 yard game by Brady in a narrow loss to the plucky Patriots. Barring some sort of fluke, it will be Brady’s last ever game in Foxboro. From my perspective, I’m glad that chapter is over because the conflicting emotions contorted my mind beyond comfort. That said, I’m damn glad I was there.

​But I digress one last time… To some degree, Brady’s return to Foxboro was a bit of performance art on behalf of Patriots fans. EVERYONE knows how much Tom Brady is revered by Patriot Nation. Once he retires and the spurned feelings are forgotten, Tom Brady will have his special day at Gillette Stadium.

On that day, the Patriots will retire his number and formally induct him into the Patriots Hall of Fame. Ironically, the recently-retired Julian Edelman, who caught many of Tom Brady’s passes, received his day in the spotlight just a week before Brady’s return. Despite me being mildly surprised that the game was not a four hour Brady lovefest, New England fans will give him a full-throated proper tribute when they are ready to move past the petulance on display during his first return home.


bottom of page