Gillette Stadium: Fitting monument to Pats' rags-to-riches story

Photo gallery: Gillette Stadium

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Aristocrats rarely rise from such humble origins.

It's hard to imagine today, but the Patriots, this decade's elite NFL franchise, were once football's ultimate nomads. Like a new graduate struggling to make ends meet, the fledgling Boston Patriots couldn't afford a home of their own.

The Pats spent their AFL days bouncing from one college stadium to another and even playing underneath the gaze of the Green Monster at Fenway Park.

After joining the NFL in 1970, the Patriots were finally able to scrape up the money to afford a place of their own, in the suburbs no less. But their no-frills starter home in Foxborough, 30 miles south of Boston, was a fine monument to Yankee frugality.

The stadium was lousy … and, for the most part, so was the team. The crowning moment for Foxboro Stadium (which used the shorter spelling of the town) was its last -- the 2002 "Snow Bowl" overtime playoff victory over Oakland (aka the "Tuck Rule Game" among Raider Nation) that launched the team to its first Super Bowl title.

After that inaugural championship, the Patriots moved into Gillette Stadium, a gleaming pigskin McMansion replete with the plushest amenities.

For veteran season-ticket holders like Reed Newton of Wayland, Mass., the transformation in the team's fortunes and the fan experience has been remarkable.

"Back at the old stadium, we had to tailgate on the horse track next door," he said. "Every time a car drove by, a dust cloud would fly up. It was disgusting. Trucks had to drive around to wet down the track. Plus, there were fights at every single game.

"It's nice now to have a real seat instead of metal benches … and bathrooms that actually work."

And now Gillette Stadium even has a glorified trophy case -- the Hall at Patriot Place -- to showcase the team's hardware and celebrate its championship success. The new museum is the crown jewel of Patriot Place, a massive complex of restaurants, shops and theaters that has sprung up around the stadium in a quest to make Foxborough a year-round destination.

The Hall at Patriot Place is closed on game days. But that just gives ticket holders the perfect excuse to spend an entire weekend celebrating New England football.

While Patriots devotees no doubt will get goose bumps reliving recent moments of glory, any football fan can easily spend hours immersed in the museum's artifacts and fantastic interactive exhibits.

The distinctive voice of Patriots owner Robert Kraft is among those welcoming visitors to the hall. While Kraft's ubiquitous presence throughout the museum -- his old Foxboro Stadium seats and a blown-up copy of the $15 million check he wrote as a down payment for the team are among the items on display -- may border on self-congratulatory, he's clearly earned it.

Since Kraft bought the team in 1994, the Patriots have won three Super Bowls (2002, 2004 and 2005) and built a magnificent, privately financed new stadium. But his greatest legacy may be in saving professional football in New England.

A ball cap emblazoned with the logo of the St. Louis Stallions, which was created to market a potential move of the Patriots to the banks of the Mississippi, sits in a museum display case and offers a stark reminder of how close the franchise came to skipping town before Kraft bought it.

Other items on display include the good (a seemingly endless line of game balls from the Patriots' NFL-record 21-game winning streak, including three postseason victories, in 2003 and 2004), the bad (a metal bleacher from Foxboro Stadium that looks as uncomfortable as ever) and the ugly (one of Bill Belichick's signature gray, hooded sweatshirts).

The Hall's quirkiest artifact, hanging from the rafters like a retired number, is the infamous John Deere tractor used to clear a path on the snow-covered field for a Patriots game-winning field goal against the Dolphins in game played during a blizzard in December 1982. The winning kick marked the only points scored in what would be dubbed the "Snowplow Game."

The Hall is a highly interactive (and at times game-like) experience right from the moment visitors cross the threshold and hear the sound of cleats on the floor and the roar of the crowd. Touch screens throughout the museum allow visitors to scan a timeline of the team's history, watch game highlights and learn more about the 13 members of the Patriots Hall of Fame.

Fans can try on Richard Seymour's helmet and Super Bowl ring, go under the hood of an instant replay booth to test their skills as a referee, then get in the middle of a huddle with life-size mannequins adorned in Patriots jerseys and hear Tom Brady bark out plays after consulting his wristband. Another neat thing is trying your foot at replicating Adam Vinatieri's clutch Snow Bowl field goals by kicking a football off crunchy, white turf against a video screen.

And don't miss the short movie on the team's history. Shown on a huge, panoramic screen, the film has the feel of a sweeping epic with its booming narration and pulse-pounding orchestral score. The sound system is so sharp you can feel the ground shake as Jets linebacker Mo Lewis lays the crippling hit on Drew Bledsoe that led to Brady's ascendancy.

The last room in the Hall houses the team's most prized silver: its three Vince Lombardi trophies. The trophies, bathed in spotlights, proudly stand alone in the middle of the chamber. While they are reminders of dreams fulfilled, Patriots fans can't help but think that the original blueprints called for four trophies to be on display after last year's perfect regular season led to a Super Bowl XLII loss to the Giants.

As the Patriots kicked off their 2008 season against the Chiefs, I was among the 68,756 fans eager to get rid of that nasty hangover from that fateful February Sunday in the Arizona desert.

Vehicles festooned with Patriots paraphernalia made the slow crawl down U.S. 1 past strip malls, warehouses and rundown motor inns until Gillette Stadium suddenly emerged like the Emerald City towering on the horizon.

Since U.S. 1 is the only road to and from the stadium complex, the long caravan stretching along the highway only looks like the final scene from "Field of Dreams." In reality, the game-day traffic is an absolute nightmare. Since it takes so long to get in and out of the stadium lots, New England fans have extra incentive to tailgate before and after games.

Gillette Stadium's parking lots become a tent city on game day, particularly during the winter, when fans huddle around charcoal fires and space heaters to brave the cold temperatures and whipping winds. Clam chowder (the New England version, of course) is always a favorite with tailgaters, and some cooks will mix in lobster and mussels with the usual grilled fare.