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Home, Alone: Foxborough without fans 'surreal, weird' 

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – "If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

Where serious philosophers may once have grappled with this question, amateur ones today attempt to turn it into witty modern memes, as a quick internet search finds.

"If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to tweet about it," for example, "did it really happen?"

At the risk of joining such burlesque debate, let's ponder for a moment:

"If an NFL game takes place without fans in attendance to observe it, does it make a sound?"

Throughout the 2020 National Football League season, the Patriots have played before mostly empty stadiums, including their own. That will continue indefinitely. Stadium officials recently disclosed that, pursuant to government mandates in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, fans will not be allowed back to watch games at Gillette for the foreseeable future, at least through the remainder of the current NFL and Major League Soccer seasons.

Except, that isn't entirely accurate. There have been fans at Gillette games all year. Granted, they represent a fraction of the tens of thousands who'd normally be here, but they've borne witness to the most unorthodox season in sports history. This is their testimony.

HAVING FUN WHILE WE WORK

For a 1 o'clock game in any other year, Al from Boston arrives at Gillette before sunrise. He's not here to tailgate, but without him and his crew of three full-time employees and 165 part-timers, you wouldn't be able to do so, at least not here on the premises. He runs Gillette's Parking Department.

"You're the first person who's involved with the game that the fans are going to see, and you want to make sure they have a good time," Al asserts. "What I expect from our staff is [to greet everyone with], 'Hi, how are you doing? Welcome to Gillette. Hope you enjoy the game.' You don't want anyone to be cranky."

No one has ever accused Al of being that. If he loves anything more than football, it's people.

For 44 years, Al served the Commonwealth as a Massachusetts State Trooper. Because he loved football, in 1974, he requested Patriots game-day detail, and worked almost every game since (save a brief stint at Logan Airport), getting to know everyone who worked the parking lots along the way.

When a management position in that area opened up in the summer of 2018, Al proved a natural fit. He retired from the police force and joined the Patriots. Even though he's only ever been seated in the stands once for a Patriots game, Al enjoys being close to the action in his job.

"I have a great time," he maintains. "It's a great atmosphere. You drive around and you see walls of cars coming up Route 1 from the south and down Route 1 from the north."

But Al and his staff do a lot more than just take your money and tell you where to park your car. They're responsible for setting up the 100-yard game-day security perimeter around Gillette, making sure the many portable toilets are in their proper places throughout the parking lots, positioning those ubiquitous orange cones along Route 1 near the stadium, and arranging both shuttle buses for game-day employees and police escorts for the teams' buses.

Post-game, they also remove all the cones and completely clean every lot, so that, "by the time you come into work the next morning," Al continues, "it's like nothing ever happened."

All that preparation typically begins on Tuesdays, with inter- and intra-organizational planning meetings that occur throughout the week and can last upwards of an hour each.

"A 1 o'clock game, we're out of here 10 or 11 at night… It's a long process," Al concedes, "but a fun process. I like having fun while we work. As a former State Trooper, I'm used to working long hours. I'm 68 and I don't see retiring in the next five years."

He almost sounds like a certain head football coach.

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SUFFER WHEN WE LOSE, HAPPY WHEN WE WIN

By 5:30 a.m. at the latest, David from Minnesota has shown up. Like Al, David has a looooong day ahead of him.

Gillette Stadium is rare in the professional sports universe, as one of the only venues that operates all its Food & Beverage services in-house. Most others hire a third-party provider to handle such a vast undertaking. For 15 years, David worked for one such company, relocating to Hawaii and parts of the West Coast for much of that time. When pro teams opened new ballparks, David sometimes helped them get their food and beverage needs up and running.

As Gillette was under construction in 2001, the Kraft Family ownership team decided it needed a full-time manager for this department. David accepted the position, admitting, despite having attended a handful of 49er games while working in California, he wasn't much of a die-hard fan of any team.

That changed when he found himself at Gillette's opening NFL game in 2002, a celebration of the first-time Super Bowl Champion Patriots.

"I will never, ever forget standing in the stadium and just… man, it was exciting," he recalls. "I'll never forget that feeling. It's carried through the years. I remember the Snow Bowl, and [Tedy] Bruschi intercepted that pass and went in the end zone and people were throwing snow in timing with the music. Those are indelible memories.

"You look back and go, 'Wow, the fans were such a part of the game.' I'm a huge Patriots fan now, obviously, because it's what we do. It's what we work so hard for, and spend so much time and energy toward – to help make the operation successful. Without question, I'm more of a football fan now than ever, my 20th season here. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to land here when I did."

Normally, though, if he's lucky to find a quiet moment, he'll stop and watch a game live for only a few minutes. Which means he's accustomed to recording the games on television and watching in full the next day because he's so busy overseeing the feeding of thousands of people. When the doors and gates open to fans on game days, every food station, concession stand, and catering outlet in the clubs and suites MUST be ready to serve. Meanwhile, broadcast crews, media, and other hospitality guests are already being fed before then.

Consequently, planning starts the Monday prior, with David's culinary team ordering and receiving the massive quantities of food necessary for a game day. Production schedules are then formulated, with basic, preliminary preparation usually starting on Wednesdays. Several days are needed in advance to outfit every location properly. Due to the volume and variety of foods on offer, communication is essential, so, David holds frequent group meetings and extended one-offs with the culinary teams, executive chef, concessions director, functions group director, and catering director – all of whom report to him.

"The energy and electricity is palpable. It's a machine on game days for us. Everybody on our team takes it really to heart. We suffer when we lose and we're happy when we win.

"I don't leave," David reveals, "until we have closed out the event. At the end of the game, we still have post-game meals for various contingency groups, and we have this process of having to close down all our concession locations. I typically leave [a 1 o'clock game] around 8 o'clock, 8:30. So, a 15-hour day… That's probably about average."

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WAITING FOR TRIAGE

Bay State Donnie started watching Patriots games as a 12-year-old in 1975, when he first discovered that the region actually had a pro football team. For the next decade, he followed his team on TV.

"It was what you did on a Sunday when I was growing up," he remarks matter-of-factly. Then, during the miraculous 1985 season, he and a couple of friends scored tickets to the regular season finale against Cincinnati, his first in attendance. A win and underdog New England would be playoff-bound.

"It just seemed like everybody was on edge," he remembers, "like the Patriots were going to do something they obviously hadn't done in quite some time. Everybody was ready to explode when that moment came."

Win they did, and explode the fans did, rushing the field and carrying a set of goalposts out of the stadium and down Route 1. Although Donnie and his pals were long gone by that time, the frenzied feeling overtook him. He reiterated a prediction he first made as a 17-year-old.

"I told all my friends, 'Listen to me, I'm going to work for one of the four Boston sports teams. I just don't know which one yet.'" Nor did he have any clue what kind of work he'd be doing. "You know what," Donnie adds, "I didn't care, either."

Eventually, he accepted a job with a local paper company owned by Robert Kraft, for whom he did financial-related work. When the Krafts later purchased the Patriots, a position opened up in Information Technology, and Donnie leapt at the chance to learn a new trade while fulfilling his youthful dream.

He's here for 1 p.m. games at 6 a.m. now, because of the lengthy checklist of items he and his IT colleagues must tackle, starting with the team's modern technology needs on the field.

"At about 8 o'clock," Donnie begins, "we start rolling out the Microsoft carts to go on the sidelines. We set up and then test all the phones that go up to the press box and the coaches' booths. After that, we're waiting to hear from various departments who might have any problems.

"Normally, I'm up in the Red Level Press Box, because it's equidistant to the east and west sides of the building. So, I can get to either side fairly quickly. We're just kind of at the ready, waiting for triage calls to come in, so to speak. Hopefully, we'll get to watch some of the game."

THIS SENSORY SHOW

Driving to Gillette on game days still gives Abbey from Cape Elizabeth, Maine the chills.

"Sometimes I get there at 7 o'clock and the sun's just kind of coming up over the stadium… there's nothing like it."

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She first experienced the thrill of seeing a game in person while in college. Her father took her to a preseason game.

"You spend so many years watching it on TV and being invested in the team," she points out, "and then to be there… to me, that was always the magic, to experience it in person. Smelling the food, hearing the Musket Men. I will always feel that way."

Everything entertainment-wise that goes on inside the stadium, apart from the game itself, is a precisely scripted ballet. Pre-game ceremonies, including national anthem performances, must be timed out to the second in order to ensure that kickoff isn't delayed.

Personalized messages that appear on the giant video boards, music that blasts out of the sounds system, cameras that showcase fans at various points during the game, halftime shows and ceremonies, and the important notices read by the public address announcer – all these and other aspects of the performance are orchestrated and executed by Abbey and her 50-person staff.

That includes John from Fort Worth, Texas. Having grown up in the Dallas area during the 1970s, his world revolved around the Cowboys.

"We literally planned church and family meals around the Dallas Cowboys," John fondly recalls. When as a teenager he finally saw the Cowboys and Raiders play in person at Texas Stadium, he was overwhelmed by the enormity of the atmosphere.

"Little did I know," he chuckles, "that I'd be spending a good portion of my adult career trying to do the same thing every week for Patriot fans."

John's now in his 29th season as New England's in-stadium public address announcer. Like Abbey's, John's drive into work never gets old for him.

"I still get little butterflies, the chills a little bit, the energy level picks up whenever I approach Gillette to go to work. It has never waned. It's always exciting. I always look forward to doing my job.

"At Gillette, we don't have a problem drawing fans. Our job," he details, "is to make sure it's a memorable experience every time you step onto the grounds. We want to envelope you in the experience the moment you get there. That's why you sometimes hear my voice on the speakers outside the stadium. We're putting together this sensory show… because you can't get that sitting in front of your 60-inch TV on our couch in your living room."

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THE CRAZY ENERGY

No later than 8 a.m., Jenn from Central Mass and Alexis from Boston meet up in a nondescript, one-level structure behind Gillette Stadium, adjacent to the team's training camp fields. Inside the Cheer Building, they discuss the day's schedule. Alexis then practices routines with her fellow cheerleaders, while Jenn, who coordinates their appearances, takes care of any last-minute details, including managing the official Patriots Cheerleader social media channels.

Then, with a few hours remaining before kickoff, they hop onto a golf cart and whizz around the grounds to make numerous pre-game appearances. Once the game kicks off, they're on the field, Alexis performing and Jenn ensuring all goes well.

Being a Patriots fan is a hereditary trait, both women say, adding that they're fortunate to have come of age during New England's Super Bowl dynasty.

"My first game was a pretty lucky experience," Jenn remembers. "A friend of mine from high school took me [in 2009] and we actually had awesome seats on the 50-yard line, Patriots side. We were lucky enough to get on TV and on the Jumbotron. Little did I know I'd have much crazier Patriots experiences just a few years after that," she laughs.

"I just remember the crazy energy. I was so excited, having been a Patriots fan my whole life. Even now, that excitement… it's only grown since I first started working here [in 2014], and actually getting to be on the field? It's almost indescribable."

Alexis, whose mother owns a dance studio, knew she wanted to be a Patriots Cheerleader the first game she ever attended at Gillette.

"I was in high school," she explains with a laugh, "and I was pretty much watching the cheerleaders the whole time. But the energy was just amazing. We were probably up in the last section you could be in, and it was incredible. Everyone was just electric. It was so much fun, and I just knew in that moment that I wanted to be on that field someday and performing for the fans.

"I met so many people in the parking lot that day. We were kind of bonding and making food, and that rush to go into the stadium when the game's about to start is incredible."

Her first game in uniform came in the 2019 season opener, when the Patriots unveiled their sixth Super Bowl banner.

"Getting there so early, before the fans, riles up some nerves," Alexis admits, "because you know what the day's going to bring. You know how many people are going to be there. We listen to it all happen outside our practice space."

Today, when Alexis and Jenn stop to listen for the game-day crescendo outside their building, the silence is deafening. Because this is not any other year. It's 2020.

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A MISSING PIECE

"Pregame, you go out there, nobody's yelling at you, calling your name. That's different."

Ivan Fears, easily the longest-tenured assistant on Bill Belichick's coaching staff, has seen a lot of pro football during his 30 NFL seasons, 24 of which have been spent in Foxborough. Nothing prepared him for this, though.

"When you stand out there, the stadium's totally empty, except for a few photographers and things like that. That's strange."

There are some tactical advantages to playing without spectators, particularly when New England is away. Less practice time needs to be dedicated to working on offensive silent counts, for instance, and the raucous environments that some NFL stadiums can create haven't been an issue for the Patriots on the road this season.

Of course, that dynamic works both ways.

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Josh McDaniels, New England's longtime offensive coordinator, is now in his second go-round with the club.

"Nobody would really say that they would prefer this," he says of 2020, the Season Without Fans, "whether it's a home or away game. The home games, you definitely feel you have some advantages there – our crowd noise when the other team has the ball. And then the momentum and the adrenaline that you can create making positive plays and stringing them together, along with the noise of the stadium."

How are the Patriots generating that emotion this season?

"We've got to get it from each other. That's what it comes down to," Fears contends. "Your cheerleaders are us, the rest of your teammates, the guys on the sideline. That's where you get your extra energy from. Once the game starts, you're totally focused on the game."

"When there are people back in the stadium, obviously we look forward to that," McDaniels continues. "We certainly miss our fans and the advantage they give us at home. More than anything, personally, I miss my family being there.

"All these guys – players, coaches – sacrifice a lot during the course of the week, time away from our families. And that day is usually when you get to share the experience with them. That's a missing piece, for sure. But I think we've gotten used to the environment."

The same cannot be said for everyone, however.

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ALL THAT'S GONE

"Seeing the parking lots empty, not seeing any fans… Sometimes," Al, the parking manager, confesses, "I don't even want to watch a game because it's not like a real game. I understand why it's happening, but it's just sad. I feel worse for the people who lost family members due to COVID-19. Everybody who works here understands that, because we'd be in a worse situation [with the virus]."

For this year's regular season opener, a 1 o'clock kickoff versus Miami, Al didn't need to be here at 5 a.m. He arrived around 10. His 45-minute meetings during the week only lasted 10, 15 minutes, tops. The players and coaches parking lot, and the COVID testing trailer, directly behind it, are essentially all Al and his handful of full-timers need to oversee.

David, from Food & Beverage, also readjusted his game-day routine significantly. Where normally he'd be managing a staff of around 1,500, "Today we have two or maybe three dozen. That's it. We're under 50, for sure. Embarrassingly enough, I roll in at about 11 o'clock," he divulges.

"I might stand up at the windows in the club by myself and watch a little bit of the game, maybe with some other senior management… It doesn't really feel like a game is happening. That energy, that electricity, that buildup of anticipation as we're getting close to the gates opening and the parking lots are filling and you look out and it's a sea of cars and tents and tailgating, throngs of fans walking in… all that's gone.

"I walk around and there's not much to check on. I touch base with a couple of my folks. We're feeding some essential stadium staff, officials, visiting team, the limited number of press and the broadcast teams, and that's it. Then the game happens, and I go home. No traffic. I'm home in 25 minutes. I see enough of the game now that I don't have to record it or watch it when I get home."

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Instead of his usual spot in the Red Level Press Box, Donnie the IT professional is stationed with his colleagues in a vacant suite, Blue 66.

"It was bizarre as hell. So strange," he laments of the 2020 season opener. "At one point, one of the Dolphins coaches was screaming at his players on the sideline, and you could hear every word they were saying. You would never be able to hear that on a normal game day because of the noise of the crowd. It's like watching a scrimmage or a practice. It's so quiet."

Yet, the games must still go on, different as they are.

READY FOR THE SEASON TO START

Although he still shows up at 6 a.m. – his pre-game checklist hasn't changed – Donnie's game-day jitters don't.

"It feels more like just coming to work than before," he remarks, "because there's nobody here. It's less of an event. The only cheering you're hearing is from the teams' sidelines. We're not even cheering up in our suite. We're just taking it in. It's so surreal."

"I can sum it up in one word: Weird. Bizarre. I try not to think about it," adds John, the public address announcer. He still calls each play, though it's more business-like than usual.

John Rooke, a Fort Worth, Texas native, has been the Patriots public address announcer for 29 seasons. Here, he calls the game against the Baltimore Ravens in front of empty stands.
John Rooke, a Fort Worth, Texas native, has been the Patriots public address announcer for 29 seasons. Here, he calls the game against the Baltimore Ravens in front of empty stands.

"I don't go all-out like I do when the stadium's full, because, quite frankly, there's no need to. For example, I'm not going to do, 'That's good for another Patriots… FIRST DOWN!" because it's just silly [without fans to respond].

"I'm doing a professional job for the benefit of the few people who are there in the stadium. That's my role. When we get fans back, then I put my entertainment hat on, and I'm going to go back to making it an experience as best as I possibly can for the people."

The cheerleaders are still doing their thing, albeit up on the lighthouse bridge overlooking the field, rather than on it. They also try to continue doing as many community appearances as possible throughout the week – remotely, if not in person – to stay connected with fans.

"We've had to be a little bit more creative," explains Jenn, the cheerleader coordinator. "Our goal now on game days is to provide content for the fans so they can still have a game-day experience, even though we're not together. A lot of that is my doing social media, filming what the cheerleaders are up to throughout the day. And hopefully catch the attention of the TV broadcast so fans can get a glimpse of us at home when they're watching on TV, just to bring a little of that game-day experience to them. But we definitely make the most of it, and it's still fun."

The normally 34-person cheer squad has been reduced to 14 in 2020 due to COVID guidelines for the maximum allowable number of people in their building at one time. Six cheerleaders perform in-stadium each game on a rotating basis.

"It does kind of take away from that in-person moment and excitement you usually feel when you do have 70,000 fans," admits Alexis, one of the 14, "but we always have the fans in the back of our minds, and we're excited to give them any kind of content that we can, to make sure they're still feeling involved with us. At the end of the day, that is our job on a normal game day or on a very abnormal game day."

Abbey, the in-game entertainment producer, has pivoted her responsibilities somewhat this season as well.

"What we're doing now," she points out, "is focusing on the team and the players. There's nothing we can do about the lack of fans. We've shifted our music playlist a lot, taking suggestions from the team, and really trying to play as much of that as we can that helps them, to pump them up, without completely changing our repertoire, because we still want to make it fell like a Patriots game day.

"And we're still getting those replays up quickly in case Belichick needs them. So, we're still affecting the game as best we can, so, there's a sense of pride in that. But I still feel like I'm ready for the season to start, and it's because there are no fans. The impact they have on the game itself, the noise they bring, the energy they bring the team during the game, and game day in general, leading into the game. It's very evident this season without them."

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A TREE FALLING

Only two more Patriots regular season games remain in 2020. Without folks like Al, David, Donnie, Abbey, John, Jenn, Alexis, and others, the games that have been played at Gillette this most unusual season would not have been possible. Yet, without fans in the stands, the games are just not the same.

"Of course, we love and support the team," states David from Food & Beverage, "but for us, it's all about the fans, because that's who we serve and entertain."

"As the games go on, they're still exciting. It's still an NFL football game," maintains Jenn, the cheerleader coordinator. "But I'm really anxious for the day when fans can come back."

So is Al, the former State Trooper, who misses seeing cars congesting Route 1 and filling up his parking lots on Sundays. He insists, "I'll never get used to the way it is right now. I just can't wait till there's some type of vaccination."

With news reports of promising developments in the medical world popping up on an almost daily basis, Al and the rest of us should have cause for optimism.

In the meantime, as 2020 draws to a close, patrons and passers-by of Patriot Place might detect flashing lights or ghostly voices reverberating from inside Gillette Stadium, leading them to pause and wonder, "What is that?"

Rest assured, it is a tree falling in the woods, pining for the days when you'll be around to see and hear it once more.

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