Patriots Training Camp kicked off on Wednesday, signaling the unofficial return of football in Foxborough.
It also means die-hard New England fans are back at summer practices for the first time in two years since before the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It was strange," said 13-year-old Domanik Streter, who was used to attending every year with his father. "I'm always expecting that one day in the summer where I'm up all night, basically. And it just never came (the last two seasons), and that was more time without football, so I didn't like that."
Domanik and his dad Steve made the trip from Worcester, Mass. and arrived in Foxborough at 11:30 p.m. on Tuesday night. They got some shut-eye in the parking lot of a 24-hour Dunkin Donuts not far from Gillette Stadium, but when the gates opened to the public at 8 a.m., the father and son duo were the first fans inside.
"We had to go six months without football," Domanik said, explaining their urge to arrive so early. "It's finally back."
This family tradition began when Domanick was five, but as years went on, the Streter men started making the trek earlier and earlier. Steve arrives home from work the night before to a garage packed and ready to go with their stuff. Domanick loads up the car while his father freshens up. Then they hit the road.
For them, it's become about a lot more than just cheering on their favorite team.
"It's moments that we will both be able to look back on forever," Steve said. "We have so many pictures and memories, and this is where we always sit when we come. This is the angle we like. We've gotten so many players to come over here. He just has helmets and footballs covered in autographs and that really adds to the experience. It's something we look forward to every year."
The same could be said for Zac Ventola, a teenager who has become well known by a few Patriots event day staffers.
"This is my 12th year going every day. I've been coming here since I was two," Zac said. "So yeah, you could say I've been here a couple of times."
Despite missing the last two years of camp, along with the rest of the public, Zac was in mid-season form when he arrived at Gillette Stadium at 7 a.m. on Wednesday morning.
His mother typically brings him to practice during the week, while his father gets weekend duty. When they arrive, Zac has it all down to a science.
"Get here pretty early and just try to get a front-row seat," Zac said. "Make sure that you're able to get in here quick, try not to get stopped you know? Don't run, you've got to speed walk. But just get here early so that you can get a good seat, get a good view, and hopefully get some autographs as well."