The Patriots experienced that Monday, some 18 hours after dropping a painful 21-17 decision to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI. New England's immense travel party of players, coaches, team executives, staff, family, friends, and other invited guests was so large it had to come back in waves. The first charter flight left Indianapolis at 10 a.m., followed an hour later by a second. Still more were traveling back later or on their own.
The majority of the team, however, was back at Gillette Stadium by early afternoon, an unseasonably warm and cloudless day in New England, the same weather they experienced most of the past week in Indiana. A small, but spirited group of Patriots fans cued up to show their support as the convoy of buses crawled back into Foxborough - a much more subdued scene than the 25,000 ardent fans who sent the AFC Champs off in style eight days ago.
Immediately upon arrival, team owner Robert Kraft spent a few moments with whatever media were able to get back from Indy or show up on a moment's notice. He thanked those in attendance and those still at a distance for their work in covering the team all season, and to the fans who showed up in Foxborough today to offer moral support.
Naturally, as he began the 2011 season following the death of his beloved wife, Myra, Kraft put a wrap on his team's Super Bowl year by invoking her name once again.
"When we dedicated this season to my sweetheart, I met with the players and coaches and asked them to do everything they could do to make this season special in her honor. I must tell you that the strength of spirit that I saw with this team is unlike any other team I've seen in my 18 years in the NFL. I think that that sense of spirit was ignited by our fans - the way they supported our team and also the way they supported our family."
As he said those words, Kraft placed his left hand gently on the MHK pin that has become the visual symbol of the Patriots' 2011 season. After a pause, he continued.
"That's something I'm forever going to be grateful for because I think this was a memorable season and one that I won't forget for a long time."
Kraft went on to note that in his family's 18 years of owning the Patriots, the team has endured just two losing seasons. That success, he said, has fostered a level of expectation that can often lead to such disappointment as losing a Super Bowl. However, getting to the NFL's grandest stage is what competing in this league is all about, and Kraft expressed optimism about the team's future, with a young core of players and another stockpile of picks in the upcoming draft.
"We're not going to change the way we run things," he promised. "Look, we're all disappointed in what happened. The beauty of the NFL and the reason, I can say this as Chair of the Broadcast Committee, the reason that the networks pay us the large fees that they do is that no one knows what is going to happen in a game ... no one knows. It's two or three plays that make the difference; that makes the game so exciting.
"I'm very proud of this team and what they accomplished this year," Kraft concluded. "I will forever remember the special effort that the fans have given and the support they have given to my family and to this team."
Only a few players - sleep-deprived as they were - had the energy to stick around and clean house. Tight end Aaron Hernandez, who was targeted on the desperation Hail Mary pass on the final play of the Super Bowl, silently tossed unwanted items into a large trash bag and dragged it away, leaving his empty locker behind for the time being.
Cornerback Antwaun Molden and safety James Ihedigbo paused to reflect on this lockout-marred, yet unforgettable, season that has come to an end just as abruptly as it began.
"I'm definitely proud of my teammates," began Molden, "to see where we've come from since August. It's definitely a journey - we had our ups, we had our downs, but we pulled it together."
"I'm not one for moral victories, but we had a very productive season," proclaimed Ihedigbo. "We dedicated it in [Myra Kraft's] honor and went out and played that way. It's one of those games you want to finish the right way ... but, things didn't work out that way."
The rest of the Patriots squad will likely be back at the stadium tomorrow to collect their luggage (which arrived separately), have final meetings, say their goodbyes to people they've worked so long and closely with these past several months, and go through the other necessary procedural tasks to put an official end to the 2011 campaign.
By no means will it be easy, though.
"It's a tough pill to swallow," conceded Ihedigbo, who also acknowledged that his "body's hurting."
"God willing, we can get back. It definitely gives us that hunger, that desire, to get back and bring that Lombardi [Trophy] back where it belongs."
"Oh, man, there's a taste in my mouth that's still there, and it's not going to go away anytime soon," Molden added. "I'm definitely looking forward to next year. Last night was pretty tough, but today's a new day, a brighter day."
And day one of the 2012 offseason.