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Remembering 2001: Before they were stars

Could 15 years really have passed since the Patriots stunned the world? Was there really a time when Tom Brady was no more a household name than Michael Bishop? Could Bill Belichick's job security really have been about as strong as Rex Ryan's?

As difficult as it is to absorb after the past 15 years of dominance, all of the above is true. Today it may seem like a rite of passage that the Patriots are heavily involved in the NFL scene deep into the month of January, but back in the summer of 2001 nobody was thinking in those terms.

Actually, it was the Patriots practice partners - the New York Giants - who resembled rock stars during their visit to Bryant College for training camp at the time. The Giants were the ones coming off a Super Bowl appearance while the Patriots, at 5-11 in Belichick's first season in Foxborough, appeared to be in complete rebuilding mode.

Several months later Brady successfully took the reins from the injured Drew Bledsoe, rattled off victories in 14 of his first 17 career starts and his life has never been the same since.

Neither has Belichick's, who now is regarded as one of the best coaches of all time after starting his Patriots tenure with a 5-13 record and coming close to a second career firing. 

To say expectations were low heading into the 2001 season would be like asking Justin Timberlake if he could line up a date. The team arrived in training camp with about two dozen veteran free agents as Belichick attempted to overhaul a roster that badly needed it. 

Most of the names were marginally known at the time. Mike Vrabel, Mike Compton, Larry Izzo and many others - solid if anonymous players who would soon become the backbone of a championship team. When the likes of Roman Phifer and Antowain Smith came aboard just before camp, few envisioned the transformation that eventually took place.

Then Bledsoe went down thanks to that viscous hit from Mo Lewis, a hit that easily could have taken a spot behind Jack Tatum's blow to Darryl Stingley that paralyzed the talented wideout. It didn't for a couple of reasons: Bledsoe was seriously injured, but not permanently, and in terms of pure football it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to the once-moribund franchise.

Brady stepped in and even though he wasn't doing many Brady things as of yet, he did show flashes of brilliance. Late comebacks against the Chargers and Jets highlighted his importance, but it was his steady hand and ability to avoid mistakes that keyed the Patriots surge.

Even now, 15 years and so many victories later it all seems surreal. How could this unproven, one-time fourth-string quarterback who some thought didn't deserve to stick around when the team already had the aforementioned Bishop in the fold, make such a difference? How could Belichick, he of the 41-57 career record, suddenly turn into the next Paul Brown?

The 2001 season was special in so many ways, and not just because it ended in the team's first of four Super Bowl titles. It was a magical ride that featured tragedy (the passing of quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein during training camp) as well as triumph, with many twists and turns along the way.

There were unconscious players on the sideline (David Patten) and unsung heroes (Fred Coleman) delivering at the most opportune times. A victorious opposing coach (Mike Martz) declaring the Patriots Super Bowl caliber despite New England's 5-5 record at the time. And of course the Snow Bowl game that featured enough drama and despair - all in one play - to write a novel.

It was hard to fully grasp what was taking place - try explaining a flight home from Carolina with half the plane huddled around Charlie Weis watching the end of the Jets-Raiders game in Oakland. The snowy picture barely allowed us to figure out the Jets victory meant a bye and one last home game at Foxboro Stadium, and the eruption of the players at game's end was enough to carry the plane all by itself.

The fact that all of this played out under the backdrop of 9/11 only made it seem like fiction but in reality added to the magnitude of it all. Who better than the Patriots to win a title at such a tumultuous time in our country's history?

The Patriots have won so many big games in the ensuing years, but in 2001, with the country in turmoil and the organization teetering, winning the Super Bowl was truly a magical moment.

When the championship parade and trip to the White House came and went, it was soon time to get back to work in the summer of 2002. Training camp was held in Foxborough for the first time, and now it was the Patriots who were the rock stars.

And it's been that way ever since.

This article originally appeared in the August 1, 2016 issue of Patriots Football Weekly. To subscribe, click here.

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