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Road Warriors: The 1985 Patriots

On May 13, 1985 British rock group Dire Straights released the iconic new wave track "Walk of Life" as part of their fifth studio album Brother in Arms. On January 12, 1986 the song found a special place in the hearts of thousands of Patriots fans who danced in their seats to its funky rock and roll melody as it boomed over the loud speaker of the Orange Bowl, ringing in an AFC championship and a Patriots victory over their divisional foes, the Miami Dolphins.

Ron Hobson, long-time Patriots beat reporter for The Patriot Ledger who passed away in 2017, recalled the moment like it was yesterday.

"I stood in the end zone, and I'll never forget this as long as I live, the Patriots fans were there, and they played music on the loud speaker. I can't understand why they chose it, but at that time the big song was "Walk of Life" by Dire Straights. They played that on the loudspeaker and the New England fans were swaying in the end zone to that song. Everybody's looking at each other, and this is three minutes to go, but they know it's over. They had beaten them."

Thirty years ago the football landscape of New England looked drastically different than it does today. There were no Gronk spikes, no Brady speeches, no flying Elvis, and significantly fewer hoodies. There were also no Super Bowl appearances.

After a 9-7 finish and the firing of head coach Ron Meyer halfway through the '84 season, the Patriots had developed a reputation with the local media as the team who couldn't quite shoot straight. However, inside the meeting rooms attitudes were changing, and that change started with the team's new head coach, Raymond Berry.

A prolific Hall of Fame receiver, Berry originally joined the Patriots in 1978 as the wide receivers coach under Chuck Fairbanks. He was retained under the Ron Erhardt coaching regime before leaving the team after the '81 season. When Berry was rehired to replace Meyer in '84, the first-time head coach immediately demanded a level of respect that his predecessor had failed to achieve.

Linebacker Andre Tippett (56).
Linebacker Andre Tippett (56).

"Every step of the way he challenged us," said Hall of Fame linebacker Andre Tippett. "Nobody was special. Everybody had to commit and everybody had to contribute."

In 1985, Berry didn't just challenge his players to improve their own games. He challenged them to challenge each other. Perhaps the player that most embraced the attitude was Tippett.

"I don't remember him ever having a bad game," said Hobson. "He may have had a bad play here and there, but he never had a bad game."

With a combined six sacks from the bookends of the linebacking unit, Tippett and Don Blackmon, the Patriots demoralized Packers quarterback Gary Ellerson en route to a 26-20 victory in their season opener. But the good times were short-lived.

In the weeks following their first game, things started to look all too familiar for the Patriots as they sunk back into the ebbs and flows of a mediocre football team. With a loss against Chicago, a win against Buffalo, two more losses against the Los Angeles Raiders and the Cleveland Browns, the Patriots sat at 2-3 through their first five games. Finally Tippet had enough.

"I threw a fit in the locker room after the Cleveland game and it was because I noticed guys were standing around kind of laughing at us, and we weren't doing anything about it," Tippett said. "I knew what everybody was capable of. We were fast, strong, very aggressive. You go out and you lose a close game where the only reason why you lost that game was because the effort was poor. It just wasn't acceptable."

When the Bills came to town the following week, it was obvious that Tippett had gotten his message across but even so, adversity would strike the team again. 

Drafted by the Patriots during the quarterback frenzy of 1983, Tony Eason was thought to be New England's gunslinger of the future. Although the young player had shown promise, it was clear he was still going through growing pains as he threw two picks in New England's Week 6 contest against Buffalo. Then growing pains turned into actual pain, as Eason went down with a separated shoulder midway through the game.

Enter Steve Grogan.

Steve Grogan stands between quarterbacks and receivers coach Les Steckel (left) and head coach Raymond Berry (right).
Head Coach Raymond Berry and Quarterback Steve Grogan.

Grogan, an 11-year veteran and Patriots Hall of Famer, lost the starting job during Eason's sophomore season in 1984. As a player who had been in the league for over a decade, Grogan was given the duty of teaching Eason the tricks and trades of the NFL, but when the young quarterback went down, the Patriots were relying on Grogan to have one more run left in him. And the vet delivered. 

Grogan, who called all his own plays, wasn't going to win games by throwing the ball for 300 yards. He knew he had one of the best offensive lines in the league, led by Hall of Famer John Hannah and 10-year veteran Pete Brock. He also knew his front five loved to run the ball, so that's what Grogan was going to do.  

Grogan captained the ship with expertise as the Patriots rattled off six victories in a row. Even when the vet went down with a broken leg against the Jets, the Patriots didn't skip a beat. With Eason back in the game, they continued to wear teams down by playing defense, creating turnovers and running the ball down the throats of their competition. Before they knew it, they found themselves competing for a playoff spot - something nobody would've predicted 12 weeks earlier. The problem? They still had to get through Miami.

It was a Monday night heartbreaker. The Pats kept it close, but Miami handed them their 18th straight Orange Bowl loss when Fuad Reveiz kicked a 47-yard field goal putting the Dolphins ahead by three late in the fourth quarter. With their Wild Card chances fading, the Patriots headed back to New England for a must-win contest against Boomer Esiason and the Cincinnati Bengals.

For players like veteran Steve Nelson, failure wasn't an option. Going into his 12th year, the inside linebacker understood that these opportunities were few and far between. It was time to pull together and get the job done.

"We had to win to be in the playoffs, and they had a good team," said Nelson. "You either have to play your best football or you have to accept being mediocre. We won the game."

The Bengals were stunned. The media was stunned. The Patriots were in the playoffs and nobody could believe it, but the road was only going to get tougher from here because it never led home. To get to the big dance, the Pats would have to win three away games in the playoffs - something that no team in the NFL had ever done before. The odds didn't look good. This was a team with very little playoff experience, a new head coach, a new quarterback and a history of losing close games, but as their opponents would soon find out, underestimating this band of road warriors would prove to be a very serious mistake.

New England plowed over the New York Jets and the L.A. Raiders with the same formula they used in the regular season - they ran them straight into the ground. With every victory, the Patriots gained steam, and so did the fans. 

"It was kind of neat because the good thing about playing on the road was we had to come back, and every game there was a bigger crowd meeting us at the airport," Grogan said. "It was really the first time I felt like professional football was getting the attention that the Celtics, the Red Sox and the Bruins had gotten for so many years. I really think that was the first time people sat up and took notice of the New England Patriots."

squishfish_3.jpg

The craze had started. Before the Patriots could board their plane home from L.A., it was time to "Squish the Fish," and New England fans were going to make sure people knew it. For the week leading up to the AFC Championship game in Miami, New Englanders hung up their Larry Bird jerseys in exchange for blue "Squish the Fish" t-shirts featuring Pat the Patriot wrangling a teal dolphin. The Patriots fans were ready. They were suited up. It was time for battle.

Even though the Dolphins were heavily favored, and New England hadn't won in the Orange Bowl since 1966, never once did the Patriots doubt they were going to win that game. They had worked too hard, they had prepared for too long, they were battle-tested and most importantly they were not losing to Miami twice that season. The Patriots weren't leaving Florida without taking care of business. 

Tippett recalls Coach Berry's pregame speech. 

"I remember Coach Berry saying, 'We've been delayed, but we will not be denied.' It was probably the most chilling thing I had heard him say in the time that he's been a coach," Tippett said.

hannah_john1985.jpg

On any other day, facing Dan Marino and his freaky-fast wide receiver duo - Mark Duper and Mark Clayton - would've been a daunting task, but on the night of January 12, 1986 the Patriots lined up in the rain and the mud and proceeded to steamroll right over their dumbfounded opponents. John Hannah physically abused the Dolphins linebackers driving them back 10 and 15 yards downfield. The Patriots running backs carried the ball for a combined 255 yards, while the defense held Miami to a measly 68 yards on the ground, but perhaps the key to the game was Patriots cornerback Raymond Clayborn, who rendered the infamous Marks brothers a non-factor in the game.

"We had a defense that kind of made Raymond play either Duper or Clayton without any help, and we pushed the rest of the coverage away from Raymond all day because we knew he was such a special player playing at such a high level that he was going to play well," said Nelson. "I don't know how many balls were actually caught on him, but he just played incredibly."

Cornerback Raymond Clayborn.
Cornerback Raymond Clayborn.

The fourth quarter seemed more like a Patriots home game than an AFC Championship. Dolphins fans were in their cars and on the way home while thousands of Patriots fans danced in their seats celebrating the improbable victory, but nobody was more excited than the Patriots players. They beat the odds. They broke the Orange Bowl jinx. They made NFL history by becoming the first team ever to win three games on the road in the playoffs, and most importantly, they were going to their first Super Bowl.

"To this day they're still trying to figure out how it happened," said Tippett. "It was the most wonderful feeling in the world. To go down there and beat somebody in their own backyard, that's probably one of the greatest victories you can have as a football player. It was amazing."

As history tells us the Patriots would go on to suffer a tough loss in Super Bowl XX at the hands of the Chicago Bears - a harsh ending to an otherwise fairytale season. But the players, the franchise and the fans - the real fans, the fans who showed up at the airport after road games, the fans who proudly wore their "Squish the Fish" t-shirts long after the season ended, the fans who swayed in the end zone of the Orange Bowl to Dire Straights' "Walk of Life" - those fans will always remember the road warriors of 1985.

Nelson said it best.

"There's only one first, and we were the first."

This article originally appeared in the Patriots Gameday magazine in 2016.

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