The players of the undefeated University of Rhode Island football team thought they had a long bus ride to Baltimore ahead of them on Friday. With a game against Towson on Oct. 16, they were taking it in stride, knowing they at least had a flight back to Providence after the game.
The buses hit the road, and as they passed exit after exit, the players started to get suspicious that they were actually heading to T.F. Green airport. Maybe head coach Jim Fleming had managed to secure a charter flight after all.
As the buses pulled onto the tarmac, the only plane in sight was distinct. With six Lombardi trophies and "Patriots" emblazoned on the side, AirKraft is hard to mistake. Slowly, it clicked.
They were getting a ride to their game on the Patriots plane.
"It's a pretty cool feeling … You don't think that you're going to be taking an NFL team's plane," said redshirt senior Henry Yiankopolos. "It's pretty surreal to take the Patriots plane because a lot of us are Patriots fans."
Fleming wanted to keep the reveal a surprise for his players. He felt like his team deserved to have a memorable experience like the one Friday afternoon.
"I'm almost looking forward to that reaction as much as I am the game," Fleming said before his team found out. "I think it will be a big thing, a very special moment for them … I think that will be a significant lift for them. It will establish the somewhat of a responsibility in terms of how we need to present ourselves on the field Saturday."
Up until the week of the game, Fleming wasn't even sure how his team was going to make it to Baltimore. They had budgeted to take a charter flight to and from the game, a crucial call that would prevent the team for sitting on a bus for several hours before and after expending energy on the football field.
While the flight from Baltimore back to Providence was all set, at the last minute, they were unable to find a crew for the flight there. Fleming and his staff wanted to avoid a bus trip, but as of Monday, it looked like they were destined to make the drive.
Then Fleming sent a "Hail Mary" message, knowing the Patriots were away. He was prepared to use the team's budget to pay to use AirKraft, but within hours, he heard back with news he couldn't have expected.
When the request got to Robert Kraft, he offered to not only let the URI football team use the plane, but to cover the costs entirely. This isn't the first time Kraft lent the plane out to a local team. Just this summer, Kraft surprised the Boston Renegades by flying the team to the WFA Championship in Canton, Ohio, where they won their sixth title.
Still, Fleming was floored.
"I almost fell out of my seat … It's incredible for us," he said. "It's an incredible show of support. It's visible and recognizable by everybody. It probably enhances our opportunity to go out and play as best we can and try to get another W."
This moment and help from the Patriots couldn't come at a more significant time for the URI football team. Having gone 5-0 to start the season, a win against Towson on Saturday would give the team a winning record for the year, regardless of how the rest of the schedule shakes out.
This is a milestone that signifies just how far the program has come. Since 2011, the Rams have had only one winning regular season (2018), aside from a 2-1 spring season in 2020. It was abbreviated due to COVID, and ultimately three of their six games were cancelled.
The 2019 team, which featured three players who would go on to the NFL, lost five games in the last minute of the game. Their record of 2-10 did not reflect what they had on the field, but this year, Fleming is seeing the talent match the record.
"What is special about this crew is that they've been in tight games and been able to win them," Fleming said. "There's that confidence that is bred from repetitive success … If we're going to make further moves, we've got to play well on the road. We've got to beat other conference teams … to get where we want to go, which is to be in the championship conversation."
As a player in his fifth year, Yianakopolos said they have been working towards a season like this, and to be recognized by the hometown NFL team makes it even sweeter.
"It's great. People start to recognize once you start having success," Yianakopolos said. "We've worked a long time for this. This is just an added bonus for us to be able to appreciate something like this, the Patriots stepping up and helping us out here. It means a lot."
While the team was excited and surprised to see how, exactly, they were hitching a ride to Baltimore, Yianakopolos said the team still has a job to do.
"We're ready to enjoy the experience, enjoy the journey and get ready to play a game and get back to business," he said. "It's business as usual. We got to stay focused."