Anyone who has wandered throughout the P10 parking lot across the street from Gillette Stadium at a Patriots home game has surely witnessed the pure joy that is Tailgater2000.
The small, grey bus is fully decked out and hard to miss as fans pull into the lot. The group of friends who have been tailgating at Patriots home games together for, well, decades serves as a welcoming committee of sorts.
Beginning the day in Sandwich, Mike Young, who owns the bus, picks friends up along the way to Foxborough; the group sets up and people float over throughout the hours before kickoff. Like so many things this year, the Tailgate2000 looks different, but the spirit is the same.
Greg Helms, a member of the typical game day travel party, said after a lot of thought, a few members of the Tailgate2000 crew decided to host and outdoor watch party in his uncle's backyard.
The usual parking lot was replaced with a lawn. The guest list was significantly smaller than the 200 or so people who filter through on a typical game day. Gillette Stadium wasn't in the distance, but at least in a year that has been unrelenting, football is back.
"We've always considered ourselves a football family. We all just feel like a family, even though we only get together 10 or 12 times a year," Helms said. "It was like, oh man, we're really not going to see each other, but it was definitely great to get back together given the circumstances."
The game day routine is down to a science. Everyone has their part, but with far less people and preparation necessary for the backyard viewing, the 16-hour day was cut way down.
"It was definitely something we all wanted to do. We were nervous about meeting up, but I can speak for a couple of us that went, it was great. It's something we look forward to all year. The moment March comes, we're doing upgrades to the bus or just like trying out different ideas and then to find out that we're not kind of bummed us out," Helms said. "At the end of the day, at least we got to get out of the house, get some fresh air and know football was back. It's not the way we wanted to do it, but at least we were able to do it."
While it looked different in many respects, one crucial tradition remained – the "team prayer."
Gerry "The Reverend" McCarthy leads a crowd before every home game with a poem about the Patriots and the matchup. Over the years, it's become a staple, and fans from all over the P10 parking lot walk over to make sure they catch the sermon before heading into the game.
Through social media, McCarthy's first team prayer of the year was still heard by Patriots fans on the Tailgater2000 Facebook page.
"We have about 200 people that show up just to see that before they go in. They don't all tailgate with us before the game, but they do find their way over to us an hour before kickoff," Helms said. "A lot of people were just like I hope you guys are still willing to do that, at least for some sense of normalcy. It kind of reminds of us the way the lots would be, so Jerry decided he'd still be willing to do it for the home games that we have this year even though we're not actually going to be going."
Helms said they are hoping to do something similar a couple of more times before fall gives way to winter, and until the entire Tailgater2000 family can safely be together again in their usual parking spot, there will be things that no viewing party can replace.
"I miss the smell. There's a specific tailgate smell, whether it's my hoodie or the tent that I'm taking down, it just smells like the grill and it brings you back and I feel like I'm in Foxboro," Helms said. "We get a panoramic view of looking across Route 1 and seeing the whole Patriot Place, it's like oh we're home. I got up early today, but we're here."