ATLANTA – It is early in the year 2000. Weeks have passed since the New Year's holiday and worldwide fears of a Y2K computer apocalypse have abated. Bill Belichick is hired as Patriots head coach. It will be two years before his Patriots capture their first Super Bowl title.
Throughout the 2000 and much of the 2001 regular seasons, Belichick coaches his team on Sundays. Following almost every home victory at the then-Foxborough Stadium, he concludes his post-game press conference in the team's weight room and heads for the tunnel back to the field. Another game is about to kick off.
In fact, it's already in progress.
The only people in the stands are members of the cleaning crews sweeping up the detritus left behind earlier by fans. On the soggy, torn-up turf, several young boys and girls engage in a touch-football contest almost as spirited as the tackle version that concluded less than an hour ago. Belichick joins one of the huddles to play quarterback. His teammates – or sometimes his opponents – are his sons, Steve and Brian, and his daughter Amanda and many of their friends.
At Super Bowl LIII Week in Atlanta, Steve's face lights up when he's reminded of those days.
"Yeah, we used to have a lot of space out there. It's crowded now out there. A lot of people [on the field after games]. Like you said, there wasn't anyone out there before, just us. Yeah, those were like the best memories. I love that."
Over the past 17 years, Steve Belichick has matured from a boy to a man who now coaches safeties for his father's Patriots.
"I'd probably be lying," he continued, "if I thought I was going to be here one day. I was just enjoying the moment, having fun. Happy we won and allowed to play on the field with my dad and my friends.
"It's crazy. I don't know. Till you asked this question, I never really thought about it like that. Yeah, we've come a long way. Fortunate to be in one place for a long time in this business. A lot of ups and downs, but those were definitely good times."
Some players and coaches spend decades in the NFL without ever having a chance to appear in a Super Bowl. It's important to consider that, particularly if you're a member of the Patriots organization. Most of the players and staff on this 2018 team have taken part in so many Super Bowls, they can find it hard to differentiate between them all.
However, ask them about their first-ever experience at a Super Bowl and they can recall it in vivid detail.
The 2001 season ended a week later than scheduled because of the events of Sept. 11, which forced the NFL to move Week 2 to what should have been Wild Card Weekend. That pushed all the playoff games back a week, leaving just one week between the conference championships and Super Bowl XXXVI.
Josh McDaniels was a baby-faced young man with a crew cut working in his first NFL job as a Patriots scouting assistant.
Check out photos of the Patriots practicing at Georgia Tech on Friday, February 1, 2019 in preparation for Super Bowl LIII.
"It was a very, very condensed [week]," McDaniels recalled. "We won the [AFC Championship] game on Sunday, came home from Pittsburgh, and we were scrambling from that point forward, because all the things we cram into two weeks, now we had basically six days to get done.
"I remember the team went down on Monday with Bill. The staff stayed and game planned and then joined them down there on Tuesday in New Orleans. There were a lot of late nights, just trying to catch up to all the things you have to do on a normal week, but obviously this game has more significance than any other you've ever played in.
It was kind of a whirlwind."
"It went by SO FAST, it was like a blur," remarked Ivan Fears, the long-time running backs coach who'd never been to a Super Bowl before.
"That was exhausting. You didn't really have time to breathe. We worked our asses off after that [Pittsburgh] game. Game plan on a Monday to get on the ---damn plane on Tuesday, at the same time trying to say, 'Okay, do I have enough rooms for my family? How many people are we putting in one room?' The tickets, the cost of the tickets, who's paying for what? That was not a very relaxing Super Bowl. Plus, you're playing the Rams, who kicked our ass earlier in the year. It was nothing to look forward to."
The Rams, meanwhile, had just won a Super Bowl two years earlier. Many of their players and coaches and support personnel knew what to expect and were considered a juggernaut on the verge of becoming a football dynasty. Somehow, Belichick's inexperienced upstarts managed to upset the apple cart.
"We had expectations," McDaniels continued, "of going in there and competing like we had all year. I know we were a significant underdog in that game, but I don't think we approached it that way. We knew we had a good team. We went in there and tried to do the best we could."
"Only one week? It was crazy. Flat-out crazy," Fears emphasized.
Long before the teams who play in a Super Bowl are decided, the NFL assigns with conference is the home team and where the participants' team headquarters will be located. This week in Atlanta, the Patriots are the designated visiting team and have an envious location in the heart of midtown Atlanta, a couple blocks from their practice facility and within walking distance of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
New Orleans presented a similar advantage for the Patriots for Super Bowl XXXVI.
"Thank goodness we actually went to New Orleans because they had a great set-up for us," Fears explained. "Everything was right downtown. You could actually walk to the stadium. We actually walked from the game back to the hotel, and all the stores and Bourbon Street were right there. That part made it much easier.
"But that first Super Bowl… ---damn, it was there and gone before you could shake a stick. Next thing you know, you're celebrating. 'We did it? We DID it? Yeah, we did it!'"
"The guys played great," McDaniels observed. "We were fortunate to win at the end. I thought it was a great place to have the Super Bowl down there. Walked home from the Super Bowl to the hotel. The weather was good. It was an incredible event for me, my wife-to-be. That first year was kind of surreal. Great way to cap it off."
But that was only the beginning. It was impossible for any of the Patriots who are still associated with the organization to realize that there was much more to come. Seven more Super Bowl appearances would follow, and now the organization is back for yet another – a chance to win the Patriots' NFL record-tying sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy.
While much has changed since 2001, at least one aspect of the Super Bowl remains the same, according to Steve Belichick.
"Yeah, it's expensive to come out here!" he quipped. "My dad always told me, you've got to treat them like they're once-in-a-lifetime experiences, because they are. I've been lucky enough to have the same core group of friends come out and support me every time. We have a blast. I'm looking forward to them getting here [in Atlanta]. I've transitioned from being on the family side of it to having my family come to it. It's been cool because my family is growing and I'm making my own little name for myself – a little scratch of my own name."
And no matter how many times the Patriots take part in the Super Bowl, the novelty, they insist, never wears off. The jitters always resurface. Fears giggles at the thought.
"That's right. I think each one of them generates their own anxiety levels. You're always playing against the very best from the other conference. You look at them on film and think, 'How are we going to beat these guys?' And you never give your guys the credit they deserve to have that kind of game."
Can the Patriots do it again over the Rams in Super Bowl LIII this Sunday night?
"The Rams are a really good football team," added Fears. "To go into that game and win? That's going to be special. It really is going to be special [if it happens]."
"I remember calling my dad before a game in college or something, telling him how nervous I was," said Belichick, "and him saying, 'I'd be nervous if you weren't nervous. You've put so much work, effort into this, you should have a little jitters, but if you're prepared, it'll go away and you'll play your game. But if you didn't prepare, then you're probably going to be anxious, play tight and not how you wanted to play. Good luck and no penalties.' That's what he always used to tell me. I definitely still get nervous because I worked hard to get here."
Steve Belichick still plays football games with his father. Only now, instead of empty stadiums, they're shoulder-to-shoulder on the biggest of stages.
"You have to have a pinch-yourself moment every once in a while," he philosophized. "Just have to re-focus it, but at the same time, you have to take it all in, because this is why I've worked so hard. I'm not going to miss it."
New England held its final padded practice of Super Bowl LIII Week Friday at Georgia Tech, and every player participated fully. That included linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who was held out of action Thursday due to an unspecified illness.
"He did everything today," head coach Bill Belichick said afterward of Hightower's return to practice. "You could hear him talking out there, and that's usually a good sign with him. He has plenty of energy."
Regular down-and-distance, red zone, two-minute, and other situational work was the focus of today's final session, according to designated pool reporter Jenny Vrentas. Once the serious business was complete, there were some light-hearted moments, including a guest appearance by Lawyer Milloy. The former Patriots safety, part of the original 2001 squad that defeated the Rams, broke down the team huddle with New England's trademark "Awww, yeah!" catchphrase.
Belichick noted that his team has practiced six times, dating back to last week in Foxborough, in preparation for Super Bowl LIII.
"We have hit everything," he declared. "I think we are ready to go."
Patriots give back to ATL
The AFC Champs are on the precipice of NFL history. While it would be understandable if they could think about little else, the Patriots appear to realize how fortunate they are and how less-fortunate others are.
The City of Atlanta has been a gracious host for this year's Super Bowl festivities and the Patriots wanted to express their thanks in part by doing some good for the local community.
During the day Friday, several family members and friends of players, coaches, and staff spent time volunteering at an Atlanta nonprofit that helps the homeless. A number of Patriots alumni and Cheerleaders in town for the Super Bowl joined the charitable effort as well.