Patriots fans and players finally get dream palace

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

New England Patriots' owner Robert Kraft envisioned his sparkling new Gillette Stadium to look "like a Cape Cod house."

But there are no clapboards or gable roofs here. It's an open-air dream palace.

On one sunny Saturday, three weeks before the Super Bowl champions kick off their first regular-season Monday night game (Sept. 9), thousands of fans eagerly await the first game at Gillette Stadium. It was built over the past two years right next to the team's old home, Foxboro Stadium – now a parking lot.

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It's only an exhibition game, but the excitement in the air is palpable. "I feel like I'm in Disney World," says Renay Coppola of Revere, Mass., who attends games occasionally with her husband. "It's unbelievable."

This state-of-the-art facility features modern amenities that a Patriot's fan could only dream about for decades – individual chairback seats with cup holders, jumbo TV screens, state-of-the-art sound systems, and eateries with New England themes like "The Boston Common" and "Berkshire Sausage."

But wait a minute: Fans still must pinch themselves. Who would have thought that the once-lowly Pats would win the Super Bowl last year, let alone play in a modern stadium in historic Massachusetts?

"It's like you're not even in the same area. It feels like you're in a different state," says 10-year season ticketholder Walter Pomerleau of Rowley, Mass.

Indeed, the old parking lot once featured dirt, ditches, and rocks. The new one is smooth and paved, with manicured lawns and a family picnic area. Kraft has given the Pats new home many New England touches – Boston ivy on the walls; a 10-story-high lighthouse with big rocks, sea grass, and blueberry bushes at its base; and a bridge from which fans can watch the game.

The massive 68,000-seat Gillette Stadium, which looks like something out of "Star Wars" with dozens of ramps zigzagging around the outside (you can almost hear fans huffing and puffing as they walk to the top), is one of four NFL facilities opening this year. Reliant Stadium in Houston, Ford Field in Detroit, and Seahawks Stadium in Seattle are among the other stadiums where fans will enjoy football in the lap of luxury.

Those dreaded aluminum benches

Looking back on the old stadium, fans often talk about sitting on uncomfortable aluminum benches with no backs. Kraft once said you could fry an egg on them in the summer and freeze water on them in the winter.

"If you had a seat in the middle [of the metal bench], your seat would disappear when you went to get something to drink," says Pomerleau, as he tends to marinated steak tips on his red portable grill two hours before game time. "You can't imagine how awful it was before. I don't think anyone misses Foxboro [Stadium]."

While the old Boston Garden (replaced by the Fleet Center) and 90-year-old Fenway Park held loads of nostalgia for fans, there had been little nostalgia for Foxboro Stadium, which opened as Schaefer Stadium in 1971.

If fans do miss the Pats' old home, they miss the structure for the memories it represents – especially last year's unforgettable "Snow Bowl." That's when a sell-out crowd of 60,000 squished and squeezed into the stadium and prayed that the Pats would plow through the white stuff to win the championship game against the Oakland Raiders, and go on to their first Super Bowl win. Their prayers were answered.

But a sparkling new stadium also means that fans must shell out more cash. Satellite parking lots (those not owned by the New England Patriots) are charging an average of $40 per car. "Taxachusetts" has levied an excise tax of $400,000 annually on these parking-lot owners to cover road improvements. Once inside, a trip to the ATM may be needed for food: Expect to pay $9 for a double Quarter Pounder, fries, and a soda at McDonald's.

Pats tickets, which are all sold out, are among the highest in the league – averaging $73 each. There is a waiting list of 50,000 fans for season tickets. If you enjoy the "suite" life, you can watch the game from a leather armchair in one of 80 luxury suites. Football stadiums typically aren't moneymakers; that's why Kraft is aiming for year-round revenue. The luxury suites can be used by members year-round, from birthday parties to weddings.

Despite the high costs, fans and sports observers seem to have only the highest respect for the Kraft family. Mr. Kraft privately financed the stadium at $325 million (almost unheard of in the NFL). He received $70 million from the state to spend on infrastructure, including new parking lots and access roads. Kraft and his family have attended Pats games from the start.

Jonathan Kraft said recently that he remembers going to the games with his father. "My family sat in traffic with everybody else. We were sitting on those metal benches. We couldn't get food. We had lived [the bad old days]."

Big-league stadium in small town

Foxboro, Mass., may be home to a high-profile NFL team, but it also prides itself on a small-town feel. "I've lived in Foxboro since I was 3 years old," says Michael Schuster, 1999 Patriots fan of the year, who helped educate people in Foxboro about the Pats new home. He lives a mile away and walks through the woods to get to the stadium. "I've been a die-hard fan since my dad took me to the very first game at Foxboro in 1971. It's the smallest town [16,000 residents] ever for a [big-league] stadium. Coming from Foxboro, I'm so proud."

This sense of pride is shared by hundreds of thousands of Patriots fans across New England. The stadium is more than just cement and steel. It's a symbol of how far the Patriots, now Super Bowl champs, have come since their first game played in Schaefer/Sullivan/Foxboro more than 30 years ago.

Strong safety Lawyer Milloy, who's played for the Patriots for six years, says the Pats finally feel authentic. "It was kind of hard to realize you were an NFL player until the [pay]checks came because [Foxboro stadium] was so old and raggedy," he says in a postgame locker room interview. "This stadium is first class. I was watching the fans, and they looked like they had a little bit more room. Everybody just looks more comfortable."

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