They may not be earning any sympathy points from the rest of the nation, but these are tough times for New England Patriots fans. It's not just that they didn't even make the playoffs this year, for only the third time in two decades. But even worse. After a 20-year love affair with star quarterback Tom Brady, they now have to watch him go to the Super Bowl with his new team: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
And though it's been nearly a year since Brady and the Patriots divorced, many fans are still not over it. They just can't bear to root for Brady as he struts down the aisle to the Super Bowl with the Bucs, with every intention of "putting a ring on it."
"It would hurt just like how it would be hurtful seeing your girlfriend be happy with someone else. So yeah, I might shed a few tears if he wins," said 17-year-old Esteban Garcia, after a shift at the sporting goods store where he works outside Boston. Fans like him are not proud that that they may be crying in their beers on Sunday, or even throwing things at the TV. But as the stages of grief go, Garcia is one of many who are still more angry than sad.
"If I'm being honest it's kind of revenge," he concedes. "Like it kind of felt like a bad break up, so that's the reason I'm salty about it."
No one's disputing that Brady's the G.O.A.T. — Greatest Of All Time. It's just that they're still too sore to celebrate it. Each Brady win is a painful reminder of their loss.
"It's like, what about all of us who supported you?" asks 41-year-old Shaun Carr, a delivery guy, as if pleading his case directly to Brady. "You know, we cried with you, we stood behind you, we never let you down, but at the end of it all, what do we find out? You didn't care about us. [You just say,] 'Nah, I'll go where more money is.' It was kind of a slap in the face."
It's been the talk of the town in Boston, which Brady helped establish as Titletown when he led the Pats to nine Super Bowls, winning six of them.
Brady was asked about it last week, when Tampa Bay Times sports columnist John Romano noted that Brady, too, knows how it feels to see a beloved, hall-of-fame quarterback leave a fan base. He was in high school when his hero Joe Montana left his hometeam, the San Francisco 49ers, for the Kansas City Chiefs.
"I'm curious, if you were New England fan today, would you be happy or sad to see Tom Brady in the Super Bowl?" Romano asked.
Brady paused, before offering a nearly two-minute end run around the question, noting his "great affection" for New England, his "magical" 20 years in the area that shaped him into the player he is today, and insisting he "wouldn't change anything."
That stumbling snippet of sweet talk was enough to soothe some fans like Don Fraser, a 45-year-old UPS worker.
"I wasn't pulling for [Brady] the whole time. I'll be honest with you, I said 'I don't know if I want him to win,'" Fraser says. But that changed after Brady won the NFC Championship. "Once he pulled it off, I said you know what, the guy put smiles on our faces for how long? You can't hold it against him. He's the greatest there ever was."
Now that Fraser has come around and accepted it, he has little patience for other Pats fans who are still bitter.
"I think anybody who can't root for Brady from New England is just being a baby," he says. "Grow up and just root for the man, OK? Grow up!"
Bianca St. Louis, another lifelong Pats fan, agrees.
"I think it's like typical of New England fans," the 28-year-old nurse says, "to feel like 'Oh it should have been us.' We've seen the Bruins win. We've seen the Celtics win. We've seen the Patriots win. We've seen the Red Sox win. Our generation doesn't know what it's like to be losers."
New Englanders are spoiled, agrees 30-year-old analyst Jamison Chue.
"We can't have everything," Chue says. "That's how sports is. It's a business."
Amy Tai, a 29-year-old software engineer, nods, adding, "Let's all try not to be sore losers. [Brady] is not ours anymore. We're lucky to have had him at all. You can't keep a guy forever."
Former Patriot Matt Chatham called it "selfish" of fans to root against Brady after all he's done for them.
Publicly, current Pats players have been only supportive, including wide receiver Julian Edelman, who has every reason to feel jilted after watching his two close friends and former teammates, Brady and Rob Gronkowski, run off together into the sunset of Tampa Bay. But Edelman was eminently mature and magnanimous, tweeting out a hype video cheering them both on, just minutes after they punched their ticket to the Super Bowl.
After the NFC Championship game, Patriots owner Robert Kraft reportedly also offered congratulations to Brady, who Kraft has said he loves "like a son and ... always will."
"I know Robert is rooting for Tommy right now [...] There's no question about that," Tom's father, Tom Brady Sr., told the Boston Herald.
It may be a different story for Pats Coach Bill Belichick, who is enmeshed in what may be an eternal donnybrook over whether he or Brady deserves more credit for the Patriots' dynasty of the past 20 years, and for whom there is believed to be no love lost with Brady. When asked about Belichick, Brady Sr. reportedly said only "I'm guessing he is on a little bit of a hot seat right now."
But a healthy majority of Patriots fans seem to be getting over the heartache. After years of defending Brady against the haters — "They hate us 'cause they ain't us!" — the Pats faithful like 41-year-old landscaper David Bernstein says he will not become one himself.
"We're just going to let Tom Brady do his thing, and root for him. Let him win one more," Bernstein says. "I'm not a hater. I'm a lover, not a hater."
Tony Strickland, who was snowplowing through this week's storm, came to the same conclusion, though he seemed to be still skidding back and forth between "acceptance" and "denial."
"Of course we're rooting for Brady. He's still our quarterback," he says, before clarifying, "To me, he is. We love him. It doesn't matter where he's at. He's going to come retire with us."
Actually, there's probably a better chance that he wins 10 more Super Bowls, than returns to live in New England, if you take Brady's word for it. But not wanting to endure the region's cold is easily forgivable, to fans like 30-year-old Jay Sanchez, who works at a car dealership in the area.
"[Brady] just did what every New Englander does when they get older, they go to Florida!" Sanchez quipped.
While he has no hard feelings for Brady, Sanchez admits his hopes for a Brady Super Bowl win are still driven by a quest for vengeance. In his case, he wants to get back at the Patriots for letting Brady go.
"I would like to see Brady win a seventh [Super Bowl] to rub it in their faces,' Sanchez says.
Hell hath no fury, it seems, like a Pats fan scorned.