About 100 yards downfield and to his left, the clock at the open end of the Orange Bowl was stuttering toward its inevitable 0:00. Billy Sullivan, 70 years old and trying to hang on to the ownership of the New England Patriots, stood in the steady, gloomy drizzle of the Miami evening, droplets of water landing softly on his bald head, and watched the numbers tick away. From five minutes, to four minutes, to three minutes. He saw the time remaining in the game continue to erode, and he saw the score -- Patriots 31, Miami 14 -- continue to hold. And he knew the waiting was over. For the first time in 19 games here, dating back to 1966, the Patriots were going to beat the Dolphins, to Squish The Fish as the T-shirts said. For the first time since the American Football League was formed 27 years ago -- and don't think the originals don't still think of it that way, as the AFL -- the Patriots were going to be its champions. For the first time since the Super Bowl began the Patriots were going. Billy Sullivan had been there for the AFL. He'd been there when the AFL became the AFC. He'd been there, watching, waiting for this moment for so long, it must have seemed like forever. So there was no rush. He could wait another few minutes. "I never felt better," he said looking up at the sky and smiling. "I feel like I'm standing in glorious sunlight. I don't even think it's raining out."
Standing next to Billy Sullivan was Lamar Hunt, a founder of the AFL; Lamar Hunt, the original and only owner of the AFL's Dallas Texans, who soon became the Kansas City Chiefs; Lamar Hunt, for whom the AFC championship trophy is named. "Twenty-seven years ago," Sullivan said, telling the story as if it should be carved on tablets, "Lamar called me and told me that if I could deposit $25,000 in the Mercantile Trust Bank in Dallas by Tuesday, I could have the eighth and last franchise in the AFL. Well, I had only $8,300 to my name, and that included what was in the kids' piggy banks." Sullivan paused, the way a public relations man does when he knows he's got a good story and he wants to set up the kicker. And Sullivan, you should know, was indeed a PR man, sports PR for Notre Dame, Boston College and the Boston Braves. "But somehow I borrowed the money and got the check there on time. And now, 27 years later, Lamar is going to be handing me the trophy."
Sullivan smiled as a crowd gathered. He was never one to turn a crowd away. There was always something he could give them. "You know I've always looked upon myself as a fan," he said. "I've never introduced myself as the owner. That's such a pretentious thing to do. No, I'm a fan of the New England Patriots -- the first one they ever had. Oh yes, and I believed in them, too. You ask me if winning this game surprises me," he said, though no one had. "Let me tell you something. As far back as six weeks ago, Oct. 1 to be exact, I called up a friend at the Sonesta Beach hotel on Key Biscayne, and I said I'd like to rent a suite for the remainder of the football season. He asked me when I thought our season would end, and I said, the day after the Super Bowl." Sullivan chuckled, realizing that once again he had outsmarted himself. "Now I won't even need it. I'll be in New Orleans." As the game ended Sullivan was still on the sideline holding court, showing people a letter he said he'd received "just this morning," Sunday, from Mike Ditka expressing the hope that the Patriots would get to the Super Bowl.
Sullivan, and all the Sullivans will be there: Chuckie, the executive vice president; Patrick, the battling general manager. All sorts of Sullivans at what might be their Last Hurrah in the NFL. And along with them will be some people who have waited for this moment almost as long as the clan itself. There is, for example, Julius Adams, at 37 the oldest defensive lineman in the league. And John Hannah, the perpetual all-pro offensive tackle, himself 34, the same age as Steve Nelson, the Pro Bowl linebacker. And we musn't forget quarterback Steve Grogan, 32, or center Pete Brock, just a pup at 31. All these men have at least this in common: They'd played their entire careers for the Patriots, and before Sunday they'd never beaten the Dolphins here. Adams had 15 shots at it; Hannah, 14; Nelson, 13; Grogan, 12; Brock, 10.
There was so much to overcome. It goes without saying that the Patriots were the underdogs here. The game was their third straight playoff game on the road. No NFL team ever had won three playoff games in a row on the road. Then there was the matter of the opposing coach. Don Shula was 5-0 in AFC championships. And, of course, there was the matter of The Jinx. What else would you call 0-18?
And yet there they were, the old guard of the Patriots, finally getting the chance to get their rings. Apparently all things are possible if you can hang on long enough. "I feel great for me," Brock said, "and I feel great for Nelson and Hannah and Grogan and Adams -- people who've been here a long time, sweated and given their guts for this team." Was there something special those old guys said to each other as the game wound down, Brock was asked. "No," he said as he stripped off a knee brace, "you just kind of look at each other and they know what you're thinking."
Grogan confirmed what Brock said. "There were a lot of looks and handshakes," Grogan said. "But I don't think any of us could say much. We were pretty choked up." Nelson wanted to say something. He told linebacker Larry McGrew that he intended to go up to Shula and say, finally, "I actually beat you." But Nelson got caught up in the excitement and never made it, which he figured was just as well.
The funny thing about waiting so long for a victory like this is that when it comes, it seems to carry a special force. "I stood there on the sideline and I couldn't get a fix on it. So much was happening, yet nothing was happening. I don't know how to describe it," Grogan said as he came out of the shower, steam rising behind him like holy spirits. "Except that it was worth the wait, and I'm glad I waited around for it."