FOXBOROUGH, Mass — It’s been 633 days since Tom Brady played an NFL game in New England.
He trudged off the field on Jan. 4, 2020, after a playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans, a rare loser in the place he helped to hoist six Super Bowl championship banners.
But remnants from his 20-year run with the Patriots remain everywhere in Foxborough.
Brady’s No. 12 Patriots jerseys still dot the stands on game days at Gillette Stadium. Viewership in the Boston market topped that of Tampa for the Bucs’ Super Bowl win last season, and New England fans continue to huddle in bars to tune in for Brady’s games in droves through the first three weeks of this season.
With Brady’s new Tampa home just as rabid about the player who brought it a championship in Year 1, it’s created a tug of war between the fan bases as he gets set to return to the place where his career began.
“As a fan, I think this is one of the greatest moments in Boston sports history,” said Jermaine Wiggins, a tight end for the Patriots’ first championship team in 2001 and a radio personality for Boston’s WEEI. “I still haven’t been able to get over it since he left here. I never thought I’d see it coming where he’d be wearing another uniform. I don’t think anybody would have ever thought that five years ago.
“No matter how bad people might have said (Brady and Belichick’s) relationship was, I think we all felt like it would have all got worked out.”
It’s why so many New England fans keep reminders of Brady so close.
Last week before the Patriots hosted the Saints, 24-year-old East Greenwich, Rhode Island, resident Jeremy Batista was donning a No. 10 Michigan Brady jersey as he tailgated in the parking lot outside of Gillette with friends.
“I can’t wait for him to come back,” Batista said. “I’ve been here long enough and I watched him over the years and I can’t wait. He's my guy still.”
Not far away, Brian O’Reilly was wearing a faded blue Patriots No. 12 jersey, but still gushing with memories of watching the player who brought so much success.
A Patriots fan since he was a kid in the 1970s, the 59-year-old Dorchester, Mass. resident is a first-time season ticket holder this year after spending 20 years on the waiting list.
“We had such terrible teams for so many years and the last 20 years that he gave us were unbelievable. We couldn’t have asked for more out of him,” O’Reilly said. “If we could have him now, I’d love to have him back.”
O’Reilly’s tickets will come in handy this week for a game that secondary ticket marketplace TickPick says is the Patriots’ most expensive on record and the NFL’s most expensive ticket of the year.
With an average purchase price of $1,236, it is 79% more expensive than their next priciest home game on record — $689 for the Patriots’ 2017 matchup with the Chiefs.
Brady will have former teammates on the field and on the sideline. Jerod Mayo, who played with Brady on the 2014 title team, remains in awe of his longevity.
“His career alone is old enough to drink," he said. "It’s crazy.”
For his part, Brady said this week that as much as he cherishes his time in New England, he’s heart is now with the new Tampa fan base that has wholeheartedly welcomed him.
In a city that has celebrated the Bucs’ Super Bowl win, back-to-back Stanley Cups by the Lightning and a World Series appearance last season by the Rays, he’s turned “Champa Bay” into a reality.
“I have some of the greatest experiences of my life took place in the last 20 years," Brady said. "Going back to a place that I know so well with so many friends will be a really exciting thing for everybody.”
When he returns to New England, though, his heart will be with the team represented on his new jersey.
“I had a great time, but really my focus has been on trying to be the best I can be for this team and trying to go out and be a winning quarterback, be a championship-level quarterback, for this team and for this organization because they certainly deserve it.”
Back in Boston, Wiggins expects people to be talking about Brady’s return for generations, no matter the outcome.
“It’s something we’ve never seen before because you’re talking about the greatest coach and the greatest quarterback,” he said. “They had success for 20 years and now they’re going against each other. ... It’s going to be amazing to see how the fans embrace this game.”
Two cities hold their collective breath.
AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall in Tampa, Fla. contributed to this report.