The decade's Top 10 moments in Boston sports

Nick "Fitzy" Stevens
December 19, 2019 - 11:12 pm
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Boston was the most successful American sports city in the past decade. 

Sure, Boston technically tied with San Francisco for the most major sports championships with six (3 World Series for the Giants, 3 NBA titles for the Golden State Warriors), though an argument can be made that the Warriors are a shared franchise between Oakland and San Francisco (and yes, the Patriots are also regional, so spare me the @’s, bro). But no city had three teams win championships (Patriots, Red Sox and Bruins). No city’s teams made more conference finals (14) and championship appearances (11) than Boston. And no city’s teams were more interesting, polarizing, entertaining, obnoxious and compelling than Boston. Through triumph, tragedy and Tom Brady Boston made headlines consistently for all the right and sometimes wrong reasons on a regular basis. And while it will pain other cities to admit to this, Boston was the king of the professional sports heap in the second decade of this century, just as it was in the first. 

Two decades on top? (Wallace Shawn in “The Princess Bride” voice) “Inconceivable!” 

For the veteran fans, the long-suffering diehards and title-starved locals who used to find comic relief in lines like, “The Red Sox killed my father and now they’re coming for me.”, this decade is the back nine of a long overdue 18th. In the age of free agency, salary caps and engineered competitive balance this just doesn’t happen anymore. For the younger fans on the block Boston being on top is the new norm. How else does a city develop a duck boat addiction or earn a name like “Entitled Town”?  This run of dominance and relevance has seen some championship windows close, some re-open, and some amazingly remain wide open for unheralded amounts of time. We’re not here today to explain how this all came to be, or continued to excel. Quite frankly, given the precious calendar days till we welcome the third decade of the century there’s just not the time for the “Brady vs. Belichick” bargument, among many that belie the second decade of Boston Sports Strong. 

Instead, we’re here to celebrate and debate the 10 biggest, most monumental, most influential, most controversial, most important moments from the second decade of Boston being the center of the sports universe. More hours, debates, blood, sweat, beers and profanity went into this than I’d care to admit to. Some of these moments will stir your passions and make you want to jump up and cheer all over again. Some will stir your passions and make you want to say four letter words out loud again. Whatever the case, they all contributed to the spectacular, incredible and unforgettable time of our lives that was Boston sports 2010-19. And yes, I full well expect many of you to disagree with the choice of moments, or their ranking. That’s what makes sports debate so great, and why we have tailgates, fancaves and a comment section. 

First, to kick things off, from the top of our Honorable Mentions List ... a little background music to get you in the mood, set the scene and give you the right kind of feels, from one of the most emotional moments from this decade past, and in all Boston sports history:

10.The New England Patriots Draft Rob Gronkowski, Tight End: Arizona

The Patriots' ability to sustain a championship level of play for nearly two decades features a number of factors. The head coach and quarterback being the obvious cornerstones of what some refer to as a “double dynasty”, with three Lombardis won in each decade. The first decade involved a core of talented veterans, along with Pick No. 199, that folded in various acquisitions along the way to excel and establish new expectations from football in Foxborough. But who knew that perhaps the biggest reason, literally and figuratively, for the second decade’s dominance, was the selection of an oft-injured tight end out of the University of Arizona? Gronk.

It is a word that is nickname, verb and lifestyle all in one. Larger than life, and anyone who previously played the position, Gronk’s unique combination of size, strength and speed helped rejuvenate the Patriots offense following the trade of Randy Moss. A hybrid of an NBA power forward and an offensive lineman, Gronk could block, catch and run like nobody who’d we’d ever seen. With him, and another talented TE (who brought a whole other level of danger) by his side, Brady and the offense became virtually unstoppable. The Pats could stay up all night thinking of playbook possibilities just as opposing coordinators stayed up trying to think of how to stop him (Spoiler: they really couldn’t). Were it not for an injury in the 2011 AFC Championship at the hands of one of the greatest villains in Boston sports history (dollar in the swear jar every time you say Bernard Pollard) the Patriots would have won a Super Bowl in just his second season, when he smashed and dashed his way to the record books. As it was, Gronk was a part of five Super Bowl teams, winning three titles in his epic nine-year career, leaving an indelible mark on the organization and the league. Gronk’s play was so powerful it earned him a place on the NFL 100 All-Time Team.

But Gronk didn’t just change things for the Pats on the field. His personality was every bit the size of his patented touchdown spikes and the party bus he and his equally ginormous brothers rode in on. Gronk’s combination of child-like joy for the game, boyish charm, good looks and nonstop frat house energy made him the life of every party. The line “Men want to be him, women want to be with him” never applied more to a Patriots player. Not even The GOAT himself. Gronk was so fun even fans of other teams couldn’t hate him. And considering the national level of disdain for the Pats that’s pretty impressive. I feel pretty comfortable saying Gronk is the second most popular player in Patriots history, ranking just behind the QB who threw him all those touchdowns. An accomplishment as impressive as any one of his Hall of Fame stats. Everybody has a favorite Gronk line - “Yo soy fiesta” - “Had to throw him out the club” - just like they have a favorite Gronk highlight. And though he supplanted another tight end who wore the same number as the franchise’s greatest to play the position, there’s another number Gronk loved whose mere mention makes us all titter like prepubescents to this day. And in this, the first year following his retirement, he’s been as impossible to replace on the field as he has on the sideline and the locker room. Taking the big kid from the Buffalo area, which some infamously saw as a reach turned out to be one of the greatest decisions, both on and off the field, Belichick ever made.

9.The Celtics Trade Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn

Signaling the end of the Celtics’s second “Big Three”, the departure of KG, the heart of Boston’s 17th banner, and Pierce, the soul of the franchise for a decade and a half, was a tough pill to swallow. Even though any Celtics fan knew it was time to move on, trading two of your all-time greats, who’d hung in through all the tough times and reinvigorated the winningest franchise in NBA history, would never be an easy sell. time to change. But we all knew deep down it was time to break up the gang and rebuild for the future. Ray Allen had already taken his talents to South Beach, leaving The Ticket and The Truth to carry the torch. But after an injury-filled season that saw their five year run as Atlantic Division champs come to an end, culminating in an early-round playoff loss to the Knicks, it was time to break up the party. But how? There didn’t seem to be a fitting and ceremonious way to send these Garden legends packing. To say farewell to your past glories while restocking for your future and giving the fans hope seemed as improbable as assembling The Big 3 2.0 just six years back.

Enter Mikhail Prokhorov, a Russian born billionaire, oligarch (a word that’s impossible not to use when you get to), and then owner of the Brooklyn Nets.

Prokhorov was obsessed with making a splash and creating a win-now culture with the team he’d recently purchased. The Nets had largely been a dud since relocating from New Jersey, and Prokhorov needed some stars to sell the franchise, and their new downtown Brooklyn arena, to a still-forming fanbase. All he needed was a trade partner willing to part with aging veterans who could fill seats on name alone in exchange for one of the greatest hauls in NBA history. And thus the second franchise rebooting trade in less than a decade was made for the Celtics. In agreeing to go to Brooklyn, Pierce and Garnett made their final great play for the franchise they loved so dearly. It was a selfless gesture, albeit a well-compensated gesture, to a fanbase that cherished their every play. In Pierce and Garnett (plus former champ Jason Terry), the Nets got the stars they needed to compete, and the Big Apple back page coverage Prokhorov coveted. Meanwhile, the Celtics received five warm bodies who filled uniforms and the bench for a year while Doc Rivers peaced out west and Brad Stevens arrived to help stabilize the reboot. Oh, and they received three unprotected first-round picks plus the right to swap firsts another year. Basically, Prokhorov got his All-Star aging dream team for a year and single-handedly rebuilt the Celtics for years to come. Examining exactly what the Celtics turned their declining stars into that fateful day is jaw-dropping to this day (hyperlink - https://twitter.com/brohrbach/status/900355351358259201?s=20) Some thought the trade was a disaster, and they were right! For the Nets.

While others thought it necessary and worthy, and they too were right. Pierce stayed with Brooklyn but a year before moving on, Garnett not even two before returning to Minnesota to call it a career. Meanwhile the Celtics, lead by Jalen Brown and Jayson Tatum, players drafted with the picks received from Brooklyn, continue to ascend in pursuit of another championship. For this act alone, Pierce and Garnett should have their numbers retired and be remembered as legends.

8. Big Papi’s ALCS 2013 Game 2 Grand Slam 

The 2013 season was an incredible for the Red Sox, who made the most improbable run, fueled by the spirit of a city attacked so cowardly at one of its finest moments. Boston Strong wasn’t just a t-shirt or a slogan, it was a way of life, a calling card and attitude for city known for its pride and defiance (always more than happy to remind you who started this country...you’re welcome, America). It’s beloved baseball team adopted and played with that strength all season long. And the ceremonial leader of the team, and the movement, was their designated hitter and most popular player. A man whose words just days after the Marathon bombing resonated worldwide, and got a few people at the FCC to pay attention (more on that speech later). David Ortiz always found a way to come through for the Red Sox, be it in a time of emotional need after the attack, against the Yankees in the playoffs...you name it, Big Papi delivered. And in a career full of clutch hits, long bombs and game-winners this was arguably Papi’s biggest and most clutch. Definitely the most emotional.

The Red Sox powered their way through the season, and the divisional round only to meet an equal and worthy baseball foe in the Tigers. A team that was well-stocked (thanks a familiar free-wheeling trade-happy general manager) and ready for it’s shot. And as much as the Tigers cheered for Boston the city they weren’t about to roll over and cede a shot at the World Series to the Sox. The Tigers led by former friend Anibal Sanchez blanked the Sox the night before in Game 1, and the Sox continued their offensive futility in Game 2. The Sox couldn’t go gently into that good night after this emotionally charged season, right?  Not with Papi at the plate, who previous to this at-bat was homerless vs. Benoit. After all, just hours earlier the David Ortiz of the Patriots reminded us that anything is possible. And thus with one swing Papi launched a ball into the bullpen, the fame of a Boston cop, an epic comeback, one of Boston’s great radio calls and the spirit of a city once again. Unicorns! Show ponies! Tie game!

7. Aaron Hernandez Accused of Murder

In a year full of “where were you when this happened in Boston moments” this was one of them; Aaron Hernandez, star tight end for the New England Patriots, wanted by Mass State and North Attleboro Police for the possible murder of Odin Lloyd. What?

When we first heard of the possible connection between the crime and Hernandez many of us probably thought this was a case of being with the wrong people at the wrong place at the wrong time. Hernandez had a checkered past, but seemed to be on the saying and doing all the right things now that he was a member of the Patriots. This was a man who the previous summer had such organizational trust that the team awarded him with a five year forty million dollar contract extension. Something Hernandez, at the time, said meant the world to him and was helping make him a better man.  

As it turns out not only would Hernandez be implicated in the shooting of Odin Lloyd in June of 2013, but he also was at the center of the shooting of two men outside a Boston night club A MONTH BEFORE THIS CONTRACT EXTENSION IN 2012. Look, the Patriots have been no strangers to controversy and scandal. It’s almost not a Pats season without an accusation of some kind or a -gate attached to them. And while you can accuse them of not doing due diligence in their background check of Hernandez (he fell to the 4th round of the 2010 draft over character concerns...for a reason), to smear them for his psychopathic behavior isn’t fair. And when you watch clips like this you can see how a true psychopath like Hernandez had not just the Patriots, or its fans, duped, but virtually the world. 

This was different than any of the organization’s misgivings. It’s true crime of the most horrifying kind, not some bending of rules or something done to possibly gain competitive advantage. Hernandez was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Lloyd, and sadly took his own life in 2017. An unforeseen series of tragic actions that ended a promising career, horrified a region, maligned a team and shattered the lives of several families. 


6. Bill Belichick Benches Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl 52

In the pantheon of 21st century, second-decade mysteries - “What happened to Flight 370?” - “Where did Whitey’s guards go?” - “Who killed Epstein?” - Bill Belichick’s decision to bench Malcolm Butler for Super Bowl 52 will remain at the top regionally forever. Fans were incensed watching the Patriots defense be gashed time and again by a backup quarterback on the biggest stage as the hero from Super Bowl 49 remained curiously on the sidelines. Questioning Bill Belichick is not an endeavor that will usually do you much good. Just ask about everyone he’s played. But how and why would, in their biggest game of the year, Belichick not play someone who had been in on 98% of the team’s defensive snaps that season? Butler was, by most accounts, having a down season by his standards, possibly because he was frustrated by the team’s lack of a contract offer to him, especially after signing Stephon Gilmore to a whopping 5 year, $65 million deal that past offseason (a shrewd move as it turns out by Belichick). NFL Network’s Mike Giardi, then with CSNNE, reported on Butler being upset and refusing to participate in offseason workouts.

But this was his free-agent year and Butler needed to show up big again on the biggest stage to cash in (or maybe not since Tennessee still gave him a deal worth over $60 million). How could he not be part of any of the game plan? From the fanbase to football media nobody understood what happened.

In the game’s aftermath, which saw the offense excel while the defense struggled mightily en route to a 41-33 loss, some players defended the decision while others questioned it. We, the fans, blamed Belichick and this decision in large art for the loss as Eric Rowe played well but still gave up some big catches, and role players like Jordan Richards (swear jar!) and Johnson Bademosi whiffed on big tackles. The decision, coupled with frustrations over the loss, lit up the talk radio airwaves for days, weeks, months! While there have been many theories floated about as to why Belichick benched a Super Bowl savior, it’s a story that seems to have no answer and is likely to never go away, at least not in Boston.

5. “This is our f**king city!”

Many indelible images remain from the 2013 Red Sox World Series season, where they picked up a wounded city and put them on their back - the 617 BOSTON STRONG jersey the team carried with them from city to city - Jonny Gomes resting the jersey atop the World Series trophy at the Marathon finish line. But it’s hard not to say the most powerful was Big Papi, fresh off an impromptu, expletive-capped speech, raising a fist in solidarity with his adopted home city, on a Saturday afternoon in his ballpark, in front of his fans and a sea of first responders and heroes, to let them and the world know, Boston wasn’t afraid. That these cowards who perpetrated the act at the Marathon (and shall remain nameless) messed with the wrong city. And that anyone who needed support could turn to him and the team. It was a simple speech, punctuated powerfully, and colorfully, that resonated the world over. After all, it’s not often that networks as conservative as NESN and organizations like the FCC are willing to broadcast and look past an F-bomb. But special times call for special speeches delivered by special people. And with one minute of verbal reassurance, and one well-timed F word, David Ortiz rallied the troops and got the healing underway. Not to mention it got a lot of parents to be OK with hearing words that usually resulted in timeouts. Stay strong!

4. Bruins Win First Stanley Cup in Almost 40 Years

Let’s not forget Vancouver was so excited about the Bruins first Cup in nearly 40 years they almost burned their city to the ground in “celebration”.

Is that how Canada’s prettiest city celebrates? Or were they just so shocked the Bruins came into their coastal mountainous hockey oasis and won that their natural reaction was to make it unplayable for future poor sports? Whatever the case, this remains an all-time achievement for the big bad Bruins, a fitting culmination of an epic playoff run. Not only did they have to win the Cup on the road in the most hostile of environments, but the third-seeded Bruins had to face two other Game Sevens along the way, including overtime in the Conference Quarterfinals against the rival Canadiens (Nathan Horton can always drink on my tab for that goal). After that the Bruins got their revenge against the Flyers with a four-game sweep, then again went seven against the Lightning before the Cup Finals against the Canucks. Just an unbelievable run. Lead by an unbelievable team of unsuspecting role players (Peverley. Boychuk, Ryder, Recchi, Horton), stars (Looch, March, Bergy, Chara) and the goalie, Tim Thomas. Who pitched multiple shutouts, came up clutch with big saves time and again, “standing on his head” when the team needed him most. Thomas, who easily won the Conn Smythe Trophy, posting a 1.98 GAA for the entire playoff run, also set the record for most saves in a postseason and most saves in a Stanley Cup Final.

It was sweet redemption for the goalie who was benched the previous postseason in favor of the man who still minds the net for the Beez to this day. A wild ride with a wild finish for a town awash in postseason success and championships that hadn’t drank from the Cup in nearly four decades. And while Stanley Cup defeats on home ice in 2013 and 2019 were enormously disappointing, this one kept our tires pumped, shall we say, for some time. Quite a way to remind people that even in the age of Big Papi and Tom Brady Boston is every bit a hockey city too, eh?

3. 28-3

OK, now that you watched those highlights for the hundredth time and still said to yourself, “There’s just no way they win this!’, I’ll go ahead and ask, “How the hell did the Patriots win Super Bowl 51?” Because it still makes no sense. I get sucked into those highlights each and every time they’re on, or I’m foolish enough to press play because, well ... 28 to 3! This just doesn’t happen.

That 2016 season was yet another fascinating Patriots campaign, one that saw the team begin the season with their star QB suspended the first four games for deflated footballs. And once Brady returned Week 5 in Cleveland it seemed he and the team were on a mission to prove a little air pressure wasn’t the difference in the dynasty. Save for a rare home loss to the Seahawks the team was again blazed their way to a familiar place; the Super Bowl. This one would be played in a familiar spot, Houston, where they’d won Super Bowl 38. And now their opponent was the high-flying Falcons, lead by old pal Matt Ryan. Should make for a great game, right?

And the rest is history.

Atlanta storms out to big halftime lead, makes it the score that launches a thousand memes late in the third, and, well, the rest is history. In a career of improbable, this was THE most improbable comeback for Tom Brady. And though comebacks are a significant contributing factor to his status as the GOAT, this still just doesn’t compute. SO many things had to fall their way, and Atlanta had to make just enough mistakes to allow for the Patriots to play a perfect final seventeen minutes and tie the game, send it to overtime and then, well ... ”toss to White”... The score became the most meme’d score in NFL history, and a rallying cry in New England and all over the world. It was everywhere - shirts, flags, mugs, bridges, floats, marathons, you name it.

It became synonymous with overcoming the odds, a numerical manifestation of Garnett’s famous “Anything is possible!” decree from June 2008. This was the crowning achievement for the organization and the ultimate feather in the cap of Brady, cementing him as the GOAT once and for all. And while you may have a favorite play or most memorable moment from the comeback - Edelman’s catch, Hightower’s strip-sack, Hogan’s 3rd and 10 - the fact remains, well, 28-3.

2. Mort’s Tweet

Mort's tweet

It is more probable than not that to this day we are all generally aware that nobody really understands how the international conflict that was DeflateGate began. Was it Brady telling an angered John Harbaugh to “study the rule book” following a wild AFC Divisional Round game where the Ravens complained about the Pats formations, that lead the Ravens to contact the Colts? Was it D’Qwell Jackson picking Brady off in that rainy AFC Championship game and turning in what he thought felt like an under-inflated football to sideline officials? Or was the NFL just out to get the Patriots from what they’d heard about possible “ball-tampering”? Whatever the case, DeflateGate is the very definition of creating something from next to absolutely nothing. What should have been an equipment violation at most with a fine of $25,000 became the defining sports scandal of the decade. Or at least the biggest one since whatever was the previous Pats scandal, with Tom Brady, dubbed Tom Shady, the poster child for the nefarious Patriot Way. And it went from campfire to countryside wildfire thanks to a misinformed tweet from an ESPN Insider.

It’s crazy when you stop and think about how much coverage DeflateGate got, and what a drama a true non-story became. Tom Brady, the veritable poster boy of the league, now it’s scourge his squeaky clean image tarnished in retribution for the league mishandling the SpyGate punishment some seven years prior. The involvement of the US Court System! Nonstop media coverage for almost a year and a half! The Wells Report! The Patriots launching the Wells Report in context! My head is spinning just even daring to go back to the overinflated madness. This is not to say that only bad things came of the great debate over PSI where everyone in the world was suddenly an Ideal Gas Law specialist. Patriots fans love of the team and Brady already cemented like Han Solo in carbonite, grew infintesimally stronger. Some may say the Patriots persecution complex was a negative, but I like to think of it as a chance to adopt the NEW ENGLAND VS. EVERYONE mantra (**disclaimer - DeflateGate provided source material for a career boost for many fans and media alike, especially from present company though I wish I never had to produce it)

“FREE BRADY” became the “Roll Tide” of Patriots Nation. People like “Dorito Dink” became household names. Plus who could forget the high comedy of Belichick’s “Mona Lisa Vito” presser. And all of those Tom Brady zombie courtroom sketch memes. Look, whatever side of the DeflateGate street you were on is someplace you already stood and stood firmly. DeflateGate didn’t change your mind about Brady or the Pats. It only helped solidify how you felt about them that much more. A side story that became a saga. Hey, it is what it is. Not even gonna bring up Brady’s record and stats post-DeflateGate being better than pre-PSI. History will remember who complained about whose balls. Who stood behind the greatest when it mattered most. And who won six Super Bowls (and counting).

1. Malcolm Butler’s Game-Winning INT in Super Bowl 49

Remember how you felt just before this play? I do. I don’t think I’ve ever been so dead inside. That’s right. More dead inside than after Super Bowl 42. Because you couldn’t have felt the way you did in the closing moments of Super Bowl 49 without the Tyree Catch, and the loss of a perfect season. Without the Manning to Manningham miracle in Super Bowl 46. And another championship loss to the Giants. And now your favorite team stood on the doorstep of defeat, after another improbable last-second heave - this time Russell Wilson to Jermaine Kearse, bouncing off his hands, off the covering corner, an undrafted rookie out of West Alabama named Malcolm Butler, sent into the game to replace the struggling Kyle Arrington, off Kearse’s legs as safety Duron Harmon leaped through the air to avoid a potential late hit penalty. How did this happen? How could the Patriots lose three Super Bowls in a row off of impossible last minute catches? Did the football gods hate them so much that the Patriots were to turn into football sisyphus, doomed eternally to push that rock up the hill, only to see someone else leave with the Lombardi every time? Seattle, defending Super Bowl champions, were but a few yards away from repeating, sending the Patriots home with trifecta of late Super Bowl defeat. All this after Brady lead the 4th quarter comeback with one of his best quarters ever? Edelman began his career of clutch Super Bowl catches. Dont’a Hightower nearly let his damaged shoulder get pulled off stopping Marshawn Lynch at the one just to give the Pats one last defensive chance. This was it, and every single person who hopped on the freshly engineered DeflateGate Express would be validated; cheaters never win.

And then, with one play, one ill-advised pass call that the Patriots had done their job and brilliantly prepared for (hyperlink - https://youtu.be/MeNYQaS3rZI ), everything changed. We weren’t dead on the inside any longer. We were alive again! And it was done with two simple words; “Malcolm, go!” Malcolm Butler’s endzone interception off Russell Wilson’s pass intended for Ricardo Lockette is, according to the NFL, the fifth greatest play in the league’s 100-year history, and the greatest interception in NFL history (I can speak to that.)

But to these very biased but experienced superfan eyes it is the greatest play in Patriots history, Super Bowl and NFL history, not to mention this past decade. One play swung the balance of the biggest game. One play halted a budding dynasty and restarted another. Who knows where the Seahawks are now, how many Super Bowls they might have won had Darrell Beville decided to hand the ball off to the best goal line rusher in the league, or called any other play but that slant? Who knows if the Patriots, loaded as they were and always in contention, make it back to “The Big Game” again? It is the ultimate “What if?”, the ultimate reversal of fortune, the ultimate example of why the Patriots are as good as they are (sorry - it’s not spy cameras or saggy pigskins), and the ultimate moment of the decade in Boston sports. Not to mention the ultimate moment for the internet and people who love watching those “Fans React To” sports videos. With all apologies to Seahawks fans, I can’t tell you how many late nights I couldn’t sleep, or how many times I had a bad day and instantly cheered up just watching Pats fans go from poorhouse to penthouse thanks to the Butler pick.

Crazy to think Malcolm Butler is the other person next to David Ortiz to be a central figure twice on this list. Crazy as not giving it to Lynch, crazy as seeing the biggest game end five decades of Super Bowls end with an undrafted free agent preserving a win and restarting Tom Brady’s Super Bowl run.

Wow. That was a helluva decade. Disagree with the order? Did I miss one or three? Lemme know below, or holler at us @FitzyGFY and @WEEI. We’ll be here, probably watching Super Bowl 51 highlights, trying to figure out why Butler didn’t play, consuming fan reaction videos and more. Man, this next decade has a lot to live up to.