As long as the New England Patriots keep winning Super Bowls, and doing it in such dramatic fashion, I will keep telling this story, which first appeared in a much shorter version in 2001 and has been expanded since. What better time to re-tell it yet again,16 years after it all began.
This time the story shifts to a wild and crazy night in Houston, Texas where the New England Patriots, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady stamped their place in the history books as the sport’s longest running dynasty, capturing their fifth Super Bowl in seven appearances? And how appropriate in context of this story to do it with the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history and one of the greatest comebacks of all time in any sport.
Let’s go back once again to the Patriots’ film room during the 2001 season when Belichick, who had been fired as head coach of the Cleveland Browns two years earlier and was coming off a dismal 5-11 season with the Patriots, decided to try a different and unusual motivational approach.
The day after Tiznow’s courageous victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, in which he battled back after appearing to be beaten, the Patriots were defeated 31-20 by the Denver Broncos to fall to 3-4 on the season. There was no doubt Belichick’s job was in jeopardy.
Belichick, like his former boss Bill Parcells, was a fan of Thoroughbred racing and he turned to the Sport of Kings and Tiznow for assistance in getting through to his players. He showed them a tape of Tiznow winning the Classic to instill in them that same kind of courage and fighting spirit, and a never-say-die attitude.
Belichick informed his players as to the importance of the Breeders' Cup, in which the greatest equine athletes in the world gather to do battle. There before them was an athlete facing defeat square in the face, as the pride of Europe, Sakhee, appeared on his way to certain victory. Then, Tiznow, reached back and pulled out that something extra that only champions possess. He dug in and came back to snatch victory in the final strides.
Belichick told his players that their situation was not unlike Tiznow's; that as the season wore on it would come down to which team wanted to win the most.
Word of Belichick’s motivational ploy eventually got back to Tiznow’s trainer, Jay Robbins. “It’s been a long time, but the way I remember it, I heard about it from Mike Smith, who was told about it by Patriots linebacker Bryan Cox,” Robbins recalled. It was Cox who kept Lance Bell of the advertising firm LGB apprised of the Tiznow connection with Belichick. Bell had been working on a big marketing campaign regarding Tiznow and sent posters, videos, DVDs, and hats to Belichick, who eventually signed the posters for him at the Eclipse Awards. The slogan Bell would come up with was "Tiznow: To the Patriot in all of us."
In 2003, after the Patriots' second Super Bowl victory, Belichick sent the following letter to Bell: "Dear Lance, I wanted to express my sincerest gratitude for all your support of the Patriots throughout the 2003 season and during our playoff run. The DVD, the video, and most of all, the spectacularly framed posters were as inspirational as they were generous. They will find themselves a nice location right here on the wall in my office. We feel honored to once again be in the distiguished company of Tiznow, another two-time champion."
Robbins’ reaction was simple: “(Belichick) couldn’t have picked a better example. I thought it was great of him to honor Tiznow that way.”
Of course, no one can say for sure what kind of impact Tiznow had on the team, but the fact is, the Patriots went on to win 11 of their next 12 games, their only loss coming at the hands of the 2000 Super Bowl champs St. Louis Rams 24-17. The Pats roared through the playoffs and concluded their extraordinary season by upsetting the Rams in the Super Bowl. Their victory, as well as their upset win over the Oakland Raiders in the playoffs, was decided, like Tiznow’s victory, in the final seconds.
In fact, all of their Super Bowl appearances have resulted in close finishes. In their seven Super Bowls, the margin of victory or defeat was never more than six points. They defeated the Rams 20-17, the Panthers 32-29, the Eagles 24-21, the Seahawks 28-24, and the Falcons 34-28 in their amazing overtime comeback victory, in which they came back from a 28-3 deficit in the third quarter. Even in their two defeats to the Giants they lost 17-14 and 21-17.
The Patriots didn’t make the Super Bowl in 2003, but won it in 2004 after Belichick reached back into his bag of equine tricks and showed the team a tape of Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes. This time the motivation was not courage and determination, but what true greatness looks like. The Pats won the Super Bowl again in 2005, and regardless of how one wishes to look at it, their dominance began after the showing of Tiznow’s Classic, with a little help, of course, from a young quarterback called in to replace the injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001 named Tom Brady.
During the Christmas holiday of 2001, Jay Robbins received a Christmas card from Belichick that read simply: “Thanks for the inspiration.”
The following February, Belichick presented the Eclipse Award for champion older male to the connections of Tiznow, a fitting ending to a remarkable story.
Belichick said at the time, "I am very excited to be participating in this year's Eclipse Awards. As an avid horseracing fan and someone who appreciates greatness in all sports, it is truly an honor to be involved with recognizing the finest horses and owners in the world."
And thanks in part to one of those horses, Belichick and the Patriots were able to reach incredible heights and now are in a position to be called the greatest dynasty ever, right up there with Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The difference is, because of free agency, they have dominated the sport with totally different personnel.
Who knows what really turned around the Patriots. The obvious answer is Tom Brady. But maybe, just maybe, there were other forces involved that no one can explain. Why not? After all, Thoroughbred racing is all about romantics and dreamers.
Following the Super Bowl, Belichick said of Brady: ""He's the guy that fights to the end and competes to the end." He could very well have been talking about a certain Thoroughbred who once inspired a team.