(Note: an abbreviated version of this story appeared in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings.)
No city mixes sports and patriotism quite like Boston does on the third Monday of each April – Patriots Day. It’s no coincidence that a terrorist chose this day, this location, to attack the city.
I’ve spent my entire adult life in and around that very spot that’s the scene of so much carnage, now on the front page of newspapers and websites around the world.
Cold, Hard Football Facts was conceived several years ago at 500 Boylston Street in Boston, exactly one block from the scene of the first Marathon bombing on Monday.
I’m writing this story Tuesday morning at a Starbucks on Tremont Street in Boston’s South End, about two blocks from the lock-down on Copley Square.
It's slow and subdued today, the morning after the bombing. Several marathoners have walked in wearing their distinctive blue-and-yellow Boston Athletic Association runners’ jackets.
Monday was one of those days when you count your blessings more than others – thankful you weren’t one of the lives horribly effected by the bombings in Boston. Can’t even believe “Boston bombing” is now in the cultural lexicon, like our gorgeous, cozy old little city is now a third-world battlefield.
To understand the chaos, the madness that exploded amid the joy, it pays to know a little about Patriots Day and what it means to Bostonians.
Patriots Day is a state holiday in Massachusetts and in Maine, which was part of Massachusetts until it gained statehood in 1820 as part of the Missouri Compromise. Patriots Day is also the start of April school vacation in this part of the country, so families descend on Boston from far and wide. Families like the Richards, who lost their 8-year-old son Martin in the bombing. His mom and sister are hospitalized with injuries.
Thousands of people, including countless kids decked out in Red Sox and Patriots jerseys, attend re-enactments of Revolutionary War events all over the region for several days, most notably the Battles of Lexington (soon after sunrise each Patriots Day) and later that morning in Concord, pivotal events in world history which took place just west of Boston on April 19, 1775.
My wife and I this year attended the annual lantern lighting ceremony at the Old North Church Sunday night in Boston’s North End.
You know the story: “one if by land, two if by sea.” Two lanterns hung in the steeple warned Paul Revere and others across the bay in Charlestown that the British were leaving Boston by sea to chase down John Adams, John Hancock and a cache of colonial arms in Concord.
The Marathon finish, the scene of the bombings, is in a neighborhood called Back Bay. It was water, an actual bay, in the 18th century. The Redcoats loaded into boats on the edge of Boston Common, on what’s now Charles Street, about four blocks east of what’s now the finish line. It was there the British regulars began their fateful march.
Those two steeple lanterns were the beacons that set in motion one of the most far-reaching human events since the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Empires rose and fell, a continent was conquered, world wars were ultimately won and lost, representative governments spread across the planet, on the power of those simple Old North Church lanterns.
We sat in a boxed pew in the back of the church for the ceremony. There was an invocation by the pastor, readings, patriotic music by a fife & drum corps. The musicians, in colonial garb, marched past Paul Revere’s iconic statue and then into the famed church, where the first floor is still lit only by candles. It was a stirring way to celebrate Patriots Day weekend.
The streets of Boston are filled all weekend with visitors from around the world: tourists, runners in those BAA jackets, and plenty of re-enactors and just plain folks dressed in colonial clothes, marching in one parade or another or walking the streets, visiting the Freedom Trail, soaking in the scene.
The Red Sox play a home game at 11 a.m. each Patriots Day. I believe it's the only Major League Baseball game that begins in the morning. The Boston Marathon passes a block from Fenway Park.
The city is electric on Patriots Day, on what’s often simply called Marathon Monday. After all, the 26.2-mile race that begins in the western suburbs is the centerpiece of the celebration.
The sidewalks are packed 10 deep as the race reaches the city. Some 200,000 college kids party boisterously. The Marathon races through the heart of America’s greatest university town, right past Wellesley College, Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern University, Berklee College of Music and other schools – most of which are closed today.
Bars and restaurants are packed. Bands play out on the street. It’s one of biggest, most festive civic celebrations in America. Fans cheer boisterously every step up of the way. In fact, some runners said Monday the crowd was so loud they couldn’t hear the explosions a short distance up the road.
And we do it all on what is usually a nippy 45-degree day in April, as it was Monday. It feels like a mid-summer day after another long, snowy New England winter.
The spirit that moves it all are the runners bravely doing what seems impossible to the rest of us: conquering fatigue and 26.2 miles of pavement on feet and will power alone.
I’ve always seen the runners as a metaphor for those Minutemen who did the impossible back in 1775, stopping the British army at the Old North Bridge in Concord and chasing them on foot all the way back to Boston.
So that’s the celebratory scene the bomber or bombers hit with a pair of explosions on Boylston Street, right near the marathon finish line, across the street from the Boston Public Library – the oldest public library in America.
I was invited to a number of parties on Boylston Street, the marathon's final stretch, an area filled with bars, restaurants and residences; one party was hosted by friends from a public relations firm, Marlo Marketing; another was hosted by former Patriots lineman Joe Andruzzi, who runs a foundation to fight cancer.
The buildings housing both parties were hit, one by each explosion.
Andruzzi, in fact, was photographed carrying an injured woman to safety. The photo circulated on Facebook, unsourced. Andruzzi’s three brothers were all New York City firefighters on 9-11, including one who survived the crash of the South Tower.
A friend named “Big Party” Don McCarthy works with Andruzzi and runs events for “The Phantom Gourmet,” a popular New England radio and TV food program.
“It was some of the most graphic images I’ve ever witnessed,” McCarthy said Monday night. He shared his full story later with me for The Boston Herald.
That's McCarthy running outside in the immediate aftermath of the second bomb, big guy on the left, red shirt, glasses on top of head. He acted heroically, helped rescue many people and was a calming presence for victims.
Oh, there's a football connection, too: Don played freshman football for me when I coached at Quincy High School many years ago. Great kid. His heroism does not surprise me.
I understand everyone at the first party is OK. Many were Facebooking photos from the party seconds before the explosion. They raced down the back fire escape to the alleyway behind the building. News photos show the “Marlo Marketing” sign that hung from the office torn by the explosion.
I was supposed to be right there on the spot of both explosions.
Instead, I stayed at the office, compiling 10-year draft data for each NFL team, one of the most mundane tasks in our annual calendar. It was nothing dramatic, no premonition of danger. I just chose to stay at work.
Turns out it was my lucky day.
Otherwise, it was a depressing day for Boston. Our great celebration of our unique role in history is surrounded by the pageantry of America’s pastime and by one of the oldest of all ancient athletic competitions, celebrating the Athenian victory in the Battle of Marathon. It takes place in the city we like to call the Athens of America.
And it was all quite literally shattered Monday afternoon.
At least three people are dead, including an 8-year-old boy, Martin Richard. Nearly 200 are wounded. I've lived in Boston my whole life. I must know some of them. Prayers for all of them and their families.
On top of that, there's the chance that terrorists may have changed forever the most festive and patriotic day on the calendar here in the Cradle of Liberty.
But let's hope not.
Bostonians stood up to the mightiest army on the planet 238 years ago this Friday. We can stand up to a cowardly act of terror, too.