In my mind, the litmus test for the popularity of an athlete is: Would I root for him while he was on another team? The first time I faced this question was in 1996 when that Clemens Guy headed north for a fat (re: steroid-inflated) pay day. I will say that Dan Duquette didn't help things by saying Clemens was in the twilight of his career but the way Clemens left as well as his me-first demeanor throughout his time here caused me to criticize him and not cheer for him in a Blue Jays uniform.
Mo Vaughn's departure was similar all the way up to his "Stupid Boston fans" and "It's not about the money" quotes. Didn't feel all that bad when he fell down those stairs at the start of the '99 season and hurt his ankle.
I could go down the list of greedy ex-Boston athletes (see: Nomar) but you get the picture. The two players I can think of that I openly rooted for while they were on opposing teams were Drew Bledsoe and Pedro Martinez. Two very different athletes with very different careers. Bledsoe could be characterized as a disappointment or a tough athlete who saved football in New England. I'd choose the latter. Pedro was the most dominating pitcher of an era that was defined by syringe-plunging hitters who hit in bandbox stadiums. I don't need to go on about what they did for New England, but the quality that each had was that they were "ours". Pedro may have played in Los Angeles and Montreal but he is on a short list of the greatest Boston athletes ever. Even after every mind-numbing, costly interception, Bledsoe was our guy. They gave their hearts when they played and I rooted for Bledsoe in Buffalo and Dallas and I honestly wanted nothing but success for Pedro in the Big Apple.
There are obviously players like Bill Mueller who spent a short amount of time here who I respected greatly and would watch anywhere. But, in terms of a player spending a significant amount of time here and supporting them on other teams, the list is filled with Patriots. Right at the top of the list is #80.
When Troy Brown announced his retirement yesterday morning, in some ways I was happy because I now know he'll never wear anything but the red, white and blue that he adorned his whole career. I still would've cheered and followed him in a Jets uniform but it's good to know he's a lifetime Patriot. The greatest Patriot receiver of all time retired as a Patriot with the same dignity and class that he displayed since he was drafted 198th overall out of Marshall in 1993.
All day on WEEI, callers have been reminiscing about favorite Brown moments and it made me feel a bit nostalgic as well. The first play that comes to mind was Brown picking up the blocked field goal in the 2001 AFC Title game and lateraling it to Antwan Harris for a touchdown. No play could define a player more than that one.
Everyone remembers Adam Vinetieri's game-winning field goal in the Super Bowl that year but it was Brown's reception with seconds remaining that even gave him a chance for the kick. That's Troy Brown, unnoticed but unbelievably important. Who remembers his fourth-down catch at midfield against Tennessee in the third quarter in the Divisional Playoff in 2003? Stuff like that sticks with me.
I consider his late transition into a nickel back in 2004 to be more impressive than his 101-catch season in 2001. He did what the team needed him to do and performed admirably. In a time when we have the likes of "Ocho Cinco" going on ESPN to talk about himself, a team-first player like Brown becomes even more special. I'll take 50 catches and great leadership over 80 catches and a detriment to your team any day. His productivity may have declined toward the end of the Patriots run but he was a rock from day one until now. We're not going to realize how important he was until 5 or 6 years from now if Foxboro is filled with underachieving, malcontent receivers. This isn't going to last forever, folks.
He'll never make the Hall of Fame but I will say this: the Patriots don't win 3 Super Bowls without him. We'll miss you Troy.