It’s rare when you actually get to witness the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but a few weeks ago, I witness just such a straw-and-back situation while sitting in the stands of Gillette Stadium.
My friend and longtime seat mate, Shep, and I were waiting for the game to begin. On the field, fans were trying to kick field goals to win Ocean Spray gift baskets and starting lineups were being announced.
I was telling Shep about a doctor who I’m working with on her story about being assaulted in her apartment in the middle of the night. A man broke into her home, pinned her to the bed, and hit her in the head with a hammer, blowing out her eye and causing massive damage to her face. As she struggled against her attacker who was now punching and choking her, she remembered something she had once heard Oprah say about not resisting when being attacked like this in order to survive.
So she stopped trying to resist.
The man then continued to punch her in the face unabated until the doctor realized that Oprah’s advice sucked and began fighting back again, eventually saving herself.
Shep was enraged. “Don’t fight back? If someone’s attacking my daughter, I want her to fight back with everything she’s got.” He railed about Oprah’s advice and explained how his daughter knew exactly what to do and how to hurt a man who might be assaulting her.
A moment later we rose for the national anthem. Though Shep always rises for the anthem and has great respect for the flag and our country, he is also keenly aware of the history and the hypocrisy of playing the national anthem before a sporting event in which two American teams are competing.
He’s also been frustrated with the recent politicization of the national anthem by certain politicians for political gain, and he, like me, despises the thick-necked men at games who shout “Hats off!” during the anthem because forgetting to remove your cap is far more disrespectful than some half-in-the-bag moron shouting at fans throughout the song.
A few minutes before kickoff, two Green Bay Packers fans arrived, taking seats beside us. Shep is relentlessly cruel to opposing fans. He berates them throughout the game, sometimes to the point that even I’m uncomfortable. As he began to lay into these two man, who had just traveled from Wisconsin to Massachusetts for the game, one of them reached out to shake Shep’s hand. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We’re always respectful to the opponent’s fans, and we respect the players and the stadium. We’ve traveled with the Packers before, and we’re just here to enjoy the game.”
He then added that Gillette Stadium was a beautiful place to watch a game and the Patriots were an amazing franchise.
Just like that, I watched my ruthless, merciless, take-no-prisons friend melt into a kinder, gentler soul. He started chatting with the Packer fans, and during the opening moments of the game, even laughed with them a little.
That was it. The final straw.
The idea that women should not resist while being assaulted in a country with a President who bragged about sexual assault, combined with the thought of his daughter’s safety in this misogynistic world had primed the pump.
Added to this was the reminder of the hypocrisy and politicization of the national anthem.
Then two men, bitter opponents from a state that voted for Trump - reached out a hand and offered kindness and camaraderie in the face of verbal abuse.
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Shep is an odd political duck. He’s what I refer to as a libertarian Democrat. He hates unnecessary rules and laws and can’t stand to be told what to do. If given his choice, he’d probably eliminate many of the regulations and statutes that we live by today. He wants people to live however they want with as little interference by government as possible.
But he’s also fundamentally a Democrat, supporting a strong social safety net for those in need and very progressive on issues like same sex marriage, transgender rights, sensible gun laws, and the like. He actually works to support Medicare and help Americans access their benefits.
He’s also vehemently opposed to Donald Trump’s presidency, but because not everyone in his life feels the same, has been careful about what he says, how he says it, and where he says it.
Sitting in the upper deck of Gillette Stadium, as the Patriots began driving down the field against the Packers, Shep stopped watching the game. Completely ignored the soaring passes from Tom Brady, the spectacular catches from Patriots receivers, and missed our first touchdown completely.
I’ve been sitting beside Shep at football games for almost two decades, and I have never seen him disengage with the action before. But on that fall evening, on the eve of the midterm elections, Shep stopped watching the game completely, for one specific purpose:
It was time for him to finally and clearly express his political position.
Opening up Facebook, Shep sat down and wrote:
“Look, I generally just say leave me alone and I will leave you alone, but I have to say If you have a daughter or a sister or any woman or any PERSON who’s well being you value please vote. And vote Democratic. There. I said it. Just step up everybody, our country is a nightmare. And that’s me at the Patriots game, so distracted with the faux-patriotism, so if it matters that much to me, I pray it will for you.”
Then he added:
“My seat mate Matthew Dicks points out that I hyper focused and left out the people you care about who might be: non-white; non-binary, not rich... basically if you value anyone who isn’t a rich white male, please vote Democratic on Tuesday.”
Twenty minutes later, during halftime, he sat down one more time to write:
“For my Republican family members and friends who wonder why I chose to speak up now... I am at a PATRIOTS game. In PATRIOTS gear. And the definition of a Patriot is not, and has never been, blind obedience to autocratic rule. It is standing up for freedom, liberty and the rights we fought for centuries ago. It is standing up for the rights of all Americans, not just the rich white ones. This country is broken and change needs to happen now. Vote for change. Please.”
It was one of those moments that I’ll never forget. It was a moment when something shifted inside my friend, and he became someone new. Someone with the same beliefs and ideals as always, but now someone who was willing to stand up, risk retribution, and let his voice be heard.
Shep and I have attended well over 100 Patriots football games together over the past two decades. Many unforgettable. Impossible plays. Remarkable come-from-behind victories. More AFC championship games than a football fan deserves.
I’ll remember this game, too. Maybe better than all of them. Not for the football game, which the Patriots won, but for what I watched my friend do that day.
He became a Patriot that day. I was so damn proud of him.