For legions of fans, the New England Patriots are synonymous with winning. They’ve built one of the greatest dynasties in professional sports history off the strength of a visionary owner, and the greatest coach and quarterback in NFL history.
Look back before the dynasty – before the five Super Bowl wins – and you’ll find a history that rivals the disappointment felt by fans in such cities as Cleveland and Detroit.
At one point or another, the Patriots weren’t just bad, they were an embarrassment.
Long before Bill Belichick and Tom Brady were in the franchise’s plans, and prior to Bill Parcells and Robert Kraft reshaping the team entirely in the early ‘90s, the Patriots were the redheaded stepchild of New England sports – a clear afterthought to the Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics.
When a young reporter from Quincy, MA, took the assignment of covering former coach Chuck Fairbanks and the Billy Sullivan-owned New England Patriots, her introduction to the organization was anything but respectful.
“I remember the first day I went there and I asked a question about one of his [Fairbanks’] linebackers,” Lesley Visser, who became the NFL’s first-ever female beat reporter, said on Bob Ryan’s Boston Podcast. “And the first thing he said to me was ‘why don’t you call my daughter and go to lunch, you’re about the same age’”.
Visser is now one of the most esteemed reporters/media members in American sports history, but in 1976 she was certainly inexperienced. Plus, she was also entering a workforce that was anything but conducive to women.
This now seems like a different world, but the actual press credentials Visser was handed at old Schaefer Stadium would say “No women or children in the press box,” Visser mentioned on the podcast.
“He was really tough,” Visser said of Fairbanks. “I found the African American athletes were great to me because they said, ‘they know what it’s like to be the only one’.”
On top of that empathy, Visser also had the privilege of working alongside some great reporters.
“People were great to me…those guys could have been really brutal to me and they weren’t, they were great.”
Namely, Visser had the honor of working with Will McDonough, who as Visser put it, told Sullivan how it was going to be.
McDonough, of course, was known for his connections (as many would say, he was the only person who could get Pete Rozelle and Al Davis on the phone) among other things. He also became a hero for punching out former Patriots cornerback Raymond Clayborn in a locker room scuffle.
@CLNSMedia was on hand at @Wahlburgers in Hingham, MA, for a recording of @BobRyansPodcast. Bob talked with former Boston Globe colleague Lesley Visser about her legendary career, the incredible personalities she has worked with and Leslie's new book. https://t.co/JZo3MiB8HG pic.twitter.com/lO8Ysa1LLg
— Cory (@CLNS_Prescott) February 17, 2018
The Patriots of yesteryear would toil in obscurity, with only slight blips of success.
Following Fairbanks’ departure after the 1978 season, New England made the playoffs twice in the ensuing years (losing the Super Bowl in 1985), before Parcells led the team to a Wild Card berth in 1994. If not for Kraft’s shrewdness as a businessman and resistance to moving the franchise, the Patriots were nearly moved to St. Louis.
Visser cut her teeth working in an environment that was hostile at worst and unaccommodating at best. It was where she became a part of one of the greatest collections of talent ever assembled with the late 70’s Boston Globe sports section. It was also where she put together a body of work so impressive that it allowed her to move to TV.
Thankfully for Visser and the New England Patriots, it’s safe to say things have improved since then.
CLNS Media was on hand to record this live podcast at Wahlburgers in Hingham, MA. Watch the clip above, then listen to Bob Ryan’s Boston Podcast in full.