By Mike LaBella
HAVERHILL — As the New England Patriots seek another Super Bowl victory, the team emblem is everywhere — on T-shirts, hats, key chains, bumper stickers.
But there was a time when people knew little about the Patriots. Haverhill played a role in putting them on the map during the year of their birth — 1960.
With owner Robert Kraft's Patriots focused on Sunday's big game, some local people are recounting how 52 years ago they convinced then-owner Billy Sullivan to have his upstart Boston Patriots play in Haverhill Stadium.
It was the first time the Patriots played in uniform and in front of the public.
The year before, Sullivan of Lowell gathered a group of businessmen and scraped together $25,000 to secure the eighth and final franchise in the new American Football League, which formed to compete with the established National Football League. The two leagues would merge 10 years later.
"The newly formed league in 1960 was a gamble for the upstart new eight team owners who were known as 'The Foolish Club,'" Patriot historian Michael Paolino of Groveland wrote in a special report to The Eagle-Tribune Aug. 6, 2000.
In it, Paolino recalled the events that led to the link between Haverhill and the Patriots.
Lions Club lured Patriots to Haverhill
During the summer of 1960, the Haverhill Lions Club was raising money for an eye research program and came up with the idea to hold a charity football game involving the Patriots. William Miller, vice president of the Lions Club at the time, convinced his fellow members that such a game would benefit the club's charities and bring attention to the new Patriots organization.
The Lions Club promised Sullivan a packed house if his team would play a scrimmage involving its own players in Haverhill Stadium. It would be a night game — the best chance to attract a big crowd.
"I called Sullivan and asked if he'd consider bringing the team to Haverhill. It would be good exposure for the team and would help our club's charities," Miller said about the call he made to Sullivan on July 18, 1960.
Miller recalls Sullivan saying there was no time for such an event, since his team was arranging to play its first exhibition game in Buffalo on July 30. But several hours later, Sullivan called Miller back to say he'd thought it over, and his team could use the exposure.
Sullivan told Miller the game would also be an opportunity for Patriots coaches to see younger players in action and for the team to play in uniform and under the lights. He gave Miller eight days to work out the details.
The first-year Patriots — under the leadership of Coach Lou Saban and quarterback Butch Songin — played at the stadium the night of July 26, 1960. The team came to Haverhill with 61 players and would need to trim the number to 33 within a week.
"Guys were still trying to make the team and not get cut, so during the game they gave it their all," Miller said.
In the days leading up to the game, every member of the Lions Club had a job to do — and little time to do it.
"We threw in anything we could to create an electric atmosphere for the game," Miller said.
Lions Club President Burke Bevelacqua arranged for "Miss Haverhill" Jean Comeau to greet fans at the gate and for popular local singer Joe Pepe to sing the national anthem. Additional entertainment was thrown into the mix, all in hopes of drawing a huge crowd.
Lions Club member James Waldron, who later was Haverhill's mayor, was assigned the task of working the concession stand during the game. He recalls that ticket sales in the days leading up to the game were sluggish and no one could predict how big the crowd would be.
"Tickets weren't selling and it was looking like a complete flop," Waldron said. "But then the crowd came out of the woodwork and I remember how surprised we were that the stadium was filled."
In fact, the admission — $1.50 for adults and 75 cents for children — was no barrier to filling the stands with 6,500 fans. The crowd was so big that organizers had to bring in extra seats. The Lions Club ended up making $2,600 for its charities.
Miller said the week leading up to the Patriots intra-squad scrimmage were hectic.
"We had Lions Club members, including dentists and lawyers, close their offices to prepare for the event," he said. "Each guy in the club had a job to do, such as selling advertising and printing the program booklet, organizing a raffle and printing tickets. We didn't even have lights at the stadium so we had to rent them."
He said both the Haverhill Gazette and Haverhill Journal newspapers ran stories leading up to game day, which helped promote the event.
As Paolino noted in his story, Sullivan's team was met by a Haverhill Police motorcade on Route 125, near the North Andover line in Bradford. Lion's Club member Daniel Thornton, dressed as a Patriot from the days of Paul Revere, rode through town on a horse telling people to head to the stadium.
'They'll always be related to Haverhill'
Miller said there were several tense moments in the hours leading up to the game. Organizers realized they didn't have a white-striped football, which would help players see the ball at night. They found what they needed at Benedetti's Sport Shop on Washington Street. The rented lights arrived just two hours before the start of the game.
"The happiest moment I remember is when the lights were turned on," Miller said.
Coach Saban divided his team into two squads and gave them names referring to the Lions Club. His Lion Tamers squad, dressed in white, ended up trouncing his Tail Twisters (in red) by a score of 27-6.
The game featured Syracuse All-American Ger Schwedes, future Patriot greats Bob Dee, Larry Garron, Jimmy Colclough and 33-year-old quarterback Songin, who teamed-up with rookies Ron Burton and John Thomas to provide most of the game's thrills.
Following the game, the key to the city was presented to Saban. His team later dined at a local Italian restaurant.
Paolino wrote that the Patriots must have liked what they saw in Haverhill because the team went on to play several charity exhibitions in nearby Lowell for Catholic organizations. The team must also have been impressed with the Merrimack Valley, Paolino wrote, as the Patriots went on to hold a few preseason camps at Phillips Andover Academy.
"We got them going and they'll always be related to Haverhill," Miller said. "We're part of Patriot history."
The scrimmage in Haverhill helped as the Patriots won the AFL's first-ever exhibition game over Buffalo and went on to post a 5-9 record in the team and league's first season.