The gift came from a son cementing a bond with his dad.
I tore the paper off the present, revealing a figurine of a kneeling football player, chin cleft and stylized minuteman helmet leaving no doubt about the identity. Hello, Tom Brady!
It was something I would never buy for myself. Still, I was glad to own it. Its usual home is a glass-door cabinet in my bedroom. But when the leaves fall and the daylight hours dwindle and Sundays are spent on the sofa, I like to bring it to work and position it on my desk.
And there it was on Monday, Jan. 21, but not where I had left it.
After the AFC Championship game, someone came through the door (trespassing!) and performed a little sabotage (a crime!). Tom was upside down, head stuck in an empty beverage bottle, helmet pushed aside. He had been dumped, literally on the field, and figuratively through, er, the figure.
Such are the indignities suffered by a New England fan in Baltimore. Especially when the Ravens and the Patriots are the two top teams in the conference. Especially when the Ravens have a score to settle.
I grew up in a Boston suburb just a short drive from Foxboro. I've lived in a lot of different places, and proudly, or perhaps stubbornly, taken my Beantown heritage with me, along with the twinges of an accent. My favorite candy is a Snickahs Bah, and I really have pahked my cah at Havahd Yahd, preferably while grabbing a burger and adult beverage at Nick's Beef and Beer — you should try it!
When I was growing up in the 1970s, and 1980s, the Patriots of Steve Grogan and Tony Eason and Andre Tippett and Irving Fryar were almost always awful. I am still amazed not only at how good they've become (thank you, Bob Kraft), but at the scorn they engender. I know: The tuck rule was a ridiculous call; Spygate was a travesty; Belichick's an ass. It all has a certain logic, and I reject most of it.
By now, I've lived in Maryland for more than a quarter of my life. It is the only home my children know, and I am committed to seeing this region prosper and thrive. I love the tangible waves of pride that pulse through the community when the Ravens — my second-favorite team — play well.
But I'm also willing to vocally support my first-favorite team. And in the months of December and January, that can be a challenge.
The last couple of weeks have been especially hard. I tried to keep my mouth shut and my head down. But even my efforts to give the Ravens their props were met with disdain. "Baltimore has the less annoying Harbaugh," I proclaimed on Facebook and Twitter. "And the less annoying quarterback," a friend retorted, referring to the Patriots, not the '49ers. My boss, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, has taunted me on more than one occasion. The county executive was a lot happier last week, however, than during the same week a year ago, so that's a plus.
Last week crystallized something for me — being a Patriots fan while roosting in Ravens territory means there are things just I don't get.
I don't get Purple Fridays. I like to tell people that because this is America, every day is red, white and blue day.
It is a weak attempt at cleverness mixed with derision, and I get a fair amount of snorts and eye rolls in return. But seriously, y'all have a good team. A budding dynasty. An elite squad. You don't need marketing gimmicks to drum up interest or fill seats. This isn't Jacksonville.
I also don't get the Brady hating. I've spent hours driving around New England, listening to him on sports talk radio. By all accounts, he is humble and honest. He talks in complete sentences, and makes jokes that you can actually understand. He's self-deprecating — my favorite quality, especially in someone famous and talented. Then he goes on the field and flashes intensity and wins. My goodness. How awful.
So I'll defend him. Admit it: you'd marry a model too, if you were in love and you could (that's a gender-neutral observation, by the way). Last week, I felt like the only person in a five-state area not outraged by his sliding kick, calling it a reasonable reaction. That's what I'd do if Ed Reed were charging toward me. I have yet to find a single person who agrees with that view.
This weekend, I will enthusiastically root for the Ravens. I hope they win. The parade would be fun. Newspaper sales and Web page views would spike. The size of Joe Flacco's contract would be impressive. But it won't be exactly the same for me.
A very smart person I once worked with, a mentor of sorts, holds a well-articulated position that a person — and particularly a young person — should be a fan of the team in the community in which they live. It makes sense. This person is persuasive, and had me convinced. I explained the argument to my son, and gently encouraged him to go his own way if he wanted. He nodded, and ignored the argument.
So I reciprocated with the gift-giving, and bought him a Gronkowski jersey.
He wears it on game days, and sometimes to school on Fridays. Even though it would be fine if he wore it every day. After all, it is red, white and blue. And this is America.
David Nitkin, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and editor, is director of communications for Howard County Government. He is a native of Randolph, Mass., and the first baseball player he ever heard of was Carl Yastremski.