By: Bob George/
July 27, 2002

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SMITHFIELD, R.I. -- Andy Williams can't croon like he used to.

He gave it the old college try on a recent NBC special, celebrating their 50th year in television. He sang his signature song, Moon River (some look at it as revered, others look at it as hackneyed), and he sounded all of his 74 years. Williams delighted many baby boomers over the years with his baritone voice, so nobody really cared how well he did that night.

What Patriot Nation should do is to head for their favorite music downloading device and grab themselves an old Williams holiday classic, It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year. Yes, we know that this sort of music works better in December, not July. And to further compound the problem, New England is one of the best places, if not the best, to spend a holiday season.

This is sports we're talking about. Many New Englanders live their lives around their teams, not their stockings and mistletoe. Williams' wistful holiday classic may remind all of you about Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa. But if you're a sports fan, his song should really remind you of one thing.

The day the equipment truck leaves Fenway Park and heads for Fort Myers, Florida.

Wrong, Vince Lombardi Trophy breath.

People wax poetic about the buds appearing on the trees, the weather warming up, and the stereos at colleges and universities blasting out the windows as much as wassail bowls, tinsel and nativity scenes. Beginning this year, everyone needs to wipe out all this from the "sentimental section" of your brains. Clear all of this springtime and December garbage out, and make room for the newest "most wonderful time of the year".

That's right. Training camp. It's almost here.

"It". The National Football League. And the current royalty, who happen to train right here in Smithfield. They're finally back.

No more sitting there and waiting for the next chance to see the world champs. No more going to bed and dreaming about that new stadium. No more having to sit there and read and listen to all these fools who thought last year was a fluke and still pay your team no respect.

The dead of summer. Hot. Hazy. Humid. The three H's. Waiting to see what new weather word Channel 5's Dick Albert can come up with to describe this oppressive weather. Windows are up, screens are down. You'd be shocked to find out how many New Englanders don't have central air conditioning.

Aahhhh. They're back.

Two-a-days. Grueling conditions. Lots of guys who throw up. Lots of guys who did more eating than weightlifting. Lots of guys who are taking dead aim on snatching a job away from a veteran.

And, we pray, no more Korey Stringers.

Or Dick Rehbeins.

Face it, unless you simply hate football or love the Globe's Dan Shaughnessy, this time of the year is now the best. Never before in this region has a football season been so highly anticipated. Never has the impatience to "get the season going" been so high. Never has Bryant College gotten so much publicity, attention and focus.

Friday was the first practice in which the public was invited to attend. The parking spaces disappeared as quickly as Jerome Bettis in his own backfield. About 5,000 people showed up for a practice. The roar of the crowd was as if it were a real game. And this was a practice, mind you.

They're back.

All eyes are on Tom Brady, now the unquestioned leader of this team. Drew Bledsoe is somewhere in East Podunk, New York. This is Tom's team. The fans, media and team will scrutinize every wink of his eyelash.

All eyes are on Bill Belichick, to see what kind of hold he really has on this team. He once again will be short an assistant coach, as offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is still recovering from stomach stapling surgery. Everyone will be looking at his players under a microscope, with the word "complacency" trembling upon their lips with every player they look at.

All eyes will be on the new gang. Every pass Donald Hayes drops will reverberate across the Nation. Everyone will wonder why in the Sam Hill the Patriots needed another small wideout, and Deion Branch will have to show everyone why. Everyone will wonder when Otis Smith will finally play like a guy in his late 30s, or will Tom Knight step in and take his job. Everyone will be conducting office pools on the tight end depth chart.

All eyes will be on who is out there at practice, and who isn't. Antowain Smith, bless him, flunked his first conditioning test, just like last year. We call that a good omen. Go get 'em tomorrow, big guy.

Isn't that strange? You get Smith failing his first conditioning test, and another ailing assistant coach (though thankfully just "ailing" and not "deceased", though it was reported that Weis almost did just that). Two similarities from last year. Someone go tell the Steelers about this, and prepare like crazy for the season opener.

One thing that is missing from last year is the distractions. Andy Katzenmoyer and Terry Glenn are gonzo. Nobody has retired out of the blue. And, knock on wood, everyone's health is fine. It's almost like things are too good right now.

The 2002 Patriot ship has finally set sail. The 2001 champs exist only in your history books right now. The parades have been held, the DVDs burned, the rings awarded. Last year can be found only in your video libraries and your old newspapers.

The Patriots are now "defending champs". Yikes. That's also new territory.

But it all begins right now. Late July, when New England weather is at its worst, when July 4th is far enough off in the distance to not have any presence, and the next "holiday" is Labor Day. What's there to do in New England in August except to head for the pool, the beach, or Fenway?

That's where the Patriots come in. It's the beginning of the season, and everyone is pumped and jacked. (Really.) It's time to organize tailgates and Sunday afternoon get-togethers. The leaves will soon turn color, and the lovely cool weather is not far away.

The new football season is finally here. It doesn't get any better.

That's why you need to go listen to Andy W (does the Patriot capologist possess a decent singing voice?) right away. Think not of gifts, family and chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Think only of the fact that football is back.

As the Red Sox once again head off into oblivion, why bother to think this way in late February? The Red Sox refuse to keep pace with the Yankees, and now they can't even beat Tampa Bay or Baltimore. Next time you hear about the truck leaving Fenway, go back out and throw a snowball at something. Don't allow yourself to get excited until you see that first leaf bud.

This is worth getting really excited. Fall. Football. The Super Bowl Champs.

And it all begins right now.

The most wonderful time of the year.