FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When Bruce Hawkins of Newmarket, New Hampshire, got dressed Thursday, he had no idea how significant his T-shirt would become. The red one he picked for the day had a picture of his favorite quarterback and the words "Free Brady."
"I did not know this was going to become a prophecy," he said. "Everyone is telling me, 'He's already free,' and I'm like, 'Yeah, I didn't know that when I put this on.' I didn't know I had that power over the universe."
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Forgive fans in New England for feeling they do have that kind of control. After months of anxiety and waiting and having their team's integrity disparaged, they finally had a chance to let loose and do a little end-zone dancing. On a day when a federal judge vacated the NFL's four-game suspension of Tom Brady, thousands swarmed Gillette Stadium for what felt less like a fourth preseason game against the Giants and more like a resurrection.StoryTom Brady 'DeflateGate' court decisionStoryPats-Steelers spread changes after Brady rulingStoryReaction from around the NFL
Everyone in New England, it seemed, has a story about how they heard the news. Some, such as Hawkins, who was in the team's official store at Gillette Stadium three hours before kickoff, were linked into the social network. He received two texts from his son, Zak, at about 10:18 a.m. Thursday: "Tom [expletive] wins!" they said.
Others heard about it through traditional media.
"We heard it this morning on the radio," said Sue Pascale of Thompson, Connecticut, at the game with her husband, Gary. "We just wanted to explode because we were so happy."
Others took a little longer to find out about it. Matt Gioiosi and Sami Clair of Belchertown, Massachusetts, slept in and woke to dozens of messages.
"I jumped up and grabbed her, picked her up," Gioiosi said.
"He was grabbing my face yelling, 'He's free!' '' Clair added. "It was a good morning."
For Patriots fans, it got better . . . even if it felt like a birthday party without the guest of honor. Brady was not on the field or on the sideline for the game -- he reportedly left the building after an afternoon team workout -- but there were plenty of signs of support for him and the excitement was palpable. Fans held homemade posters that read "Justice Served," "Brady's Free" and "Judge Berman for President!" And whenever his image was shown on the video boards, it received an ovation.
"I don't know why I ever had any doubts about this," Hawkins said. "Tom Brady always wins."
For many, the celebration was long overdue. "They didn't have any proof and this hurt his reputation," Sue Pascale said. "It was all decided before, everyone thought he was guilty. It took away from our ability to celebrate winning the Super Bowl. It really hurt us not being able to go all-out and celebrate."
"Vindication? Yeah," said Kevin Schermelhorn of South Weymouth, Massachusetts. "Justice? Heck yeah, and a lot of relief, too, at least for me. I think there was worry that this whole thing would tarnish all of this, but now we can celebrate the Super Bowl one more time and kick off the season the right way."