It is breathtaking to watch Fox Sports’ prepackaged intro to Super Bowl XXXVI. The NFL, staging America’s Big Game, its first after one of America’s worst tragedies, caked itself in the red, white and blue for the occasion. A montage of players read Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you…” speech. Former President and CIA Director George H.W. Bush—also the father of the then-president, who was riding a wave of approval like no world leader had ever seen—assisted with the coin toss. Mariah Carey sang the Star-Spangled Banner while perched between two displays: one of soldiers planting the flag at Iwo Jima, the other a real-life evocation of firefighters raising the flag at Ground Zero.
What happened next, of course, was devastating. Two unconscionable, vengeance-fueled wars. A financial crisis that left an entire generation adrift. An inspiring Chicago politician elected to the highest office on a promise to turn everything around, only to be swamped by the machinations of a loathsome Kentucky gremlin. A reality-TV host became president, where he botched a deadly pandemic so badly that everyone had to spend a whole year inside their homes.
The wake of 9/11 looked like America coming together, but really, it sowed the seeds for a miserable era in public life. Super Bowl XXXVI was also the first NFL title for quarterback Tom Brady, head coach Bill Belichick, and the New England Patriots, who would go on to play in nine of the following 19 Super Bowls, winning six of them, and transforming themselves into the greatest NFL dynasty ever. They would also be scandal-ridden and widely loathed by anyone who wasn’t a Patriots fan. For nearly two decades, they were America’s team, for better or worse. (OK, mostly for worse.)