No words were left in an imagination that was full of words only six and seven and eight weeks ago. What was there to say? The condition of Hugh Millen's mind had joined the condition of his body. His left arm was in a sling. His left leg was in a knee brace for the first time in his life. Assorted bumps merged with assorted bruises underneath his football uniform. He held a prescription for painkillers curled in one hand. He ached everywhere. Including his head.
"You run out of words," said Millen, the New England Patriot quarterback, early on Sunday evening. His team had just lost its seventh straight game of the season, 19-17, in the last minute, to the Cleveland Browns, in the cold and dark at half-filled Foxboro Stadium. "I try to give a good quote," said Millen. "I try to think of something, but I'm about used up. It hurts like being hit in the stomach with a sackful of nickels. I said that already. You reach a point where you literally drive home and wonder how you could feel any worse."
Physical pain? Mental pain? No difference. This was the worst. A whack on Millen's left arm—yet another whack—had dislodged the football at the New England 40-yard line with 3:54 remaining. Was there any doubt the Browns would recover? At the time, the Patriots were leading 17-12, heading for their first win, their only win. Was there any doubt about what would happen next? Cleveland quarterback Mike Tomczak threw, the winning touchdown pass to reserve tight end Scott Galbraith with 31 seconds left.
There are tricks the mind can play at times like these, little sayings that can be dragged across the consciousness like so many advertising banners pulled by miniature Piper Cubs: IT'S ONLY A GAME...NOBODY WAS KILLED...THERE IS MUCH GREATER SUFFERING ELSEWHERE IN THIS MORTAL VALE OF TEARS. But what do you do when the tricks have been used so many times that the Piper Cubs have run out of gas? Where do you look for consolation of any feeble kind?
"It's all tied to expectation levels," Millen said. "You can say, 'Think of the homeless people.' They're working at a different expectation level. The emotion is relative to expectation levels. You can talk about people dying in a family and so forth, but that does not mean this emotion is not genuine. I feel as miserable as could be. There is a lot of suffering going on around here."
He spoke in a corner of the Pats' weight room, surrounded by the machines and dull implements of daily torture, his back against a wall-to-wall mirror that is designed to allow the lifter a chance to admire his physique. Admire his physique? Ha. In the locker room across the hall, Millen's teammates mostly dressed in a rush. They handled the problem of no words, no explanation, mostly by not talking. What was there to say?
"Are you recognized when you go on the street?" veteran noseguard Fred Smerlas was asked recently. "Do strangers talk to you about all this when they see you? Do they know who you are?"
"Gee, I hope not," Smerlas said, only half in jest.
The worst. Eight weeks down and nine to go. The worst record in football. The worst franchise in football. Eight weeks down and nine to go. Has a team ever had a more chaotic football season? Any team? Anywhere?
"You look at the entire history of this team, and the attention almost never has been focused on what was happening on the field," says Boston Globe columnist and NBC analyst Will McDonough, who has followed the Patriots since their first game, in 1960. "You look at every year, and there has been some overriding situation. There have been very few times to think about just football."