NEW BRITAIN, Conn. — Vinny Smith knows all about divided football loyalties in central Connecticut.
Smith, 28, of Berlin, Conn., is a New York Giants fan. His wife, Maria, 29, roots for the New England Patriots.
“I spend a lot of time sleeping on the couch,” he said Thursday as the couple sat eating chicken wings at Roma’s Sports Bar in New Britain, which sits about two hours southwest of Gillette Stadium, and about two hours northeast of the Meadowlands.
On the wall of the bar, owner Khalid Tawfik has hung the flags of both teams. He plans to divide the place in half on Feb. 5, keeping Patriots fans on one side of the room and Giants fans on the other.
“We will have a police officer here,” he said, “in case somebody has a little too much to drink and gets out of hand.”
But he doesn’t expect that. He figures there will be a lot of good-natured ribbing, of course, just as there was in 2008, when the Giants upset the Patriots 17-14 in the Super Bowl. But it shouldn’t escalate past that.
“This is what we live for,” said Cedric Monroe, 36, of New Britain, who watches football at the bar most Sundays. “We have the Giants and they have the Patriots and this is what we all want. This is exactly what we want.”
New Britain is a blue-collar city of just over 70,000 people, and home to toolmaker Stanley Black & Decker, Inc. Mayor Tim O’Brien says residents take their football seriously.
“New Britain has a lot of Giants fans and a lot of Patriots fans,” said O’Brien, who will be rooting for New York, his team since childhood. “We are right in the DMZ (demilitarized zone) between the two.”
The city has links to both organizations. The Giants, in fact, played one of their earliest games here in October 1925, winning 26-0 against a local professional team. New York also spent 1973 and 1974 at the Yale Bowl, a half hour down Interstate 91 in New Haven, while Yankee Stadium was being renovated and Giants Stadium was being built.
The Patriots never played in New Britain, but one of the city’s favorite sons played for New England. Tebucky Jones, a defensive back on the team’s first Super Bowl-championship team in 2002, now serves as head coach at his alma mater, New Britain High.
He grew up a Raiders fan, because former Oakland player Willie Hall lived in his neighborhood. But Jones, who played for three teams during his NFL career, wears his Patriots garb proudly around town these days.
“I don’t understand people rooting for New York,” he said. “We live in New England, right? We don’t have a pro sports team in Connecticut. The biggest sports team with have is UConn. But we live in New England.”
Monroe said he’s never hated the Patriots. Before the 2008 Super Bowl, there was never a natural rivalry similar to the Yankees and the Red Sox.
Monroe said he and a lot of other lifelong Giants fans considered rooting for Patriots in 1998, when owner Bob Kraft agreed to move his team to Hartford. But when Kraft backed out of the deal, it made it all the easier to see that team as the enemy.
“I think there is still a lot of like for the Patriots as a team,” said Mayor O’Brien. “However, if the dear owner of the Patriots team showed up in New Britain, I wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up with a few traffic violation tickets.”
The Smiths have simply agreed to disagree when it comes to football. Although, Maria Smith is giving her husband some incentive not to root quite as hard for New York next week.
“He can come back in the bedroom,” she said, “the day the Patriots win.”
SUBER BOWL NOTES: The Super Bowl Village is open for business. Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard cut the ribbon Friday and declared the downtown hub for Super Bowl pre-game activity ready for visitors. The NFL Experience fan hall also opened, nine days before the Feb. 5 game at nearby Lucas Oil Stadium. Rep. Andre Carson, an Indiana Democrat, called on the hometown crowd to be hospitable to out-of-towners, which will include fans of the New York Giants and New England Patriots for much of the next week. “The world will finally see America’s best-kept secret: Indianapolis, Indiana,” Carson said. Organizers expect one of the most popular attractions to be the four zip lines, raised cables that allow riders to hurtle over part of the village for about 800 feet, starting at nearly 100 feet up and dipping gradually to the ground. Some 45 VIPs, including Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay’s daughters Kalen and Carlie, tested the zip lines before they opened to the public. The NFL Experience, an interactive exhibit with football drills and players, will include youth clinics all week long. Barb Stevens of Fountaintown, Ind., wanted to get to the NFL Experience before out-of-town crowds packed downtown.