FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quarterback Tom Brady wasn't even present for Thursday night's preseason finale between the New England Patriots and visiting New York Giants at Gillette Stadium, departing early with other players who weren't dressed for action.
But he was still the story of the night.
The signs throughout the stands captured the essence of the day.
"Judge Berman for President 2016"
Despite the 12-9 loss to the Giants, the game was a chance for fans to congregate and celebrate long-desired news from earlier in the day that Brady's four-game suspension had been vacated by Judge Richard M. Berman in U.S. District Court. The NFL, in a statement issued by commissioner Roger Goodell, has said it will appeal the decision.
Hence the sign held up in one end zone that read, "Brady 1, Goodell 0."
This was a day unlike any other in franchise history. The tremors heard around 10 a.m. in Foxborough were a result of screams from Patriots executives as they first learned of Berman's decision, with staff members relaying how it unfolded. The raw emotion of the reaction -- coupled with the team tweeting a game picture of Brady pumping his right fist into the air -- highlighted how the Patriots, while hopeful of the outcome, realized that there are no sure things in court.
Team president Jonathan Kraft, in a radio interview before Thursday night's game, explained that he was on a conference call at the time and abruptly cut it short. He said he then spoke with Brady, who was "very happy."
"No matter how strong you are mentally, when you have that going on, it takes away," Kraft said on the program, "so I think there was some relief, but mostly happiness. He's just really excited that he's going to be on the field Thursday night [vs. the Steelers] where he absolutely belongs."
Indeed, it was a day mixed with elation, vindication and relief for Brady and the franchise.
The elation was highlighted in a text message sent by a source close to Brady, who described his reaction thusly: "READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
The vindication was tied to the team's belief that the process that led to Brady's initial suspension, and the process in which it was upheld, was unfair and driven by the league's legal arm led by general counsel Jeff Pash.
"With absolutely no evidence of any actions of wrongdoing by Tom in the Wells report, the lawyers at the league still insisted on imposing and defending unwarranted and unprecedented discipline," owner Robert Kraft said in a statement that didn't reference Goodell, who the league later announced would not attend the Patriots-Steelers season opener Sept. 10.
And the relief, as stated by Jonathan Kraft, was a reminder of how this story has been a drain on Brady and the club, turning what the team hoped to be an offseason of celebration following its Super Bowl victory into one that featured crisis management. While the NFL's appeal ensures that the case isn't officially over, Berman's ruling adds clarity in the short term.
In his pregame radio interview, Kraft said the Patriots didn't plan to unveil their Super Bowl championship banner unless Brady was playing in the opener. Instead, Kraft hinted that they would have unveiled a different banner, one that perhaps highlighted Brady's career accomplishments.
As for Thursday night, the Patriots saluted Brady early in the first quarter with a highlight montage on the videoboards at the stadium as one of Brady's favorite songs, "Public Service Announcement" by Jay Z, played. That drew the predictable reaction from the crowd, which cheered, although it wasn't anything close to the level of some of the raucous environments in recent years.
Brady's absence might have had something to do with that.
Brady had arrived at the stadium midafternoon and joined teammates on the practice fields for a walk-through. That was a break from normal routine and reflected how coach Bill Belichick split the team into two parts -- one group focused on the regular-season opener and the other group preparing for the preseason finale -- which he explained in a pregame radio interview.
But that didn't stop fans from showing up and expressing their support, both with their wallets and signs. Sales of Brady No. 12 jerseys online and at the team's pro shop were up 450 percent on the day, according to the club.
And the signs -- "Tom rules," "Brady Nation," "Free at Last," "Judge Berman fan" -- pretty much said it all about how Thursday's news was received in New England.