First there was SpyGate, then there was DeflateGate, and now… PrankGate?
It's common knowledge amongst NFL fans that the New England Patriots seek out innovative and creative ways to gain a competitive advantage - often blurring the line between gamesmanship .and rule-breaking. We've all heard the rumors of helmet radio interference, or fire alarms sounding late at night in visiting teams' hotel rooms, or that Peyton Manning himself refused to ever speak aloud in the locker room at Foxborough. But now it is alleged that over the past decade, members of the Patriots' special teams unit have placed thousands of elaborate prank calls to opposing players and coaches in hopes of disturbing them mentally and emotionally.
Speaking anonymously, a former special teams assistant named 4-time Pro Bowl kicker Stephen Gostkowski as the ringleader of the operation:
"The plan was to pose as solicitors, family members, or even romantic partners"
According to our source, Gostkowski makes the majority of the calls himself, and finds considerable pleasure in hoodwinking his opponents.
"He refers to himself as Stephen Gotcha-kowski," confessed the whistleblower, "Stephen Gostkowski might be the best kicker in the world, but Stephen Gotcha-kowski is the greatest pranker on the planet. His words, not mine."
"When Stephen arrived in 2006, Bill [Belichick] told the special teams guys to find busywork while the offense and defense were watching game film," recalls the ex-assistant. "Stephen didn't even blink. He started dialing that day and never looked back. First we collected phone numbers of former Patriots and ex-teammates. Before the bye week, we had every number in the league."
Gostkowski took his craft seriously. Our source claims he hired a team of assistants to perform hours of research to craft the perfect call to suit each victim. When a video surfaced of Rex Ryan fetishizing his wife's feet, Gostkowski brought his own wife in and jumped on the opportunity:
"He had his wife, Hallie, flirting with Rex three or four times a week. She was just as into the pranking as Stephen was. She made up a character for herself, bought a bunch of high heels, and would act out scenes while she was on the phone with him. Rex loved that girl. He was ready to put her in his will." This prank may have backfired, however, by serving as motivation for Rex- the Jets beat the Patriots in the playoffs one month later.
Before the 2006 AFC Championship game, the shenanigans took a dark turn. Gostkowski called Colts head coach Tony Dungy, posing as a suicidal college student.
"That got intense," our source remembers. "Coach Dungy was a sweetheart. They talked for hours and by the end of it, Steve was broken down in tears. I thought Dungy was wearing him down emotionally, but as soon as they hung up, he busted out laughing and got started on the next call. That one gave me the creeps."
Again, Gostkowski's ploy failed. Despite the lack of sleep, Dungy's warm and motivational demeanor helped his Colts to defeat the Patriots on the way to a Super Bowl victory.
More than just a conniving prankster, Gostkowski also became a master impersonator. In 2010, he spent weeks honing a spot-on impression of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. Gostkowski studied his dialect, inflections, and even began mimicking the coach's movements and style of dress while at home. He then called Harbaugh's brother, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, and slipped into character.
"Dude went balls out on that call," recounts the former assistant. "He drank 2 cans of Red Bull and threatened to set John's house on fire." With such a bold claim, one would think Harbaugh would catch on quickly, but that wasn't the case. "John totally bought it, almost as if the threats came as no surprise to him." Public records do indicate that police visited both brothers' homes on January 9, 2010, but it did not hinder the Ravens' performance as Harbaugh's squad thumped the Pats 33-14 in the Wild Card Playoff game the next day.
This method however did not deceive another famous pair of brothers. Gostkowski called Giants quarterback Eli Manning prior to the Patriots devastating Super Bowl XLII loss, this time posing as legendary quarterback, Peyton Manning.
"Eli was really smart about it," our source discloses. "He was one of the first to catch on. He strung Steve along, discussing 'strategy' for a good 20 minutes or so. Then Eli started asking him personal questions with increasing specificity. Steve came prepared and nailed the stuff about Peyton's favorite sandwich and the suspicious spot on his [scrotum], but crumbled when Eli brought up a childhood story about a Manning family reunion that ended in tragedy. Gostkowski pretended to lose service and hung up the phone, but he was sweating bullets."
After locking up the stunning upset, Manning made sure to catch up with Gostkowski on the field. "Eli shook Steve's hand, brought him in close, and whispered 'I dropped the turd in the gumbo'. That really pissed him off."
Just how many prank calls has Stephen Gotcha-kowski made over the years? "I would say upwards of five thousand- that's just during practice. Who knows how much pranking he did in his spare time." The source alleges that Gostkowski once convinced former Bengals head coach Jon Gruden to buy into a pyramid scheme, and even tricked friend and former teammate Wes Welker into believing he was suffering from schizophrenia.
"I could write a book on this guy," declared the assistant. When asked if he thinks the Pats' kicker is still making these types of calls: "I would bet my kidney that he's still doing it, and I only have one kidney. Stephen can't live without pranking. He's got dossiers on every player in the league, plus guys scouting for dirt on college players. The guy has at least 20 burner phones at all times. I wouldn't doubt that he had a hand in [Browns wide receiver] Josh Gordon checking into rehab just before they played the Pats. That reeks of Gotcha-kowski influence."
It remains to be seen if PrankGate will garner the same attention from mainstream news outlets as this team's previous scandals. Perhaps the league will be reluctant to pick at the Patriots' wounds so soon after an expensive and tiresome legal battle with Tom Brady. But if further evidence presents itself or more witnesses come forward, this story has the capacity to be the Pats' most shocking example of disregard for the spirit of the game. There are no specific rules in regards to making prank phone calls, but personal harassment of this magnitude is sure to violate the league's code of personal conduct policy. Who will get the last laugh in PrankGate? Probably Eli Manning.