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For One Colts Fan, Deflategate Has Been A Great Way To Pump Merchandise


Tomorrow, the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots play the Indianapolis Colts. The last time these teams met, the Colts blew the whistle on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and his, allegedly, underinflated footballs. That's how the whole deflate-gate saga got started. In the latest chapter, the NFL suspended Brady only to have a federal judge toss the suspension out. The league is appealing that decision, but for teams, it's time to let bygones be bygones, right? Not for one guy. New England Public Radio's Jill Kaufman reports.

JILL KAUFMAN, BYLINE: Revenge is often a dish best served cold. That's Mike Lieber's take. More than 20 years ago, he was an Indiana native at a small New England college when this happened.

MIKE LIEBER: The Boston Celtics swept my Indiana Pacers out of the playoffs in three games.

KAUFMAN: That was bad enough. After the game, he walked back to his dorm to find all his possessions in the student lounge. His friends, laughing all the way, followed him back to his room.

LIEBER: The only thing in my completely empty room were three brooms on the floor.

KAUFMAN: Signifying the three-game sweep by the Celtics of Lieber's beloved Indiana Pacers - powerful memories. This past May, when the NFL announced the deflate-gate penalties against Tom Brady and his team, Lieber - now living in Chicago and a Colts fan - was watching TV, and he says he saw the future. It is payback time. The tenacious Lieber and a buddy came up with a design for novelty foam hats in the shape of deflated footballs. One satisfying size fits all.

LIEBER: As soon as you see them, you kind of get what the message is whether you're right up close or 20 or 50 feet away and particularly with the kind of oversized air-needle valve.

KAUFMAN: And he's selling T-shirts with the word Deflatriots on the front, written in the familiar Patriots font, in all the team colors of AFC opponents - blue for Indianapolis and Dallas for instance. It's funny, right? Not to Lieber's Boston-based family. Meet Mike Lieber's brother-in-law, Mike Cooperman, a big Pats fan. Cooperman says he admires his brother-in-law's entrepreneurial spirit but says Lieber is wrong about the Pats.

MIKE COOPERMAN: He wants to believe that this whole thing was a big conspiracy and that the Patriots cheated and they deflated some footballs and it caused the Patriots to win that game and then ultimately win the Super Bowl. I think there's just nothing there.

KAUFMAN: Their wives are standing by their men - or at least their men's teams. In four months, Lieber's sold some 600 hats and T-shirts in person at games to mostly non-Pats fans in dozens of states. And online, even some Massachusetts residents are buying, like Bob Kenney. He says he agrees with Pats fans about deflate-gate, and he says the Pats would've defeated the Colts that fateful day even if they played with a tire tube.

BOB KENNEY: I can't say that I'm not a Patriots fan because I love to watch people that have that level of talent.

KAUFMAN: But Kenney's true love - the Pittsburgh Steelers.

KENNEY: When Terry Bradshaw was playing, I was hooked.

KAUFMAN: And that's why in Kenney's wardrobe, a Steelers black Deflatriots shirt. And for a couple of friends who are bartenders at a casino in Connecticut, he bought them Miami and Buffalo colors.

KENNEY: I walked in with mine on, and the place erupted. It was just hilarious. And the conversation about the Patriots fans versus the non-Patriots fans - it just kept going for hours.

KAUFMAN: Kenney's had so much fun with the shirt, he does plan to get a deflate-gate hat. And when the Pats play the Colts in Indianapolis tomorrow, Mike Lieber will be there selling gear. And he says you can almost be sure, up on the Jumbotron, you'll see someone wearing a flat football on their head.

For NPR News, I'm Jill Kaufman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jill has been reporting, producing features and commentaries, and hosting shows at NEPR since 2005. Before that she spent almost 10 years at WBUR in Boston, five of them producing PRI’s “The Connection” with Christopher Lydon. In the months leading up to the 2000 primary in New Hampshire, Jill hosted NHPR’s daily talk show, and subsequently hosted NPR’s All Things Considered during the South Carolina Primary weekend. Right before coming to NEPR, Jill was an editor at PRI's The World, working with station based reporters on the international stories in their own domestic backyards. Getting people to tell her their stories, she says, never gets old.