Bob Hyldburg is the biggest single-team geek following professional sports in America. Here’s how he got that way.

Football Fixation

How one zealous spectator became an authority on the New England Patriots

illustration by Jeff Coleman

There was a time in the early 1990s when Bob Hyldburg thought he was pretty knowledgeable about the NFL’s New England Patriots.

That was before he became obsessed with New England’s statistical history, a pursuit that eventually earned him a side job working for the National Football League as an on-site, game-day statistician.

Today, he’s arguably the biggest single-team geek following professional sports in America.

I met him during the 2007 NFL season, while walking through the halls of Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., with former Patriots defensive back Ronnie Lippett. As assistant coordinator of the Patriots Alumni Club, accompanying former players on private suite appearances is a regular game-day activity for me. We were entering the next suite on our list when a man with a salt-and-pepper beard materialized, thanking Ronnie for meeting with him a few weeks earlier.

The stranger was quite cordial and businesslike, and Lippett was conversational, so the interaction caught me off guard for its normalcy. Usually fans just drool or stutter when they see former players in person. I also noticed right away that he was wearing an NFL credential granting him access to pretty much the entire stadium, including the suite level we were on.

Later, Lippett told me he was really impressed with the stats this guy, Hyldburg, had compiled about his playing career.

When I approached him to learn more, Hyldburg agreed to meet me at his office in Braintree. Although his number-crunching hobby has become something more, he still makes his bread as an accountant.

“Now that I’ve been doing so much work on this Patriots stuff, there probably isn’t a question about the Patriots that I don’t know [the answer to],” he told me. “I don’t know how many prizes I’ve won that I’ve given to other people because I knew some answers.”

When you win trivia contests as often as the 49-year-old Hyldburg does, giving prizes away is the best way to show friends you’re not crazy. A big-screen TV, a chance at a $250,000 basketball shot – he hit the rim – and dozens of victories later, Hyldburg is a bit more confident than he was in the ’90s.

His obsession with breaking down and sorting the team’s sizable record of statistics began in 1994. In an effort to memorize the jersey numbers of his favorite past Pats, Hyldburg got his hands on a Patriots media guide – something every professional sports team compiles as a reference for the press. He was shocked to discover the jersey numbers for about 60 former players weren’t listed.

Fourteen years later, a mildly neurotic fixation with filling in statistical gaps in the team’s 48-year history has grown into a massive volume. Somewhere along the way, Hyldburg decided to publish the work.

Total Patriots: The Definitive Historical Book of the Patriots is slated for hardcover publication by Triumph Books in 2009, but Hyldburg says it’s been “nearing completion” for over a decade. He also says he doesn’t have any idea when it became a book. For him, it’s been a puzzle for which more pieces kept turning up.

“In the process of doing all this, I found numerous errors in the media guide,” he says. “Probably fifty.”

Patriots spokesman and Vice President of Media Relations Stacey James couldn’t verify that statement, but he has been impressed by Hyldburg’s dedication to the team’s history.

“There’s a few guys on our statistics crew that certainly have the same type of interest in statistical analysis, and have published books,” said James. “But the commitment that Bob has made to this project and the time that he has committed to something that he clearly has a lot of passion for – I’d say he’s unique in that.”

James went on to explain that many of Hyldburg’s most interesting submissions to the Patriots are historical timelines of individual records. These begin with the initial records set in the team’s adolescence and chronicle each new benchmark up to the present day.

It seems he also finds the common threads in each historical fact and files them under every related category. For example, he could tell you who was the third receiver to break the record for longest touchdown catch. If that catch happened to be made in December, he could also tell you who was the next receiver to catch a longer touchdown pass in the month of December.

Hyldburg has stats for all of the nearly one thousand current and former Patriots players, and he estimates spending more than fifteen thousand hours of his free time researching and compiling all the information. For the mathematically challenged, that amounts to more than seven years’ worth of forty-hour workweeks, or approximately twenty hours per week since the project began. Whenever I find an obscure player in my work, I call Hyldburg or send him an email to test his knowledge. I’ve never stumped him.

But there have been roadblocks along the way for the self-acknowledged math nerd. Imagine, for example, what it’s like living with him. With so much time spent thumbing through pages, checking and re-checking facts, how can he find time to mow the lawn?

Hyldburg confessed that his wife has “asked me a thousand times, ‘When’s this book going to be done?’ The only thing that I’ve been able to tell her is that if you get any nonfiction reference book and look at the number of people involved, you’ll see. I try to give her perspective that this is a one-man project.”

What makes the mammoth undertaking more staggering, and perhaps more frighteningly obsessive, is that much of the information will never make it into the book because it is simply too obscure. For example, he’s given me an appendix of Patriots players who grew up in Massachusetts that I don’t think anyone other than myself would have much use for.

“The book will be about six hundred pages,” said Hyldburg at our initial meeting. He sounds frustrated. “I sent twelve hundred pages to the first publisher and said, ‘Here’s everything; we can edit from here.’ They sent it right back and said, ‘Edit it and then we’ll get together.’

“Some of this stuff is very interesting and very dry.”

Coming from Hyldburg, the words “interesting” and “very dry” gel in a sentence without seeming oxymoronic. His enthusiasm seems to still be waxing. I asked him what he’ll do with his free time when the text is finally in print.

“Keep updating it,” he replied. “Get a website. Come up with new trivia questions. Meet more new people”

If there’s one thing all fanatics have in common, it’s a senseless and seemingly endless devotion to whatever they’re fanatical about, regardless of the monetary or time commitments. As long as the team keeps playing, new players will continue to become part of the legacy. His puzzle box will grow ever bigger, and he’ll continue to piece it together. The project isn’t about completion. It’s about the journey.

Kyle Psaty is a working writer, a part-time student and a full-time fan in Boston and is a geek for more than just sports.

Jeff Coleman (aka Isaac Priestley) is a rock musician in Austin, Texas, and is a geek for kung fu movies because Hwang Jang Lee killed a man in the army.