There are many nicknames in NFL locker rooms. Most of them are an abbreviation of a player’s last name, but something different has emerged from the New England locker room: “I call Deatrich, ‘Goku,’ and Deatrich calls me, ‘Vegeta,’” said Patriots defensive tackle Adam Butler, referring to his teammate Deatrich Wise Jr.
These are two characters from Dragon Ball Z, one of the shows that has helped a handful of close-knit Patriots defenders form a unique bond. “Well, actually, Dragon Ball. It’s different generations,” defensive lineman Lawrence Guy said, clarifying between two separate editions of the same franchise. “I was into Dragon Ball, then Dragon Ball Z.”
The Patriots’ defensive line is one of the success stories in these playoffs. It pressured the presumptive MVP Patrick Mahomes II on half of his dropbacks in the AFC championship game, and those plays were a big reason the Patriots were able to contain the Chiefs offense. The players are largely anonymous, but they’ve generated a Super Bowl–caliber pass rush this season despite no player having more than 7.5 sacks. Their ability to disrupt the well-run offense of the Los Angeles Rams will be one of the keys in Sunday’s Super Bowl. The unit also has an anime club.
Anime enjoys a deep fandom throughout the world, including in one corner of the Patriots’ locker room. “You know how people say movie quotes? Well, you started hearing anime quotes, and it’s ‘Oh, you watch that too?’” said Guy.
The Patriots’ anime club consists of enthusiasts along the defensive line, including Wise (who has 4.5 sacks this season), Butler (three sacks), Guy, Derek Rivers, and Keionta Davis, among others. They mimic moves from Dragon Ball Z, a popular series in which the main character, a warrior named Goku, defends Earth against various villains. “In the locker room, sometimes at practice, I throw a slow-motion punch at [Wise] and he’ll dodge it like this,” Butler said, mimicking how Goku dodges a slow-motion punch. They pretend to shoot Kamehameha waves—Goku’s signature move—at each other. They share episodes of their favorite anime shows and discuss plot points and their favorite characters. Butler said their conversations are so open that new Patriots who happen to be anime fans often approach the group. “You can tell who wants to talk the most about it. They’ll catch me doing hand signals from Naruto, and they’ll come up and say ‘I like that too,’” Butler said, referring to another popular series.
Davis remembers avoiding discussing his love of anime in high school unless someone else brought it up. Butler thinks there’s a stigma attached to athletes liking it, something he finds unfair after discovering so many players, especially in New England, who are devoted to it.
“One of the things that separates anime from regular cartoons—which is what it looks like, especially with adults—it might have a soap-opera feel. My favorite one is Naruto. And it’s my favorite because it has what the anime community refers to as ‘feels,’ and that show has so many feels to it,” Butler said.
Davis said he became interested in anime by staying up too late and devouring episodes on Cartoon Network. Butler was introduced to it by an older cousin. Wise started with Pokémon cards and got interested from there, and Guy said he started watching because they were the cartoons that came on as soon as the streetlights came on in his neighborhood, signaling when he had to stop playing outside.
“I think people get blinded by the fact that we’re regular human beings and our job is just football. For me, and I know a lot of other guys, we are still young, I am 24, and I’m still a kid. I play video games, I watch anime, I watch cartoons, and I eat cereal,” Davis said. “I still do all those things because they are fun to do. I think people think football players are these tough, no-nonsense type of guys, but we’re everyday people.”
Davis saw Butler at his locker two months ago watching the series My Hero Academia on his laptop, and they discussed a fight scene they both enjoyed. After watching one episode, Davis was hooked: He said he watched the entire series, 63 episodes, in about a month.
“It’s an escape. I think everyone needs it,” Davis said. “Football is really important, and you want to always put your best foot forward and leave no regrets. But at the same time, you need to find a way to disconnect for a little bit to give your mind a refresh. It’s good for mental health. That stuff is very important for anyone trying to have any success.” He thinks that without such releases in football, one’s mind stops processing information, something that cannot happen in such an intellectual sport. “You have to be able to be yourself for a little bit. It gives your mind a refresh so when you go in next time you’re fully alert. You don’t feel like you’re beaten down with information,” Davis said. “When I feel stressed out, I have some ‘me’ time, watch some anime.”
For Halloween, Butler dressed up in a Naruto ninja costume to go to a haunted house with teammates. “Around my teammates, I’m really comfortable being myself. I understand that I have a platform for people who love anime, and that was the perfect time to break out that costume so I did it,” Butler said. Davis said he “appreciated the fandom” from Butler. As he spoke at media day, he looked around the arena and saw Patriots fans. “People come out here and put on jerseys,” Davis said. “And it’s the same as that.”