The text messages began pouring into Vaughn Smith’s phone from friends sometime during the third quarter, with the New England Patriots on an apparent one-way road to a Super Bowl humiliation.

The topic centered on one consensus question. You traveled all the way here? For this?

“That’s what they said. ‘Oh, I feel sorry for you for spending all that money to go that far,’ ” he said. “It’s really funny to look back on some of those texts now.”

What happened next paired an experience Vaughn, his wife Cindy and their West Gardiner friends Todd and Kim Johnson would always remember with a game no football fan — inside New England or out — could ever forget. From down 28-3 in the third quarter, the Patriots stormed back to top the Atlanta Falcons, 34-28, in a finish even the most cynical football fan would have to admit was among the most astonishing in the sport’s history.

And from their seats above the corner of the end zone, opposite the one James White plunged into to win the game in overtime, the Smiths and Johnsons — Patriots fans all — got to see all of it.

“I would recommend that experience to anybody,” Todd said. “It turned out to be … the greatest moment of my life, as far as sports. It doesn’t get any better.”

The game was only part of the experience. Football is just a piece of the entertainment extravaganza that is the Super Bowl, and from the moment the Smiths and Johnsons touched down in Houston and met up with Tim Greenleaf — Cindy’s brother, a Hawaii resident — and friend John Emery, the six set out soaking in the spectacle of the NFL’s top stage, which included parties and rallies that ran throughout the weekend.

On Friday, they went to a Patriots rally held at the Discovery Green in downtown Houston, which also featured team owner Robert Kraft and president Jonathan Kraft, tight end Rob Gronkowski, and past New England icons and champions Stanley Morgan, Kevin Faulk and Matt Chatham. They spent three hours at the Texas Tailgate LI on Sunday afternoon, where they met and posed for pictures with Hall of Famer Mean Joe Greene and three-time Super Bowl champion Daryl Johnston. Todd got Greene to pose with a bottle of Coke, alluding to the former Steeler’s famous commercial.

“That kind of got us going,” Vaughn said of the festivities. “Got us ready for (the game).”

When they got inside NRG Stadium, they said, it hit them. They saw the field, the fans, the signs and the players. And the magnitude of the setting began to sink in.

“We had several moments where we just stopped and tried to take it in,” Vaughn said. “But walking into the stadium and you first see the stadium, start seeing it fill up, you knew you were in a special place.”

It was a dream come true. It didn’t feel that way for long. Not when Atlanta capitalized on a fumble and took a 7-0 lead. Not when the Falcons stretched the lead to 14-0. And definitely not when Robert Alford intercepted a Tom Brady pass underneath their gaze and returned it 82 yards for yet another score — this one seemingly backbreaking.

“I felt it in my gut. A big pit goes into your stomach there,” Vaughn said. “From our perspective … you could see the whole play develop. Before it happens, you could kind of see it happening. You wanted to reach out and stop it.”

“I was like ‘Man, it’s going to be an awfully long ride home if they don’t come back,’ ” Todd said. ” ‘At least make a game out of this, and make it a good game.’ ”

It was 28-3 late in the third quarter. No team in Super Bowl history had rallied from more than 10 points back to win. But spurred on by Greenleaf, the West Gardiner quartet didn’t stop hoping.

“He kept saying ‘Don’t be doubters,’ ” Cindy said. “You never give up on the Patriots until the game is over. And they did what they do best yesterday.”

The Patriots narrowed the gap to 16 points, still a canyon to cross with the minutes dwindling fast. But after linebacker Dont’a Hightower forced a Falcons fumble deep in their own territory, there was life.

“I felt the most energy in that whole stadium after Dont’a Hightower’s strip sack,” Todd said. “The energy just was unbelievable from that point on. It made your skin goosebumps.”

Aided by poor clock management from Atlanta, the Patriots didn’t look back. Tom Brady threw a touchdown pass to Danny Amendola. White ran for another with just under a minute to go, forcing overtime after a 2-point conversion. And in overtime the Patriots — backed by a crowd Todd estimated to be at least a 70-30 split in favor of the Patriots — won the toss to give their rolling offense the first chance to win it.

“I thought it was in the bag,” Todd said. “I thought we had it as soon as we won the coin toss. … At that point we just had no doubt.”

Seventy-five yards later, White was in the end zone and it was bedlam in the stands.

“(You’re) celebrating with a lot of people you didn’t know,” Kim said. “You didn’t know who you’re hugging and crying with.”

“Everybody around you looks like they’re feeling that same emotion,” Vaughn said. “There were people running up to you that you didn’t know at all, and big hugs and high-fives from everyone. It was like that until you get out to the parking lot, and beyond.

“It’s hard to put together that it matches up to some of those great Super Bowls of the past.”

It took a lot of money, a lot of schedule shuffling and a lot of time on planes and in airports to get to those seats. But all four didn’t hesitate when asked if it was worth it.

“I’d say it was the trip of a lifetime,” Kim said. “Until you’ve been there, you can’t even fathom the people around you. It’s amazing.”

They’d go again, too — even if it’s a fair bet the second game wouldn’t be as good as the first.

“We’re ordinary people. But if you want to make something happen, there’s always a way,” Cindy said. “For anybody who wants to try to do something like this, it’s possible. You’ve just got to have the will to put it together in three or four days.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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