FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – After a 4 1/2-month lockout, after all the legal posturing by the NFL owners and players, Vince Wilfork wasn’t quite sure what to expect Thursday morning.

And then the New England Patriots took the field behind Gillette Stadium for their first practice of the season.

They were greeted by a huge cheer and ovation from the 3,000-plus fans who filled the bleachers and hill around the field.

“Trust me, when we stepped on this field, it was a relief,” said Wilfork, entering his eighth season as defensive lineman for the Patriots. “It was like, it’s finally back. It’s only training camp, but (football’s) back.”

The fans were there because, well, this is football. This is the NFL. This is the Patriots, one of the league’s premier franchises and a perennial Super Bowl contender under owner Robert Kraft, Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.

“I’m a football addict and I love it,” said Matt McGarry, who made the trip from Norwell, Mass., with his 1-year-old son, Danny. The two found one of the few shaded areas at the field and watched from a hill, young Danny comfortable in his stroller.

McGarry grew up in Portland and graduated from Cheverus High in 1992. His love for football — and the Patriots in particular — began when he was about 6, watching the then-woeful Pats on television.

“Even though they were terrible, I’ve been a fan ever since,” he said.

McGarry is a season-ticket holder and wasn’t going to miss the first practice.

“I’m sort of on the lunatic fringe when it comes to the NFL,” he said. “So I wouldn’t have cared even if they missed games, I would have come back. No hard feelings at all.”

That sentiment was shared, it seems, by everyone watching the team walk through drills and formations.

Matt Cotter and Keri Fitzpatrick of Mansfield, Mass., had their 6-month-old daughter, Avery, dressed in a pink Tom Brady jersey.

“It’s just good to see them back at work,” he said. “We realize it’s a business. And it has to be run right.

“You get it out of the way now, the next 10 years you can just concentrate on football.”

The fans didn’t even seem to mind that the first practice was just a walk-through, without pads.

“You can tell who’s in shape,” said Melanie McGinty of Randolph, Mass. “Vince Wilfork (listed at 325 pounds) is only jiggling a little bit this year. That’s good.”

Peter Miller of Topsfield, Mass., arrived wearing a Sanford Mainers baseball cap. His family has Maine roots and his brother, David, still lives in Sanford.

“I love football. I’m a fan of football,” he said. “I knew football would be back in some point in time.

“If they had missed the entire season, it would have been terrible. But I would still be a fan whenever they resumed.”

The Patriots seemed to realize they have some special fans. After the morning practice ended, every player — including Brady — walked to the stands and signed autographs for five minutes. In the past, maybe a player or two would sign.

“Everyone is excited that football is back,” said Wilfork. “The fans are excited. The owners are excited. The players are excited. That was us saying, ‘Welcome back, thank you for your support, good or bad, whatever it is.’

“That was just to say, ‘We’re here.’ “

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

mlowe@pressherald.com

Twitter: MikeLowePPH