The New England Patriots Hall of Fame welcomed another worthy inductee into its ranks yesterday as All-Time Great Patriot Tedy Bruschi took his rightful place among the true legends of this franchise. That Bruschi made The Hall in his first year of eligibility is an absolute no-brainer; he was the unquestioned leader on the greatest defensive unit the New England Patriots had ever assembled, the same unit that in 2003 went almost five consecutive home games without giving up a single touchdown. He was the heart and soul of the team during its unprecedented string of success during an era where great lengths were taken to ensure that no one team remained the favorites year in and year out. He was the prototypical Patriot, a special teamer and sub-package linebacker that worked his way into the starting lineup, was elected captain, and led the team in tackles from 2001-2004. And most of all, he was - and is - and a beloved fan favorite. Even now, with Bruschi entering into the 5th year of his retirement, jerseys proudly sporting his name can still be found lining the stands of Gillette Stadium and adorning the racks of the Pro Shop. Tedy Bruschi is a Patriots legend, plain and simple, and his name will forever be associated with untarnished work ethic, unflinching loyalty, and pure, unadulturated love for the sport. I'm almost surprised that Bob Kraft didn't bend the rules a bit and get Bruschi fitted for his red jacket the minute his retirement press conference was over.
There are a lot of reasons that Bruschi was so popular with the fans. Sure, he was a hard worker, a lunchpail player that earned every minute of playing time that he got. And sure, he was a vital cog in a defense that brought three Lombardi Trophies to New England in a span of four years. And yes, his last name is a slightly altered spelling of everyone in Boston's favorite drink of choice. But at the end of the day, I think what entrenched Tedy Bruschi so deeply into our collective hearts is that he absolutely loved this team, as much, if not more, than we do. Playing for the Patriots wasn't a job for Bruschi. It wasn't a stepping stone in his career or a way of getting a big payday. From the minute his name was called in the third round of the 1996 Draft, Bruschi became a Patriot for Life. He never even considered playing elsewhere, he never let his eyes wander to other parts of the country, and he never gave any member of this franchise, on the field or off, reason to doubt for even a second that he wouldn't cut off his own leg if it meant doing so would help the Patriots succeed. As the NFL transitions more and more into a league of big contracts, hard-line negotiations, and disgruntled divas, Tedy Bruschi will forever stand as an exemplar of a man who understood that loyalty and hard work are the cornerstones of reward. And while Bruschi was always well-compensated for his services (despite never once playing hardball, holding out for more money, or attempting to strongarm the front office), the rewards he collected as a result of his attitude are far more valuable than any big contract. He earned the respect of his teammates, his coaches, his colleagues, and his fans. That respect ultimately grew and flourished into an almost rabid love and devotion that may never again be duplicated in my lifetime. Bruschi is a champion in every sense of the word, and an absolute pillar of what truly has become a family.
When that inevitable time comes when the New England Patriots are once again wallowing in the basement of the NFL and I'm forced to think back to these glory days as the team limps to a 4-12 finish, three images are going to stand out very clearly in my booze-and-Cheetos-addled mind. Of those three images, two of them will involve Tedy Bruschi. The first is Bruschi, holding another Lombardi trophy and clad in that godawful UPS man delivery Championship Hat, yelling out "That's three!" to the cameras as the confetti fell all around him. The second is the exact moment when Bill Belichick and his father felt the icy deliciousness of a Gatorade bath following his second Super Bowl victory. The man dumping the Gatorade? Tedy Bruschi. There are plenty more I could list, but those two, to me, represent everything I need to know about #54.
I'm sure, as the Bruschi highlights continue to roll over the next few days, that all of the usual suspects that we have come to know and love will be on display. The Snow Bowl Game. The Thanksgiving Day Interception. Bruschi's pick of Donovan McNabb in Super Bowl XXXIX. That crazy play against the Dolphins where he charged Dan Marino like a bat out of hell and got completely upended. Literally wrestling the ball away from Dominic Rhodes against the Colts in the 2003 AFC Championship Game. That absolutely chill-inducing clip of him staring off to his right, exhaling a vaporous cloud of frigid air, and looking as mean as the day is long. I could go on forever. And I suppose I could recap them all here, put my own personal spin on how some of these career - and franchise - defining moments of everyone's favorite linebacker helped to shape the past decade of my life. But I won't. I don't want this piece just be another generic highlight reel. There is a solid .05% chance that Tedy will read this article some day, and should that happen, I want to make sure that - for this fan at least - he is remembered for much more than the stock footage hits and interceptions. What follows is my own personal Tedy Bruschi highlight reel, one that is unique only to me, and represents just a few of the many moments throughout my life that helped Patriots football morph from something I did to pass the time on Sundays to a full blown love affair.
November 18, 2001. I'm working security on the field at the old Foxboro Stadium for what would turn out to be the first matchup between the Patriots and Rams. To anyone who has ever been to a game, I was one of those guys in the yellow coats and black pants that stand with their backs to the field for the entire game in order to make sure that the drunken rabble that is the Foxboro Faithful don't pry the cold metal benches loose and start a riot in the stands. What I thought would be a sweet gig - how cool would it be to be on the field for a Pats game??? - turned into three hours of chilly hell as I was forced to spend the entire time with my back turned to the action with absolutely no clue what's going on. Late in the first quarter, I decided that I didn't care if the drunks in section 114 caused a ruckus and turned to watch the game - a big-time no no in the eyes of my boss. I decided to give myself one play, and then I'd get back to work. As luck would have it, that play happened to be a Tedy Bruschi pick of Kurt Warner that gave the Patriots the ball at their own 40 and would eventually set up an Adam Vinatieri field goal to give New England a 10-7 lead. I only have one memory of that game that doesn't involve flying beer bottles and thick Mass accents yelling profanity at me, and it was a Tedy Bruschi pick. Worth every single second.
January 19, 2002. Forever lost in a game that will forever be defined by a Tuck Rule and a 45 yard field goal in the blinding snow is a key sack by Tedy Bruschi on Rich Gannon that stalled a drive, forced a punt, and allowed the Patriots to enter the half only down by 7. Had the Raiders been able to put points on the board before halftime and New England been down two scores, who knows what the outcome of that game would have been. Furthermore, it wasn't just a standard sack (which Bruschi did so well in the postseason); it was an absolutely MONSTER sack. Bruschi came in on a delayed blitz, hurdled the blocking fullback, and straight up Yokozuna splashed Gannon to the ground in a hit that probably would have gotten him a yearlong ban by today's standards. The hit fired up the defense, energized the crowd, and gave the Patriots life where there previously was none. As he did throughout his career, when the team needed someone to step up and make a big play, Bruschi took it upon himself to make a difference.
December 7th, 2003. Late in the Snow Bowl Game, New England was up 12-0, courtesy of Tedy Bruschi's now famous interception. With 1:51 left in the game and the Dolphins out of timeouts, Brady faced a 4th and 10 at the Miami 37. Rather than attempt a field goal in the blustery snow, Brady decided to go for it. However, rather than attempt a pass, a Tommy B pooch punted the ball instead, where it sailed high and landed at the 1 yard line, downed by David Givens. As Brady jogged to the sidelines, Bruschi came out to meet him, beaming, and bent down to begin playfully polishing his shoes. It was a completely pure moment between two team leaders and friends who knew that they had just helped secure their team a playoff berth. It was a fun, humorous gesture by a man who absolutely loves what he does and isn't too big or self-absorbed to let a great football moment pass him by. It's the kind of thing two guys who were just tossing the ball around in the backyard would do, but not two professionals at the height of their profession. In that moment, I fell in love with Tedy Bruschi all over again.
October 30th, 2005. Tedy Bruschi returns to the field, in the wake of thunderous, unrelenting applause, for the first time since suffering a stroke less than nine months earlier, a stroke that left a hole in his heart and put not only his career, but his life, in jeopardy. In that game, which came at home against the Buffalo Bills, Bruschi would go on to record seven tackles and earn himself Defensive Player of the Week as the Pats claimed a 21-16 victory. I was at that game, having opted to blow off studying for my midterm in lieu of getting the chance to see the Patriots play on Sunday Night Football, and remember Gillette stadium being as loud as I have ever heard it. During one play in particular, Bruschi sniffed out and stopped a Roscoe Parrish reverse that resulted in a six yard loss. As in-stadium announcer John Rooke announced the tackle made by number 54, Tedy Bruschi, and the Foxboro Faithful seamlessly transitioned from their traditional "Bruuuuu!" to a deafening, rabid mayhem that I can only describe as earth-rattling, I found myself desperately trying to hold back tears. I was embarrassed with myself for getting so emotional over something as simple as a tackle for a loss. But when I looked around and saw at least 50 other guys in my section alone doing the exact same thing, discretely wiping their eyes or drinking a little too vehemently from their overpriced plastic bottles of beer, I knew that I was witnessing something special. If a bunch of grown men crying over a linebacker making a tackle doesn't tell you everything you will ever need to know about Tedy Bruschi, nothing will. Tedy didn't have to come back. He didn't have anything else to prove. His place in the annals of Patriots History was already secure. He had four Super Bowl appearances, three Super Bowl victories, and the all the respect he could ever earn and more. He could have could have called it quits then and there and nobody would have thought any less of him. But he didn't. He came back to the team he loved, the fans he loved, and the game he loved, and he gave three more years of himself to the Patriots. Full Tilt, Full Time.
July, 2006. Six-year-old Andrew Geracoulis, who was diagnosed at birth with a heart defect and had to endure three life-threatening heart surgeries as an infant, looks to Tedy Bruschi as his role model, favorite player, and proof positive that heart surgery doesn't relegate you to a half-life. Bruschi, learning of the effect he had on young Andrew, dropped everything in order to personally invite him and his family down to Gillette Stadium so they could meet in person. Tedy gave Andrew a tour of the facility, a football signed by the entire team, and set him up with his own personal locker with "Andrew Geracoulis, 54" written across the top -complete with full uniform, pads, and helmet. Tedy helped Andrew get dressed and arranged to have him run out of the tunnel, his name called over the stadium PA, where together he and Tedy ran a play that saw Andrew cross the goal line and score a touchdown. Before the two parted ways, Bruschi gave Andrew one last gift - the game ball that Bruschi had earned during New England's win over the Colts in the AFC Championship Game. You probably didn't hear much about it from the Boston media because it doesn't make the Patriots look like a heartless machine, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen.
August 28th, 2009. In a preseason game against the Washington Redskins, Bruschi looks slow, old, and at least two steps behind the ball. He is having trouble covering, he is unable to bring down the ballcarrier, and he finds himself out of the play more often than not. He goes back to the game tape, sees this, and retires from football three days later, his reputation and dignity as untarnished as ever, knowing that he can no longer be a help to his team and that they have a better chance of winning without him. Rather than be a detriment, rather than hold the Patriots back, rather than occupy a spot on the roster that could go towards someone with a better chance of helping the team win, Tedy Bruschi leaves football behind. Belichick, choking back tears at the podium that day, calls Bruschi "the perfect player." Anyone who watched that press conference without getting misty-eyed needs to have their pulse checked.
I have a few more Bruschi moments I'd like to share, but the memories are now incomplete, existing only as snippets, television clips showcasing games against teams that I will never be able to remember. But honestly, who he was playing against is unimportant.
- Bruschi is the only player to have returned four consecutive interceptions for touchdowns. Not only that, but during that same two year span he tipped a pass that was intercepted for a touchdown and forced two fumbles, both of which were returned for touchdowns.
- A Patriots player - I believe it was Otis Smith, but I'm not sure - picked off a pass and headed for daylight. As he tried to weave his way down the sideline, Bruschi, who was all the way across the field and completely out of the play, ran as fast as he could, head down, and threw his entire body into a block that sprung whoever the interceptor was for an extra 5 or 6 yards. The block, and the extra yards, were fairly meaningless, but that didn't matter. There was someone trying to take down Bruschi's teammate, and there was no way he was going to allow that to happen if he could help it.One of those plays that will be forever lost to history, yet perfectly represents the kind of player Bruschi was.
- Bruschi is walking to the tunnel, getting ready to head out onto the field, and limping visibly. He has bent his knee in almost entirely the wrong direction in a pig pile the week before and narrowly avoided an ACL tear, but the amount of pain he was in was visible. After limping to the tunnel and taking a moment to compose himself, he stops limping altogether. When his team is announced, he runs full stride out onto the field, ready to go to war for his brothers. His injury was no longer a factor. His team needed him, and that's all there was to it.
Thanks for everything, Tedy. It heartens me to know that we haven't seen the last of you around Gillette Stadium. Looking forward to watching you grow as an ESPN Personality, football analyst, and ultimately the Patriots in-stadium color commentator. You know it's only a matter of time.
For the best eight minutes you are going to spend today, click here.