Often overlooked and always overachieving, Bruschi fit perfectly in New England where, if nothing else, his small stature would have endeared him to a fanbase with a Plymouth Rock-sized chip on its shoulder.
Boston is a beer-loving town, so the masses would have bought his jersey just to have one that said “Bruschi” on the back even if he never played a down. More than that, though, in a blue-collar city like Boston, his “full-tilt, full-time” attitude resonated with fans in a very personal way.
He was never the most physically gifted player, but he had as much competitive drive as any two ordinary players combined.
New England loves the little guys, the underdogs who stand undaunted in the face of adversity. After all, that’s exactly what we were oh-so-many years ago when our team’s namesake—the original Patriots—mobilized a ragtag militia to win our country’s independence. New England’s love for Bruschi is a testament to that history.
We embraced him as he bucked the odds and defied expectations. We watched as he answered one challenge after another, slowly working his way up the depth chart until he finally earned a full-time starting job in his fourth season.
Even as a rookie in 1996, however, there were signs of Bruschi’s impending greatness. He notched four sacks and forced a fumble that year despite not starting a single game.
The following season he added four more sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries while starting just once, displaying a determination and knack for clutch play that turned him into a New England household name almost instantly.
One of the team’s all-time greats, Bruschi was beloved by fans here in New England but never seemed to get his due outside Patriot nation.
With only one Pro Bowl selection during his career, Bruschi’s greatest contributions never showed up in box scores—even though he retired as the Patriots’ (unofficial) all-time leading tackler.
The heart and soul of the team during the dynasty years, he played with a visible energy, a fire that burned so hot you could almost feel it through the television. Athletes love to talk about “heart,” but Bruschi never had to; he embodied it.
That heart was tested when he suffered a stroke, caused by a hole in his heart, shortly after winning his third Super Bowl.
Bruschi once again rose to the occasion and conquered adversity, showing a humble appreciation for the opportunities most athletes seem to take for granted. In a heartwarming scene later that year, he made his triumphant return to the field against the Buffalo Bills and registered 10 tackles, earning AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
As far as football goes, it was arguably his finest moment.
He walked off the field that night and straight into legend. He became a hero, not just to the millions of stroke survivors who drew courage from his ordeal, but to so many other people who found inspiration in Bruschi’s struggle.
There were other moments. I was at the “snow fireworks” game in 2003 against the Miami Dolphins. Bruschi intercepted a Jay Fiedler pass and took it to the house. By the time he sauntered into the end zone, the stadium had erupted into a maelstrom of flying snow and rabid cheers. The atmosphere was electric, but for Bruschi that was child’s play. He was a playmaker and turnovers were simply part of his game.
Returning from a stroke, though, was something else entirely. Nobody in NFL history had ever done that.
He didn’t just suit up for the sake of it either; that would have gone against everything he stood for. Bruschi came back the only way he knew how—full-tilt, full-time. He appeared in nine games during his comeback 2005 season, starting every one of them en route to capturing the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award.
He deserved every on-field accolade he ever got. He was a highly productive and well-respected player, but to New England he was so much more than that. He was their ambassador and a pillar of the community.
In my hometown of North Attleborough, Bruschi used to live near my high school. Residents gave him his space, but when you went through the area there was no mistaking whose neighborhood it was. On people’s front lawns were Patriots signs, tokens of appreciation and when the team won, messages of congratulations.
There were Sundays when I would go to church simply because I knew Bruschi might be there with his family. Often as not, there he was, sitting shoulder to shoulder with the rest of us, sharing communion and exchanging offerings of peace.
When he suffered his stroke, the parish priest led us in a prayer for his well-being. The concern wasn’t for Bruschi, the New England Patriots linebacker. It was for Tedy and his family, who had so graciously assimilated into our community. Bruschi was more important to us than just a name on a jersey.
He was one of us and we were honored to call him one of our own.
The rest of the world soon got a glimpse of what we already knew—that Bruschi was truly a man to be admired—when ESPN featured him on its "My Wish" program. He shared a day with a boy named Andrew who had also undergone heart surgery and persevered in the face of tremendous adversity.
The touching display of generosity and humanity likely left an indelible mark on Andrew and his family.
Bruschi would eventually retire after 13 seasons, five Super Bowl appearances, three championships and a Pro Bowl. The man Bill Belichick once called the “perfect player” personified what it means to do things the right way, both on and off the field. With so much turmoil surrounding the Patriots, it’s more important than ever to celebrate class acts like Bruschi.
As the organization licks it wounds in the aftermath of a humiliating offseason, who better than the old captain to set the ship right again? Honoring Bruschi may be just the salve the team and its fans need to stop the bleeding and steel their reserve for the trying season to come.
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