I felt like the only person still rooting for Drew Bledsoe.
He was the reason I started liking the Patriots in the first place and the reason I bought Patriots wallpaper. Bledsoe was awesome, at least in the eyes of a teenager.
Now, he was a backup.
The 2001 season started worse than I could have imagined. Bledsoe was tragically injured (my words, not the team’s official stance) in a game against the hated Jets. He suffered internal injuries, and I felt like I suffered a share of my own as well. The season was over, and so was my as-yet-to-be-named Bledsoe board game idea.
Turns out, as with most things in high school, I was being a little premature. The Patriots were fine—great, in fact. They rolled through the rest of the season behind the arm of Tom Brady.
I was not a fan of Brady at first. He was boring and safe and not Drew Bledsoe. His arm seemed weak, he checked down way too much, and he had two first names.
Nevertheless, he led the Patriots, my Patriots, to the 2001 AFC Championship game against the Steelers, keeping a healthy Bledsoe on the bench.
The game was close throughout the first half. Brady was annoying me with his game managing, and the Patriots were clinging to a 7-3 lead. Then it happened.
On a typical dropback, Brady was hit low by a Steelers lineman, and he suffered what looked to be a pretty serious ankle injury. While he was hobbling around, Bledsoe was getting warmed up, and I could almost feel a collective groan from the Patriot fan base.
I, meanwhile, let out a collective hurrah.
Bledsoe had fallen out of favor with many Patriots fans, but I was still rooting for him, especially right now. The Patriots needed a score desperately, and getting one before halftime would give us some much-needed momentum. I say “us” because, at this point, I was more invested in this game than anything ever before in my life—including SATs and getting into college.
Soon enough, Bledsoe, shaky as ever, was dropping back in the pocket. It was terrifying for me to watch, partly because I wasn’t sure he had full functionality in all of his organs and partly because he throws interceptions with great frequency. To my surprise, neither his lungs gave out nor did he throw a pick-six.
What he did do was march the Patriots right down the field.
With less than two minutes left, Bledsoe took control at the Pittsburgh 40. He completed three passes for 36 yards; his third completion was an 11-yard touchdown pass to David Patten.
Just like that, the Patriots were up 14-3 at halftime in a game they had no business winning.
Bledsoe had a solid second half, too, leading the Patriots on a scoring drive and not turning the ball over. Troy Brown, in addition to returning a punt for a TD in the first half, played a big hand in the Pats’ returning a blocked field goal attempt for a touchdown (and in making me happier than I had ever been up to that point).
The win was extraordinary. It was remarkable. It was Drew Bledsoe rising from the dead, ripping victory from the hands of defeat, and telling his punctured lung what’s up. The Patriots were going to the Super Bowl, and they had Bledsoe to thank.
Turns out, they thanked him by putting him right back on the bench. Brady recovered in time to start in the Super Bowl versus the Rams, we won on a last-second field goal, and the rest is history. So much has changed since then. The Patriots are a dynasty, Bill Belichick is a genius, and I have grown to like (love!) Tom Brady.
All the while, Bledsoe is on the outside looking in. He went to the Bills the year after the Super Bowl, and he had average seasons leading Buffalo and, later, Dallas before retiring. Not too many people think back fondly on his career. But not too many people still wear his vintage 1999 jersey to church under their collared shirt.
I know how important Bledsoe and his performance in that Pittsburgh game were. Without his heroics, the Patriots would not be where they are today. Without Bledsoe, there would be no dynasty. He deserves as much credit for starting the team on their successful run as anyone else in the organization. Although, no one would ever admit it.
Funny. I still feel like the only one rooting for Drew Bledsoe.