The eyes of America were on a different Teddy all last week as a nation said goobye to U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, but on Monday the minds and hearts of Patriots Nation was focused solely on Tedy Bruschi as he announced his retirement.
I know some of you are thinking “Oh great, a sports post,” but you don’t have to be a sports fan to appreciate Tedy’s body of work. Bruschi was drafted by the Patriots in 1996 as a defensive end out of Arizona. The only problem is he was ridiculously undersized. The coaching staff didn’t know what to do with him at first. But Tedy ended up making the (extraordinarily difficult) transition to linebacker where he was still undersized and overlooked, but he’d soon prove his worth.
Tedy Bruschi worked hard. All the time. At no point in his illustrious career was Tedy the best player on the field or even on his own team, but he was one of the most indispensable. Because he made himself so valuable to the team through hard work and he displayed a leadership quality that you’re either born with or you’re not.
For 13 years Tedy left it all out on the field and off. Yup, that’s right. Off the field. Where so many athletes falter, Tedy thrived. There was no OUI, rape allegations or dogfighting rings. It’s a well known fact Tedy made his home near the stadium in North Attleboro and hasn’t shied away from the public like so many other players. The fans gravitated towards Tedy because he was a hard worker and he was an underdog. But more importantly, Tedy got it. He came here and he saw how passionate New England fans are. He saw a fan base just DYING to embrace their athletes, and he realized if he played his cards right and returned that love and passion, it would come back to him 10-fold.
Ever since his rookie year, Tedy Bruschi has been my favorite professional athlete. And so it was a HUGE day for me when I was working as a cub reporter for the Country Gazette and my editor told me to go cover Tedy Bruschi’s visit to a local school. Now you have to understand, journalists are supposed to remain aloof. We are supposed to be unaffected when we spy celebrities and remain impartial at all costs.
Yeah right! When I saw Tedy Bruschi I was just as excited as all the 3rd graders who bull rushed him and fought to sit next to him. This was 2002, the season after the Patriots won their first Super Bowl. And when Tedy flashed his ring bling I had to stop myself bowing before him a la Wayne & Garth chanting “WE’RE NOT WORTHY!” But when I did get him one-on-one to ask him some questions, he was courteous and funny and very self-deprecating as one of the kids told him he looks “too small to play with all those big guys on TV.”
Tedy asked me if I had any more questions and I panicked paused because I did have one, but I was embarrassed to ask. Sensing my trepidation, he said “Would you like an autographed picture?” It was like he read my mind. OF COURSE I WANTED AN AUTOGRAPHED PICTURE! At that point I could contain it no longer. I told him he was my favorite athlete. I told him I loved how he played the game. And then I told him I have a Bruschi Patriots jersey I wear on game days.
He looked up at me in surprise and I was worried he was going to call his bodyguards over and arrest me for stalking or something. I started to backpedal but Tedy broke into a grin and said “Wow. Really? You have my jersey? That’s so cool. I know there are a lot of great players out there and it always amazes me when people pick me.”
I won’t lie, that’s when my Man Crush really kicked into gear. I’ve met a handful of sports celebrities and honestly, almost all of them are disappointing. There’s just no way they can live up to expectations. Either they get in trouble off the field, they end up in a contract dispute and quit on their team or they’re lost to free agency.
But not Tedy. Tedy played all 13 years with the Patriots. He was a free agent once and he put his toe in the water, even visiting a few cities. But he came back and he signed with the Patriots. Not only that, he signed for a fraction of what some other team would’ve paid him. Because Tedy was the rare athlete who understood what it was all about. He was willing to take less to stay in a situation where he was beloved by the fans. To this day, he makes it a point to be the only one in his neighborhood who gives out regular full size candy bars to trick or treaters at Halloween. You can’t make this stuff up. He did things the right way and the fans loved him for it.
Never was that more clear than after Tedy’s stroke in 2005. When we watched Tedy leave the hospital, held up by his wife, we knew his career was over. But we didn’t care about that. Do you know how rare it is for a fan base to collectively say “We don’t care about the team or sports right now, we just want you to be OK?” It was just after winning his third Super Bowl and much had been made in the press of Tedy playing with his two boys on the field just hours before the game.
And that’s all anyone could think of…Tedy Bruschi the father not Tedy the linebacker. We wanted him to get well, live for a long time and be with his wife and kids. We were sad and we were resigned to the fact that Tedy Bruschi’s career was over.
But on October 30, 2005 — just 8 months after suffering a stroke and having a hole in his heart repaired — Tedy Bruschi improbably ran onto the field for a game against the Buffalo Bills.
I know because I was there. Section 141, Row 11. Our end zone seats. Seats we’ve watched hundreds of games from over the years and seen some incredible things. But perhaps nothing will top the crowd’s reaction when Bruschi was announced and ran onto the field. Fans were screaming, smiling, laughing and crying. Gillette Stadium was swaying as we hailed our underdog, who not only overcame adversity because of his size but literally had to battle a stroke that left him temporarily blind and unable to walk. It was a mini miracle, and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
There are many sports stories I plan to regale my son with when he’s older. The 2004 Red Sox, the Patriots dynasty, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling’s bloddy sock game, Big Papi’s walk offs and Tom Brady’s golden arm. And then I will tell him about Tedy Bruschi, daddy’s favorite athlete of all time, and I will use Tedy’s life to illustrate the fact that hard work is its own reward and greatness can be achieved no matter the circumstances. That toughness isn’t all about muscles, but that brains and an iron will are even more important.
Tedy Bruschi will never be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Canton. But it doesn’t matter, because he is the rare athlete who embraced his role, gave his all, overcame seemingly insurmountable odds and never compromised himself or his character. Hell, Patriots coach Bill Belichick called Bruschi “the perfect player” and nearly cried during yesterday’s press conference. For Belichick to use the word “perfect” is unbelievable and to nearly cry? I assume the guy’s circuitry would’ve shorted out if actual human tears had been shed. What further confirmation do you need if Tedy’s character and determination can reduce a cyborg to tears?
But seriously, Tedy proved that loving a sports team and its players is not a pointless or meaningless act. Because every once in a while, a guy like Tedy Bruschi comes along and reminds you of why you love sports so much in the first place.
Thanks #54. Thanks for your class, your dedication, your willingness to serve as a role model and your heart. Especially your heart.