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FARINELLA: Bruschi the face of Super Bowl defenses - The Sun Chronicle : Patriots

FARINELLA: Bruschi the face of Super Bowl defenses

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Posted: Tuesday, May 21, 2013 11:45 pm

You always kind of had a feeling about the guy. Even from the moment he was drafted, with a name that sounded like the most popular beverage sold within Foxboro Stadium on game days, there was no way Tedy Bruschi wasn't going to be a fan favorite.

But he backed it up with performance. He played his butt off, from the first day he arrived to the last day in training camp before he decided he didn't have anything left. "Full Tilt, Full Time" may have been a slogan on an end-zone placard, but it was also how the former defensive end turned linebacker conducted himself every minute he wore No. 54 in red, white and blue.

And he wore it for every minute of his career.

"I'm very proud to have only played for one organization my entire career," Bruschi said Tuesday via conference call after learning he was the latest addition to the Patriots Hall of Fame. "I worked very hard to make sure that happened. I remember getting drafted in my apartment in Tucson, Ariz., and my girlfriend (Heidi, now his wife), I told her after I was drafted by the Patriots that I wanted to do everything I could to stay with the New England Patriots my entire career.

"To be able to look back and say that I did that and to stay with an organization and help them build something special is something I'm very proud of," he added. "I don't know if in my mind I was finished, but to have this - winning championships is better, but this is cool."

Bruschi was on board for five of the seven Super Bowls in which the Patriots have played, including all three of their victories. Some could argue that he, even more than Tom Brady, is the most iconic figure of the Patriots' dynastic era; Brady and Bruschi are both 3-2 in their Super Bowl appearances, but everyone gleefully remembers the photo of Bruschi holding up three fingers on the field in Jacksonville to signify winning his third ring. Brady hasn't had as big a smile on his face since then, despite playing the big game twice more.

Bruschi was also the central figure in another iconic moment that will linger in the memories of Patriots' fans forever.

It was Dec. 7, 2003, and Gillette Stadium had been buried under a 25-inch snowfall prior to a regular-season game against the Miami Dolphins. A total of 45,378 fans managed to make it to the stadium, most of which remained under a snow cover as they began to file into the place.

The weather conditions dictated a close game, but Bruschi provided the transcendent moment when he intercepted a pass from Jay Fiedler at the Miami 5 and took five steps to reach the end zone, giving the Patriots a 10-0 lead with 8:55 left in the fourth quarter.

What followed was a surreal moment. As Bruschi knelt in the end zone and held the ball over his head in celebration, fans reached down to their feet to grab handfuls of snow and throw them straight up into the air, creating the appearance of thousands of brightly-illuminated snow geysers erupting into the darkness.

"Matt Chatham came and smacked me on the back of the helmet and that ignited some celebration of some snow being thrown up in the air," Bruschi said Tuesday. "I had a helmet and I had a facemask on and I remember (Mike) Vrabel coming up to me before we went back out on defense and he looked at me very closely and he said, 'Look what you started.' The crowd was still going and the snow was going up in the air."

Bruschi said the moment seemed entirely appropriate for the special connection he's had with New England fans since the day he was drafted.

"I always felt like I was one of them," he said. "I never felt like I was any type of a special person or that I was any different than any of the people that were up there cheering on the Patriots. I always felt the New England Patriots' fans did their work, got their work done, they liked to come home and spend time with their families and when they had free time, they liked to cheer on their favorite team. That's who I am also."

Bruschi's career path took a fateful turn just a short while after he won that third ring in Jacksonville. A few days after playing in the Pro Bowl in Honolulu, he suffered a stroke at his North Attleboro home and, for a while, no one knew if he would be able to resume a normal life, let alone play football.

Still impaired after his release from the hospital a few days later, Bruschi had reached the accommodation that at 31, after nine years in the NFL, his career was over.

"I remember my wife drove me to the stadium because I couldn't drive because my vision was still impaired," he said. "She waited in the parking lot and I told Bill (Belichick) that was all, I was done and I still needed a procedure on my heart to put the device in. I had already made the decision. That was an emotional rollercoaster for me and I wasn't in a good emotional state about coming back or not coming back. In my mind, I was done."

But Bruschi never gave up hope that he would return. He didn't even miss a full season. Midway through the 2005 campaign, Bruschi was back on the field, continuing his career in a manner no one had thought even remotely possible.

Through it all, he valued the opinions of one man above all others.

"Having a stroke in 2005 wasn't a good time for me," he said, "but it helped me form a relationship with (team owner Robert Kraft) that was special. He mentored me to the decisions that I was making, to come to back to play. Within those meetings, we talked a lot about life and my marriage. He gave me a lot of lessons that I learned that Coach Belichick just couldn't do because of the person that Mr. Kraft is - how personal he can be to certain players.

"I hope he does that more," Bruschi added. "I hope it doesn't take events like an event like I went through with my stroke in 2005, but that's why I feel so strongly. He gave me a little bit more. He was there for me when I needed. That's why I love him so much, too."

Bruschi's leadership continued through the 2009 training camp, but while the spirit was willing, the legs were not. He had the three rings and the 16-0 regular season in 2007 under his belt, and he had nothing left to prove to anyone.

The Patriots didn't release the actual tally of votes from fans that chose Bruschi over former coach Chuck Fairbanks and offensive tackle Leon Gray. But it's a safe bet that it was as wide a margin as Troy Brown's last year. Bruschi clearly was "the people's choice."

"It's been a great couple weeks, a very humbling couple of weeks," said Bruschi, who was clearly struggling with accepting the solely-individual honor. "To be in the huddle with 10 other guys and to be in a locker room with 52 other guys, that's what it always was for me," he said.

He's now in a huddle with 20 other individuals - the members of the Patriots Hall of Fame.

MARK FARINELLA may be reached at 508-236-0315 or via email at mfarinel@thesunchronicle.com. Read Farinella's blog, "Blogging Fearlessly," at thesunchronicle.com/blogs/markfarinella.

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