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'Drew could have died': The lasting lessons of the hit that launched Tom Brady

“I don't even think Drew knows how serious it was.” The injury to Drew Bledsoe that launched Tom Brady's career lives on as a sobering lesson within sports medicine.

Fifteen years ago Friday, on Sept. 23, 2001, with 5:03 remaining in the fourth quarter of the Jets-Patriots game, Jets linebacker Mo Lewis slammed into Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe along the right sideline at old Foxboro Stadium.

That moment changed the NFL forever.

Bledsoe returned for a series, threw one more pass, and then was replaced by unknown backup Tom Brady. Everybody knows the rest of the story. Bledsoe never got his job back as Brady led the Patriots to their first of four Super Bowl titles and has evolved into arguably the best NFL quarterback ever.

Bledsoe was traded to the Bills in the off-season, made the Pro Bowl in 2002, and then finished his career with two seasons in Dallas. Now 44, he runs the Doubleback winery with his wife, Maura, in his hometown of Walla Walla, Wash.

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Lewis, an All-Pro in 1998 and a member of the Jets’ All-Time Four Decade Team, retired after the 2003 season and lives in Alpharetta, Ga., with wife, Christalyn. Their impressive two sons, Mo IV and Chris, are playing basketball at the Naval Academy and Harvard, respectively.

The famous blow, which occurred on a warm and humid night when the Patriots honored the victims and first responders to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in their first home game, certainly altered NFL history. It also served as a valuable lesson for the sports medicine community.

Dr. Thomas Gill IV, who was a Patriots team physician in 2001 and went on to serve as the team doctor from ’06 to ’14, is an internationally recognized leader in sports medicine and has taught and lectured at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. He continues to work closely with a half dozen, hand-chosen residents and fellows each year, and lectures around the country.

In almost every one of his lectures, Gill includes a picture of Lewis’s hit on Bledsoe.

“That play probably taught more generations of medical students, residents and sports medicine specialists to think outside the box a little bit and not jump to conclusions,” says Gill. “So much of what we do is repetition. A guy takes that hit and you’re like, ‘Of course, this is the likely injury.’ But I always say, ‘What else could this be that could be dangerous?’

“I always show that hit. There’s an old saying when we learn about the phrenic nerve, which is a nerve that aerates your diaphragm and allows you to breathe, in med school. It’s called ‘C3, 4, 5 and keeps the diaphragm alive.’ And the reason you remember that is C3 is the nerve that goes to the top of the shoulder. And so a lot of times if you have blood or fluid in your chest, it irritates your diaphragm, it irritates the nerve, so the presenting symptom of a serious chest condition can be shoulder pain. So it’s kind of my way of saying, just because an athlete or a patient comes to you with shoulder pain, think ‘What else could this be that I could be missing?’ before jumping to the obvious diagnosis.”

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That’s how it happened with Bledsoe’s injury, which was thought to be so typical that he went back into the game for a series. After that, he was removed and sent to the locker room under the care of Patriots team physician Dr. Bertram Zarins, and Gill.

“I shouldn’t have put him out there,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said in his postgame press conference. “Watching him play, he wasn’t himself. He got his bell rung. When I went over to him he seemed coherent and said he was O.K. But after watching him I didn’t think he was. I told him what decision I had made. He understood.”

Gill remembers the incident like “it was yesterday.”

“I can’t believe it’s been 15 years,” says Gill, who also went on to serve as the team doctor for the Red Sox and Bruins. “It was such a seminal moment in taking care of teams for as long as I’ve been taking care of teams. It was the closest to losing an athlete that I had ever been.”

And it didn’t start out that way on the Patriots’ bench.

“He just couldn't get comfortable, so I took him into the locker room,” says Gill. “Drew’s a very laid back guy. And he was just not himself. Even in kind of the wildest game situations, he was always kind of laid back. I remember him being in the locker room and being really agitated. And his brother [Adam] came in to see what had happened. And he was like, ‘Come on, let’s get you out of here, let’s get you home. I don’t want the media seeing you, I don’t want people taking pictures of you hurt. Let’s get you out before too many people start bugging you about what’s wrong.’

“Drew starts to pack up and get ready but he just wasn’t himself. He kept saying, ‘My shoulder hurts, my shoulder hurts.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute, let’s just settle down and figure out what’s going on.’

“I started examining him and it was pretty clear to me that his shoulder was not the main issue. I actually thought he may have had an abdominal injury or ruptured his spleen and I called our internist over, Jim Dineen, to look at him as well. I said, ‘I think something’s going on with his abdomen. Could be his chest, but I think it’s probably a ruptured spleen.’ Our internist looked at him and said, ‘Yeah, I agree. There’s something going on here.’ Then we took his vital signs and his pulse was high, and he was breathing kind of rapidly. We got the ambulance in, we told his brother to step out for a second. We put him into the ambulance for Mass General.”

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At that point, Gill called a colleague and former Harvard classmate, David Berger, at home. This wasn’t a “Hey, what did you think of the game?” chat between old college buddies.

“I said, ‘Can you meet Drew over at MGH emergency room? I think something bad happened, like he ruptured his spleen. But can you take a look at him?’ And he said, ‘Sure,’” says Gill.

Bledsoe had suffered a hemothorax, and his abdomen was filling with blood.

“Drew could have died,” says Gill. “He ended up having about three liters of blood in his chest. He had torn one of the blood vessels behind his rib that was then pumping blood into his chest. They got a CAT scan of his belly, and you can see the bottom of the lung fields and they could see that was filled with fluid. So then they extended the study up the chest and saw what the problem was. They were able to drain the blood out and immediately once that happened, he started feeling better, his breathing was under control, his blood pressure stabilized. But it was really dicey. I don't even think Drew knows how serious it was. But he really could have died.”

Bledsoe was cleared to return on Nov. 13.

“I think this was a very unusual injury,” Berger said after allowing Bledsoe to return to practice. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen an injury like this in a professional athlete.”

Fifteen years later, the hit lives on, in the NFL and sports medicine.

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Go crazy, folks

Carson Wentz is the real deal: Beating the woeful Browns in the opener was one thing, and not many teams will use victories over the Bears as feathers in their caps this season. But the decision making, the types of throws he has made, and his overall comfort at the position shows the Eagles were absolutely correct to hand the keys to their first-round pick. Coach Doug Pederson, offensive coordinator Frank Reich and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo deserve a lot of credit. The biggest flaw in Wentz’s game coming out of college—the ability to read coverages on the fly and make quick decisions—has evaporated. Certainly some of it has been managed through well-crafted game plans, but some of the off-script plays Wentz has made have been very impressive.

Peterson could be done in Minnesota: With Adrian Peterson likely done for the season after needing surgery to repair a torn meniscus (and possibly a torn lateral collateral ligament), the Vikings’ first game in the new stadium may have been their star running back’s last game in purple​. Peterson will be 32 next season and has an $18 million cap charge in 2017. Unless Peterson takes a pay cut, it’s difficult to see the team bringing him back at that number. And they might just like the way the offense looks without him.

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Slow your roll

Easy on Jimmy G: Apparently there are more doctors in New England than the ones who have graduated from the region’s medical schools, because everyone has an opinion on whether or not Jimmy Garoppolo should play in the Thursday night game with the Texans four days after he reportedly suffered a Grade 2 sprain to the AC joint in his throwing shoulder. Garoppolo is active for the game, but it’s highly unlikely he will play, and rookie Jacoby Brissett has been tabbed to start. The normal course of action is to wait one to three weeks after the initial injury, when the area (including the trapezius and deltoid muscles) calms down enough so that the pain and swelling localizes in the shoulder. Then a cortisone shot can be administered to reduce the swelling and allow proper assessment of the strength and range of motion in the shoulder. If that’s good enough, then the player could play with shot to help with the pain.

Pack will be back: Yes, the Packers’ offense is struggling, going back to early last season. And, yes, the problem is equal parts Mike McCarthy’s static scheme (Whatever happened to the Packers’ creative motion and personnel packages?) and Aaron Rodgers not playing on schedule enough within that scheme. Some of it could be a result of what I thought was a laid-back camp when I visited—not having Jordy Nelson on the field for most of it as the wide receiver completed his ACL rehab didn’t help. But both McCarthy and Rodgers are too good and have put up too many points in this league for the Packers to continue to struggle. And that defense is good enough to make sure Green Bay can squeeze out some victories until then.

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10 thoughts on Week 3

1. Broncos center Matt Paradis’s emergence from practice squad player to starter was a big reason why Denver’s offense found a great run-pass balance on the way to winning the Super Bowl last season, and his strong play has continued this year. Paradis plays with incredible toughness. “He plays with kind of a chip on his shoulder,” said Broncos line coach Clancy Barone. “The guy played eight-man football back in high school in Idaho [Council, population 800]. There’s not many guys who played eight-man football and ended up playing in the Super Bowl. He’s a guy no one really wanted out of high school, he had to walk on at Boise State, and so he has that kind of chip on his shoulder.”

2. One of the biggest problems with the Bills’ defense is that they have not gotten good enough safety play. The position is the lifeblood of Rex Ryan’s scheme, and while free safety Corey Graham has been O.K. to this point, Aaron Williams is a big liability at strong safety. His reads and route recognition are way too slow, and it might be time to give Duke Williams a chance at the job. If the safeties aren’t better against the dangerous Cardinals, the Bills could get blown out. Nose tackle Corbin Bryant (in for the suspended Marcell Dareus) is also a problem because he’s moved too easily in the run game. One thing going for the Bills: DE Kyle Williams is back to his quick, disruptive self.

3. Man, the Browns have some terrible luck. If you’re scoring at home, Cleveland has lost two quarterbacks, center Cam Erving (bruised lung), first-round pick WR Corey Coleman (broken hand) and third-round pick and starting end Carl Nassib (broken hand).

4. The Jets’ transition at left tackle from D’Brickashaw Ferguson to Ryan Clady has not gone well. Whether it’s run or pass blocking, Clady has struggled and is headed into a tough matchup with the Chiefs and Tamba Hali.

5. All eyes in the Giants-Redskins matchup will be when Josh Norman lines up with fellow pugilist Odell Beckham Jr. on Sunday, but this game will be decided by how the other Redskins corners, Bashaud Breeland and Dashaun Phillips, handle Giants receivers Victor Cruz and Sterling Shepard. It’s difficult seeing Washington matching up well.

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6. The Titans lost guard Chance Warmack, the No. 10 pick in 2013, for the season to a torn ligament in his finger. They might actually be better off because Warmack, who is in the last year of his contract, has woefully underachieved. Josh Kline, who was picked up from the Patriots and performed well in New England before a shoulder injury last season, might be a better fit for the Titans’ line.

7. The Jets had a nifty play against the Bills last Thursday. On third-and-7 at the Buffalo 20 with 9:20 left in the first quarter, New York set up a screen to the right and ran regular patterns on the left side of the field. The Bills’ defense split between both sides, and Ryan Fitzpatrick ran what looked to be a designed draw for 10 yards. Most of the Jets’ passing offense depends on receivers winning 50-50 balls. Fitzpatrick was hot and accurate against the Bills, but that’s hard to sustain. It will look ugly for stretches down the road.

8. Panthers rookie cornerback James Bradberry, after a rough debut against the Broncos, was much better in Week 2 against the 49ers as Carolina played almost exclusively zone coverage. Bradberry will have a tough assignment this week if Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs comes to his side.

9. We have an answer to why the Cardinals’ defense looked so passive in the opening loss the Patriots and then looked like itself against the Buccaneers: Bruce Arians had input on the scheme in the opener. “I got too involved in the New England game plan,” Arians told SiriusXM NFL Radio this week. “That’s not my forte. [Defensive coordinator James Bettcher] took a bullet for playing more zone than we normally play. I had a lot to do with that. It was my mistake. [Against Tampa Bay] we were playing our style of defense and cutting it loose. I was really happy with the way guys were flying around.”

10. Von Miller leads the league with four sacks, but he has been blanked by the Bengals in their previous two matchups heading into Sunday. But this time Miller will be blocked by Cedric Ogbuehi, who mostly sat on the bench as a rookie before becoming a starter this season. The two were briefly teammates at Texas A&M. The Bengals are high on Ogbuehi, and this is the ultimate measuring stick for a young player.