Drew's Crew New quarterback Drew Bledsoe is the toast of the town in Buffalo, where he aims to bring Bills fans many happy hours

May 05, 2002

When the call came, Drew Bledsoe was distracted, locked in a
contest he couldn't win. On the morning of Sunday, April 21
Bledsoe's agent, David Dunn, phoned to inform the New England
Patriots' alltime leading passer that he'd been traded to the
Buffalo Bills. After going over a few logistical details,
Bledsoe hung up and turned to break the news to the only other
person in the room--his son John, who was two weeks shy of his
third birthday.

"Hey, John, guess what? Daddy just got traded."

John stared blankly ahead. Beset by breathing difficulties caused
by a strep infection that made his tonsils and adenoids swell,
the kid was confined to an oxygen tent inside a hospital room in
Whitefish, Mont., where Drew and John and the rest of the Bledsoe
family (wife Maura and sons Stuart and Henry) make their
off-season home.

"Dad," John finally responded. "Moooooove."

Drew had blocked John's view of the television, on which the boy
was watching a Bob the Builder video. Even Dad, who had relieved
Maura at the hospital after a long, anxious Saturday, had no
chance of beating out claymated construction foreman Bob for his
son's attention.

Can we fix it? Yes, we can!

When the video ended, Drew tried again. "John, Daddy's going to
play for the Buffalo Bills. We're going to move to a new house."

John looked up quizzically. "Dad," he said, smiling. "Why are you
gonna be a buffalo?"

By Sunday evening John was safely back home, and he and Stuart,
who's 4 1/2, were still trying to understand their father's
relocation after nine mostly prosperous years with New England.

Stuart: "Dad, why aren't you playing for the Patriots?"

"Well, they wanted Tom Brady to be their quarterback."

Stuart paused to digest that idea. "Well," he demanded, "what
color are the Bills?"

Two days later the kids found out when a box of Bills jerseys,
hats and other goodies arrived in Whitefish, courtesy of coach
Gregg Williams and team owner Ralph Wilson. The following day
Wilson sent an even more impressive offering--his plane, stocked
with a traveling party that included Williams and club president
Tom Donahoe. The jet whisked away Drew and Maura, stopping in
Detroit to pick up Wilson before shuffling off to Buffalo, where
Bledsoe was treated like Grace Kelly returning to Monaco, or Jim
Kelly returning from anywhere.

The affection was decidedly mutual. If Bledsoe wasn't initially
thrilled with the prospect of moving to western New York and
playing for a team that wheezed to a 3-13 record in Williams's
maiden season, he had warmed to it by last Thursday, when he and
Maura embarked on a flash real estate tour. "It's really, really
nice to be wanted," Drew said as the couple tramped through the
backwoods of a 45-acre property. "My impression of playing here
is more positive now. To see how friendly people are, and how
fanatical they are about their football team, is pretty
inspiring."

Bledsoe, who turned 30 on Valentine's Day, is smart enough to
realize that the love is conditional. For one thing he hasn't yet
thrown his first interception for a team still reeling from the
Rob Johnson era. The 6'5", 240-pound Bledsoe also understands as
well as anyone how quickly things can change in the NFL. Fourteen
months ago, after signing a 10-year, $103 million extension with
the Patriots, Bledsoe heard team owner Robert Kraft compare him
to New England sports legends Ted Williams, Bill Russell and
Larry Bird. Think about what has gone down since then: Bledsoe
suffered a sheared blood vessel in a game last September and was
rushed to the hospital, where family members prayed for his
survival; he lost his job to Brady, the second-year quarterback
who led the Patriots to their first Super Bowl crown; and now,
thanks to the first-round pick in the 2003 draft that the Bills
sent to their AFC East rivals to acquire him, Buffalo Drew gets
to face his old team twice a season.

Upon closer inspection the Bills don't look as feeble as one
might expect. Bledsoe will have prime targets in
superstar-in-waiting Eric Moulds and Peerless Price--Indianapolis
Colts quarterback Peyton Manning called Bledsoe after the trade
to send a shout out for Price, his former Tennessee teammate--and
an improved line featuring rookie tackle Mike Williams, the
fourth pick in the draft, and former Denver Broncos tackle Trey
Teague, a free-agent signee. "Hey, he's going to a good team,"
says Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel. "I see Buffalo as a team on
the verge, like we were last year [coming off a 5-11 season]. He
might not enjoy Buffalo, but he'll enjoy playing for Buffalo."

Bills fans have greeted Bledsoe's arrival with bloated
expectations, as evidenced by the 1,500 season tickets the team
sold in the first four days after the trade. Consider a poll
conducted last week by a local TV station, which asked
respondents how Buffalo would do in 2002: 60% said the Bills
would at least make the playoffs; 7% predicted they'd get to the
Super Bowl and lose (a franchise speciality), and 14% said they'd
win it all. "I love that," Bledsoe says. "For sure, I expect us
to be a playoff team, too."

What Bledsoe didn't expect was the reaction to his visit last
week. A media throng greeted him at the airport, where he and
Maura were ushered into a white SUV stretch limo. "We were
giggling the whole way," says Maura, who met Drew when they were
students at Washington State. The Bledsoes got their greatest
thrill upon arriving at the Bills' facility at Orchard Park,
where they were serenaded by a marching band's rendition of the
Wazzou fight song.

It got funnier. Shortly before Bledsoe's press conference in the
team's cavernous field house, Bills vice president of
communications Scott Berchtold announced to the large crowd of
reporters and well-wishers, "The governor [George Pataki] will
not be attending." You half expected him to add, "But Rudy
Giuliani will be here, right after Sting performs."

Kelly, the beloved former Bills passer who will be inducted into
the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer, did show up, as did a
couple of thousand fans for a welcome rally outside the facility.
Gregg Williams had already done plenty to make Bledsoe feel at
home during the three hours they spent together on the flight
east. Bledsoe, coached in New England by Bill Parcells, Pete
Carroll and Bill Belichick, said it was the longest and most
focused conversation he has had with any of his NFL head coaches.
In addition to Bledsoe's obvious credentials--arm to die for;
29,657 passing yards; three Pro Bowl seasons, though none since
1997--Williams loves the quarterback's toughness.

One thing Bledsoe already likes about his new coach is that he's
not Belichick. Though Bledsoe won't get into specifics--"He was
the coach, I was the quarterback, and that was the extent of it,"
Bledsoe says of their relationship--sources close to the passer
say the ill will stems from what happened in mid-November after
Bledsoe was cleared to return from his injury. Sources say
Bledsoe believes he was told by Belichick that he'd be worked
into the lineup; the next week the coach announced that Brady,
who had won five of his eight starts, would keep the job for the
rest of the season.

Belichick says he told Bledsoe, who had been practicing with the
scout team for several weeks, that he'd "work you back in there,"
so he could get some reps with the offense. "We did that for a
week," Belichick says, "but after that I felt we hadn't prepared
our offense as well as we needed to. I have a lot of respect for
Drew, but what it came down to was creating a competition versus
getting the starting quarterback ready."

Whatever went down, Bledsoe has never been more motivated. That
was apparent in January in Pittsburgh, when he came off the bench
to relieve an injured Brady in the second quarter of the AFC
Championship Game and, obviously charged, threw for 102 yards and
a touchdown in New England's 24-17 victory. "That was the old
Drew, and it's because he had a chip on his shoulder," one
Patriot says. "He hadn't been pushing himself the last couple of
years. Losing his job was a humbling experience for him."

In Buffalo the future is Bledsoe. As he dined at a tavern near
the stadium last Thursday afternoon, nibbling on--what
else?--extra-spicy buffalo wings and getting love from a car
salesman ("We've got to get you in a new Beemer"), a real estate
agent ("I've got the perfect house for the new hero in town") and
a barrage of rabid fans ("We'll be the loud ones you hear when
you walk through the tunnel"), the grateful quarterback looked
ready to suit up. "When something like this happens, it's all
unbridled enthusiasm," he said. "Well, I'm just as excited as
everyone else."

Can he fix it?

We'll see.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II Wingin' it Everywhere he went in Buffalo last week, the strong-armed Bledsoe, a three-time Pro Bowl player, drew a crowd. COLOR PHOTO: M. DAVID LEEDS/GETTY IMAGES (BRADY) Starting over The Brady business behind him, Drew, with Maura, touched down in Buffalo with a bounce in his step, while Stuart wondered what color his new jersey would be. COLOR PHOTO: DAVID DUPREY/AP [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS (STUART) [See caption above]

"He might not enjoy Buffalo," says former Patriots teammate
Vrabel, "but he'll enjoy playing for Buffalo."

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