Every Team Needs a Bruschi

Make that Tedy Bruschi, and New England has the only one. The big-play linebacker and unsung leader of the defense gives the Pats a shot at their third title in four years
January 10, 2005

He is outnumbered again, staring down a menacing double team. If it’s fair to say a man’s work is never done, then right here--at the backdoor to his house, after several hours of trading blows and barbs with his New England Patriots teammates--Tedy Bruschi’s long day isn’t over yet. When the two young boys lunge at him, chirping with delight, Bruschi sees himself in their tiny faces and hears his own father’s words: Get the ball, Tedy. Go get the ball. Those words, which were sometimes said in derision, have motivated Bruschi since he was a child. ¶ The Bruschi boys set upon their dad again and jog him from his reverie, throwing themselves at him over and over. Later, as he is recounting this scene, Bruschi couldn’t be happier. “My boys are just like me: really physical,” Bruschi says of Tedy Jr., 4, and Rex, 2. “Every day it’s a big tackle-athon. I love it. They never quit. They play just like their dad--and just like their dad’s team.”

While the Pittsburgh Steelers (15–1) are the AFC’s nouveau power and the Philadelphia Eagles (13–3) are the class of the NFC, the NFL playoffs remain the domain of the defending champion New England Patriots (14–2). Winners of 29 of their last 31 games (including the postseason), the Pats have a first-round bye before beginning their quest for a third Super Bowl win in four seasons with a divisional-round game on the weekend of Jan. 15–16. New England is the league’s model franchise because each player, no matter his position or cap figure, embraces coach Bill Belichick’s team-first philosophy. “I know one thing,” says Bruschi, 31, a New England linebacker for nine years. “I was meant to play with these 52 guys, for this coach, in this system.”

Indeed, Bruschi seems the picture-perfect Patriot. Hard-nosed and a vocal leader, Bruschi (pronounced BREW-ski, to the joy of beer-swilling, pigskin-loving New Englanders) is admired for his toughness and loyalty to an organization that risked a third-round draft choice on him in 1996, when he was an undersized defensive end out of Arizona. And long before Pats defensive tackles lined up as fullbacks and wideout Troy Brown intercepted three passes as a part-time cornerback, Bruschi’s versatility was celebrated. Too small, at 6'1" and 245 pounds, to play end in the NFL, he learned three linebacker positions in two schemes under three coaches. Though unheralded in a conference that features the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Lewis and the Miami Dolphins’ Zach Thomas, he has become an All-Pro–caliber inside linebacker and routinely makes game-breaking plays.

But to understand a player so humble that he wonders aloud who would ever read an article about him, ask Bruschi what he considers to be his most important contribution each week. “Punt team,” he says, not missing a beat. “The punt’s the most important play in a game. So many things can happen: a turnover, a score, a big change in field position. My college coach, Dick Tomey, told me he didn’t care who I was--he needed me on punt team. So I covered punts, and still do. I love covering punts.”

Says New England linebacker Mike Vrabel, “Everybody needs a Tedy Bruschi, but good luck finding one. It’s impossible to put value on everything the guy does. When he walks into a meeting or a huddle, he brings instant credibility. He’s been productive for so long, even though he’s had to switch positions. He’s everything for this team.”

This year Bruschi finished with 122 tackles, second best on the team, and 31⁄2 sacks for the NFL’s ninth-ranked defense. But for all his fundamental strengths, it’s his knack for making the big play that sets him apart. “Their defense isn’t the same without him,” says New York Jets center Kevin Mawae. “He plays 100 miles an hour. He makes plays that are unbelievable.”

In pass coverage Bruschi reads the quarterback as well as any other linebacker, and that anticipation enables him to jump underneath passing routes. His soft hands allow him to catch many of those throws, and his speed makes him a threat to return interceptions for big gains and points. “When we drafted him [as a linebacker], everybody knew that he could rush the passer, play the run, that he was tough as hell,” says Belichick. “But his anticipation, his ball skills, after never dropping into coverage in his life.... He’s just tremendous.” Indeed, over a span covering parts of the 2002 and ’03 seasons, Bruschi set an NFL record by returning four consecutive interceptions for touchdowns.

Ask the Patriots which of Bruschi’s plays is the most memorable, and the vote is unanimous. On Dec. 7, 2003, with New England holding a 3–0 fourth-quarter lead over Miami and the Dolphins taking over at their four-yard line, Jay Fiedler threw a dart into the flat that Bruschi, standing just a few yards away, stabbed out of the air. His waltz into the end zone followed by a slide on his knees set off a celebration during which Patriots fans tossed snow and turned Gillette Stadium into a winter wonderland as they celebrated the franchise’s clinching of the AFC East. “Any other linebacker in the league knocks that ball down,” says New England special teams ace Larry Izzo. “But Tedy caught the damn thing and then scored. Impossible.”

“When he made that play,” adds linebacker Roman Phifer, “we all got a sense that maybe we were something special.” They were, indeed: The 12–0 victory was the ninth straight in a winning streak that stretched to an NFL-record 21 games before a 34–20 loss in Pittsburgh on Oct. 31.

“Everyone can make a big play,” says Bruschi. “It’s all about that moment, that split second, when you decide what you are going to do: Are you going to just knock the pass down, or will you catch it? Are you going to sack the quarterback, or will you force the fumble? You need time [in the NFL] to build to a level where you know what you can do with your talent. It took me years just to get comfortable.”

Raised in San Francisco and Roseville, Calif., by his mother, Juanita, after his parents divorced when he was three (Juanita remarried two years later), Bruschi was initially steered toward music and the arts; he still plays alto sax at recitals with students from the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Mass. His relationship with his father, Tony, was strained. “I saw him on weekends,” Tedy says, “so we could only do so much.” Tedy started playing football as a freshman at Roseville High, and unsure where to go when the team split into position groups at the first practice, he was told by a coach to join the defensive linemen. He was devastated after Tony told his son that he was too small to play on the line. “We’d have huge fights on the phone,” Tedy recalls. “It wasn’t pretty.” Nevertheless, as a senior Tedy earned all–Northern California honors as a defensive tackle.

When Bruschi arrived at Arizona in 1991, the questions kept coming from the media about his lack of size. But by his redshirt sophomore year he’d emerged as one of the leaders of Arizona’s Desert Swarm defense, and he finished his college career with 52 sacks, tying Alabama’s Derrick Thomas (later of the Kansas City Chiefs) for the NCAA record. All the while Tedy’s father kept telling him to move to linebacker. “He could say what he wanted, but I was doing it,” Bruschi says. “I could put my numbers up against anyone in the history of college football. That made me feel good about myself.”

So did meeting Heidi Bomberger, a volleyball and softball player at Arizona, in the fall of ’93. She was someone Tedy could turn to after angry conversations with his dad. “Having his father doubt him hurt Tedy much more than I think he’ll ever admit,” says Heidi, who married Tedy in the summer after his rookie season. “Those conversations would always affect him. But he just used the negativity as motivation.”

Though Bruschi lacked a natural position, Patriots linebackers coach Al Groh (now the coach at Virginia) wanted him. When Bruschi got the phone call at his apartment on draft day, he was stunned. “I hear, ‘Tedy, this is Bill Parcells. We’re going to try you at linebacker. Here’s Al Groh,’” Bruschi says. “And that was that. I was terrified.”

He walked out of the living room, Heidi recalls, and announced, “New England just took me. I’m going to do everything I can to stay there for the rest of my career.”

During his rookie season Bruschi was tried at all three linebacker positions in Parcells’s 4–3, and of course, he made himself useful on special teams. “It took me almost two years not to laugh when I called myself a linebacker,” says Bruschi, who played primarily in passing situations during his first year. “But I was scared. Learning the position was the hardest thing I’d ever done. I’d never played a down without my hand [in a three-point stance]. I was dropping into pass coverage on handoffs. I didn’t know what I was seeing. I didn’t know how to study film--and I was making [some of the] defensive calls. I was just hanging on.”

When Pete Carroll replaced Parcells after Bruschi’s rookie season--which ended with a Super Bowl loss to the Green Bay Packers--Bruschi started to relax and finally felt comfortable while playing inside; in 1999 he was second on the team with 138 tackles. Belichick, who had served as New England’s secondary coach in ’96, returned as coach in 2000, and Bruschi became a force. “Bill wanted us to be physical, always physical,” Bruschi says. “For me, that meant attacking the roaming guards. I’d never done that, but I just went for it. Most places, they ask you to run around guys to the ball. Here, we go through guys.”

For all his ferocity on the field, what fans don’t see--and what teammates appreciate--is his sense of humor and his kindness. He’s also a doting husband and father, in part because he finally came to feel like a loving, and beloved, son. In April 2000, after years of disagreements, Tony persuaded Tedy and Heidi to visit him in his hometown of Pontestrambo, Italy, to which he had returned in the late ’90s. “It was a self-exploratory experience Tedy needed,” says Heidi. “And they both got closure. They fixed the relationship.”

While in Italy, Heidi learned she was pregnant with Tedy Jr. The following December, Tony returned to the U.S. to see his newborn grandson, but it was the last time he would be together with Tedy and his family. Shortly thereafter Tony died from prostate cancer. “I’m just happy he got to see my son,” says Tedy, his voice catching.

“I have no doubt that Tedy’s the dad to his kids that he wished he’d always had,” Heidi says. “He’s available, he’s interested in them. He realizes that his kids want their daddy’s attention.” At team functions Bruschi shoots video of all the players’ children and delivers DVDs of the events to amazed teammates the next day. He no longer watches game tape at home; instead he stays late at the club’s practice facility. “I’m all theirs when I’m home,” he says of his time with the boys. “If I’m thinking of work at home, I’m cheating my family.”

He credits Heidi with his transformation from Tucson party boy to North Attleboro family man. “She makes me want to be better,” he says. “I can’t imagine a better partner.” To the chagrin of teammates, he sets the doting-hubby bar awfully high. He sends flowers with such frequency that his calls to the Foxboro Flower Garden are met with, “What’s Heidi getting this week?” Usually, it’s her favorite, stargazer lilies, even though their aroma is so pungent that it gives him headaches. “Or on the morning after a game,” says Heidi, who on Monday was expected to deliver the couple’s third child, “after moaning and tossing and turning all night from the pain from Sunday’s game, he’ll sneak out of bed at 6:30 and let me sleep in because it’s the one morning he can [assist with the kids]. It’s small, but it’s so loving. He wants to help.”

Now, when Bruschi thinks of his father, he recalls bits and pieces of Tony’s wisdom and appreciates “how much raising my dad actually did,” he says. “I hear him all the time now. It’s funny, but he was the first one who told me I’d play middle linebacker in the pros. Guess I should’ve listened to him.”

Bruschi is sitting in Luciano’s, an Italian restaurant a few miles south of Gillette Stadium. He takes a last sip of cranberry juice and excuses himself, exchanges greetings with a few admiring patrons and slips out a side door. There are little Bruschis waiting for him at home, small and ferocious, and always coming back for more.

COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by Damian Strohmeyer COLOR PHOTODAVID BERGMAN CALLING THE SHOTS After setting the defense, Bruschi can usually be found in the middle of the action. COLOR PHOTOJOHN BIEVER ON THE SAME PAGE Bruschi became a force after the defensive-minded Belichick was named coach in 2000. COLOR PHOTODAVID SILVERMAN/NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS FAN CLUB Tedy gets plenty of support on the home front from Heidi, Tedy Jr. (left) and Rex.

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