He is outnumbered again, staring down a menacing double team. If it‚Äôs fair to say a man‚Äôs 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‚Äôs long day isn‚Äôt 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôt be happier. ‚ÄúMy boys are just like me: really physical,‚Äù Bruschi says of Tedy Jr., 4, and Rex, 2. ‚ÄúEvery day it‚Äôs a big tackle-athon. I love it. They never quit. They play just like their dad--and just like their dad‚Äôs team.‚Äù
While the Pittsburgh Steelers (15‚Äì1) are the AFC‚Äôs nouveau power and the Philadelphia Eagles (13‚Äì3) are the class of the NFC, the NFL playoffs remain the domain of the defending champion New England Patriots (14‚Äì2). 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‚Äì16. New England is the league‚Äôs model franchise because each player, no matter his position or cap figure, embraces coach Bill Belichick‚Äôs team-first philosophy. ‚ÄúI know one thing,‚Äù says Bruschi, 31, a New England linebacker for nine years. ‚ÄúI was meant to play with these 52 guys, for this coach, in this system.‚Äù
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‚Äôs 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‚Äô Ray Lewis and the Miami Dolphins‚Äô Zach Thomas, he has become an All-Pro‚Äìcaliber 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. ‚ÄúPunt team,‚Äù he says, not missing a beat. ‚ÄúThe punt‚Äôs 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‚Äôt care who I was--he needed me on punt team. So I covered punts, and still do. I love covering punts.‚Äù
Says New England linebacker Mike Vrabel, ‚ÄúEverybody needs a Tedy Bruschi, but good luck finding one. It‚Äôs impossible to put value on everything the guy does. When he walks into a meeting or a huddle, he brings instant credibility. He‚Äôs been productive for so long, even though he‚Äôs had to switch positions. He‚Äôs everything for this team.‚Äù
This year Bruschi finished with 122 tackles, second best on the team, and 31‚ÅÑ2 sacks for the NFL‚Äôs ninth-ranked defense. But for all his fundamental strengths, it‚Äôs his knack for making the big play that sets him apart. ‚ÄúTheir defense isn‚Äôt the same without him,‚Äù says New York Jets center Kevin Mawae. ‚ÄúHe plays 100 miles an hour. He makes plays that are unbelievable.‚Äù
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. ‚ÄúWhen we drafted him [as a linebacker], everybody knew that he could rush the passer, play the run, that he was tough as hell,‚Äù says Belichick. ‚ÄúBut his anticipation, his ball skills, after never dropping into coverage in his life.... He‚Äôs just tremendous.‚Äù Indeed, over a span covering parts of the 2002 and ‚Äô03 seasons, Bruschi set an NFL record by returning four consecutive interceptions for touchdowns.
Ask the Patriots which of Bruschi‚Äôs plays is the most memorable, and the vote is unanimous. On Dec. 7, 2003, with New England holding a 3‚Äì0 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‚Äôs clinching of the AFC East. ‚ÄúAny other linebacker in the league knocks that ball down,‚Äù says New England special teams ace Larry Izzo. ‚ÄúBut Tedy caught the damn thing and then scored. Impossible.‚Äù
‚ÄúWhen he made that play,‚Äù adds linebacker Roman Phifer, ‚Äúwe all got a sense that maybe we were something special.‚Äù They were, indeed: The 12‚Äì0 victory was the ninth straight in a winning streak that stretched to an NFL-record 21 games before a 34‚Äì20 loss in Pittsburgh on Oct. 31.
‚ÄúEveryone can make a big play,‚Äù says Bruschi. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs 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.‚Äù
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. ‚ÄúI saw him on weekends,‚Äù Tedy says, ‚Äúso we could only do so much.‚Äù 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. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôd have huge fights on the phone,‚Äù Tedy recalls. ‚ÄúIt wasn‚Äôt pretty.‚Äù Nevertheless, as a senior Tedy earned all‚ÄìNorthern 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‚Äôd emerged as one of the leaders of Arizona‚Äôs Desert Swarm defense, and he finished his college career with 52 sacks, tying Alabama‚Äôs Derrick Thomas (later of the Kansas City Chiefs) for the NCAA record. All the while Tedy‚Äôs father kept telling him to move to linebacker. ‚ÄúHe could say what he wanted, but I was doing it,‚Äù Bruschi says. ‚ÄúI could put my numbers up against anyone in the history of college football. That made me feel good about myself.‚Äù
So did meeting Heidi Bomberger, a volleyball and softball player at Arizona, in the fall of ‚Äô93. She was someone Tedy could turn to after angry conversations with his dad. ‚ÄúHaving his father doubt him hurt Tedy much more than I think he‚Äôll ever admit,‚Äù says Heidi, who married Tedy in the summer after his rookie season. ‚ÄúThose conversations would always affect him. But he just used the negativity as motivation.‚Äù
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. ‚ÄúI hear, ‚ÄòTedy, this is Bill Parcells. We‚Äôre going to try you at linebacker. Here‚Äôs Al Groh,‚Äô‚Äù Bruschi says. ‚ÄúAnd that was that. I was terrified.‚Äù
He walked out of the living room, Heidi recalls, and announced, ‚ÄúNew England just took me. I‚Äôm going to do everything I can to stay there for the rest of my career.‚Äù
During his rookie season Bruschi was tried at all three linebacker positions in Parcells‚Äôs 4‚Äì3, and of course, he made himself useful on special teams. ‚ÄúIt took me almost two years not to laugh when I called myself a linebacker,‚Äù says Bruschi, who played primarily in passing situations during his first year. ‚ÄúBut I was scared. Learning the position was the hardest thing I‚Äôd ever done. I‚Äôd never played a down without my hand [in a three-point stance]. I was dropping into pass coverage on handoffs. I didn‚Äôt know what I was seeing. I didn‚Äôt know how to study film--and I was making [some of the] defensive calls. I was just hanging on.‚Äù
When Pete Carroll replaced Parcells after Bruschi‚Äôs 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‚Äôs secondary coach in ‚Äô96, returned as coach in 2000, and Bruschi became a force. ‚ÄúBill wanted us to be physical, always physical,‚Äù Bruschi says. ‚ÄúFor me, that meant attacking the roaming guards. I‚Äôd 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.‚Äù
For all his ferocity on the field, what fans don‚Äôt see--and what teammates appreciate--is his sense of humor and his kindness. He‚Äôs 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 ‚Äô90s. ‚ÄúIt was a self-exploratory experience Tedy needed,‚Äù says Heidi. ‚ÄúAnd they both got closure. They fixed the relationship.‚Äù
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. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm just happy he got to see my son,‚Äù says Tedy, his voice catching.
‚ÄúI have no doubt that Tedy‚Äôs the dad to his kids that he wished he‚Äôd always had,‚Äù Heidi says. ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs available, he‚Äôs interested in them. He realizes that his kids want their daddy‚Äôs attention.‚Äù At team functions Bruschi shoots video of all the players‚Äô 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‚Äôs practice facility. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm all theirs when I‚Äôm home,‚Äù he says of his time with the boys. ‚ÄúIf I‚Äôm thinking of work at home, I‚Äôm cheating my family.‚Äù
He credits Heidi with his transformation from Tucson party boy to North Attleboro family man. ‚ÄúShe makes me want to be better,‚Äù he says. ‚ÄúI can‚Äôt imagine a better partner.‚Äù 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, ‚ÄúWhat‚Äôs Heidi getting this week?‚Äù Usually, it‚Äôs her favorite, stargazer lilies, even though their aroma is so pungent that it gives him headaches. ‚ÄúOr on the morning after a game,‚Äù says Heidi, who on Monday was expected to deliver the couple‚Äôs third child, ‚Äúafter moaning and tossing and turning all night from the pain from Sunday‚Äôs game, he‚Äôll sneak out of bed at 6:30 and let me sleep in because it‚Äôs the one morning he can [assist with the kids]. It‚Äôs small, but it‚Äôs so loving. He wants to help.‚Äù
Now, when Bruschi thinks of his father, he recalls bits and pieces of Tony‚Äôs wisdom and appreciates ‚Äúhow much raising my dad actually did,‚Äù he says. ‚ÄúI hear him all the time now. It‚Äôs funny, but he was the first one who told me I‚Äôd play middle linebacker in the pros. Guess I should‚Äôve listened to him.‚Äù
Bruschi is sitting in Luciano‚Äôs, 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.