By: Bob George/BosSports.net
August 31, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH -- A stroke can kill you, and it usually cripples or paralyzes you.

As for Tedy Bruschi, all he did was play in four more NFL seasons.

Most people might think of Bruschi as the personification of the term "patriot" when reflecting upon his 13-year NFL career, a career which he brought to a sudden halt on Monday by announcing his retirement. But coming back from a stroke the way he did elevates him to the highest of all pantheons not only in Patriots or Boston area sports history, but in all sports in general. His courage combined with his love and dedication to his team is why Patriot Nation sheds a tear or two upon the retirement of this franchise icon.

And the love is returned a thousand fold, perhaps more towards him than any other Patriot, and that is saying a lot. It is one thing to be good, it is another thing to be great, but to be great and beloved is not always automatic (such as Manny Ramirez, for example). In the case of Bruschi, it was his zeal for the team and the game which endears him to all fans, in a way perhaps eclipsed by few or none in these parts.

Bruschi's retirement closes the door on a bygone era in Foxborough. Bruschi was the last remaining active Patriot on the roster to have played for Bill Parcells. Parcells drafted Bruschi in the third round in 1996 out of Arizona, a "tweener" in the classic sense. He was a down lineman in Desert Swarm down in Tucson, but in New England Parcells made him an inside linebacker in the 3-4 base.

Bruschi became an instant fan favorite in his rookie year, helped in some ways by people like ESPN's Chris Berman, who reminded Boston area fans of the slang term his name sounds like. You'd always hear something like "Boy, a lot of Patriot fans sure pound down a lot of Brewskis when they see a play like that!" Bruschi played well during his rookie year, and his interception of Mark Brunnell late in the 1996 AFC Championship Game sealed his first Patriot season on a positive note.

But the years brought out much more, and when the Super Bowl plums fell in Y2K and thereafter, his real value to the club was revealed. Bruschi became an intense player, coining the phrase "Full Tilt, Full Time". It was the most recognizable Patriot player slogan since the days of Mosi Tatupu and "Mosi's Mooses". Bruschi's slogan meant a lot more when watching it come out on the playing field, as his intensity always kicked his defensive mates up a notch.

Bruschi did get to experience three Super Bowl titles during his Patriot tenure. His interception in the snow against Miami in 2003 which begat the throwing snow in the air tradition is another endearing symbol of Number 54, but you cannot encapsulate Bruschi's career in just one play. He is the only NFL player to return four consecutive interceptions for touchdowns, but any Patriot will tell you that his intensity is what helped his team the most, and the interceptions were mostly gravy.

As the years wore on, Bruschi continually took less money to stay in Foxborough, a lesson which was practiced by others (Tom Brady, Willie McGinest) and ignored by others (Deion Branch, Asante Samuel, and perhaps now Vince Wilfork). Bruschi bragged about how much he wanted to be a Patriot for life and to play for only one team in his NFL career. This is why Troy Brown is also similarly beloved by fans; in an era where loyalty is completely passé and totally insignificant to most players, Bruschi's love for the Patriots is something his fan base grabs onto and clutches tightly in its arms.

And that love was returned in February of 2005, when Bruschi suffered his stroke following the Pro Bowl, his only trip to Honolulu. Patriot fans everywhere were taken aback. They prayed for him, thought of him and his family first, and never gave one iota of thought to something like "Oh, (expletive), now he won't play anymore and we're screwed!" Fans kept vigil over him, worried over his wife Heidi and his three kids, and were astonished when he made his comeback that fall. But the love of the fans was first and foremost, and that love never died nor will it ever.

Bruschi was not only a joy to his teammates, but to his fans as well. He continues to be the object of a website by a Rhode Island teacher who calls herself "Mrs. B.". Karen Cardoza, the 2003 Patriot Fan of the Year, remains one of the most noteworthy and loyal Patriot fans out there, but it was her love for Bruschi as a player which started the nickname and the website. This writer has a personal debt of gratitude to Bruschi as he, perhaps unwittingly, gave Yours Truly his first scoop. He has an engaging personality and a brilliant smile, and you have to be grinchly not to appreciate him as a person.

There will be talk about retiring his number, just like for Brown last year even though number 80 is currently being used by tight end Alex Smith. Football numbers don't get retired as often as baseball numbers out of fear that teams will run out of numbers quicker in the NFL than anywhere else. Phooey on that. Retire both number 54 and number 80, and do it soon before anyone out there dares to wear a number 54 Patriot jersey. Worry about running out of numbers later.

Because players like Bruschi with this sort of stature in franchise history warrant this distinction. You'll probably never see Adam Vinatieri's number 4 or Drew Bledsoe's number 11 or Ty Law's 24 or even Willie McGinest's 55 go up, for example. But Bruschi played his whole career here, and both the longevity and excellence should be enough.

What puts Bruschi over the top is his entire package. What he meant to his teammates, his fans, and the community, that also factors into the equation. The term "beloved" gets thrown around all too frequently, and sometimes is not applied to the right people, or it is applied too carelessly. To say Bruschi is "beloved" is a gross understatement. Fans can "like" a lot of athletes, but they only love a few, and Bruschi is at or near the top of that list.

If you need the ultimate proof of Bruschi's worthiness for a number retirement, ask his head coach. Bill Belichick described Bruschi as a "perfect player". When you can get a man like Belichick to throw you that kind of compliment, you've really done something.

Add all this up, and Bruschi indeed wore this team on his sleeve like a true badge of honor. He began and ended his career as a Patriot, and became the embodiment of the term itself. The Patriots will go on, hopefully win many more Super Bowls in the future, and continue to be what they are.

But the team owes a great deal of debt and gratitude to Bruschi, who maybe did more than anyone else to bring pride and honor to being a Patriot. And to those of us with a long perspective on history, that is a debt that can perhaps never be repaid.


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