Each time he’s been hit and knocked down, he’s gotten back up and returned to the huddle. Why? It’s what he does. He’s a football player.
But he’s not only just a football player, he’s the quarterback of his team. The team goes as he goes, and as the leader of his team they all look up to him. It’s his eyes they look into in the huddle. It’s his voice they hang on from before they step up to the line, all the way until they hear the final bark of his cadence and the violence begins.
He would drop back to throw, having no doubt in his mind that not only would he march his team down the field to victory, but that his teammates would not let him down and that they would protect him with their lives until the final gun sounded and they would walk off the field victorious after their fearless leader left their enemy hanging their heads in defeat.
But over the years he’s lost each of those men who pledged their lives to his safety, whether it’s been to age or injury one by one they have left him. At one time when he would drop back to throw there was never a reason to look over his shoulder for a defensive lineman or linebacker who was about to deal him pain and punishment. There was never a need to worry about whether or not he was about to be driven into the ground. Suddenly as he stood tall in the pocket he found himself looking his defender in the eyes until the last moment when he would fire the ball to his target, only to then have to wait and find out whether or not he had succeeded based on the roar or groan of the crowd.
And it’s only gotten worse.
As time went on they began coming from all over, both from the outside and penetrating the middle of his once impregnable wall where he once could safely stand and do his job.
One Monday night a snap of one bone, though very small, marked the realization that there was a problem with his protection. A defender got dangerously close as he fired away the football, and his hand slammed into the shoulder pad of that enemy breaking the bone in his index finger. Despite the throbbing in his hand he lead his team to a last second win, and in heroic fashion he walked off the field hearing his name chanted by an entire stadium full of people who just watched what he had done in the face of adversity.
The following week he did a repeat performance. With his finger taped he lead his team back for another fourth quarter win, and his opponents were long gone when the extra point was scored to add insult to what New England’s fearless leader had done to them.
But one week later the protection again let him down, and the pins that were in place to try and heal that finger finally gave way after several hits, and he finished the season on the sideline.
He now has a permanent slight crook and a lump on the tip of that finger. A haunting reminder of how things have changed.
Down he went in 1999, 56 times to be exact. His defense and protection was now all but gone and many of his now growing list of critics felt it was time he learn how to run. He tried his best and for the first time in his career finished the season with over 100 yards rushing. Running for his life and diving for first downs, not sliding even one time during each attempt.
Last season he reportedly broke a bone in that same throwing hand, this time in his thumb after a similar incident. He would then better his rushing total after having more inexperience lining up in front of him, finishing with a career-high 158-yards. He learned how to become a little more elusive during the season but still absorbed far too many big hits in which the average man would have been laying on the ground wondering how in the world he would be able to get up. Instead each time undaunted he picked himself up and called the next play, never once pointing fingers or blame to those who let him down.
But all who have watched the punishment he has sustained over the last several years finally saw the inevitable, and that was the final punishing blow that not even he could withstand. On a 3rd-and-10 play he found his receivers in a familiar spot, unable to get away from their defenders and give him the necessary room to allow him to deliver them the football. Knowing how bad his team needed that first down he tried to get it for them. After gaining eight of them, he saw Jets linebacker Mo Lewis coming his way. You could see him slow down, but then decided that he would try to get those final two yards.
The result was a violent collision, and he finally went down.
There he laid, dazed for a moment, in obvious pain, and not moving. Anyone watching the game knew that he had to be badly hurt, as he had never stayed down before. Concern came over the faces of his teammates, and also his coach.
He finally rose and under his own power got up and headed for the bench, not knowing yet how badly he was hurt.
He again strapped on his helmet, and gallantly came back into the game returning for one series knowing that down by only one touchdown his team needed him.
But the fans greeted their warrior with boos. They rewarded his bravery and toughness with heckling and harsh words. They had no idea what was really going on.
A fumble by fullback Marc Edwards ended that series, and it was probably for the best. Had he dropped back to throw only to be sacked, heaven only knows how much worse he could have been hurt.
Credit his coach Bill Belichick for realizing there was a serious problem with his star quarterback. Belichick pulled him from the game at that point and inserted back-up Tom Brady to finish the game. While it was initially thought that he had benched the veteran QB, the news after the game ended that speculation. What appeared to be frustration by his coach was really concern.
The truth came later on where the revelation of internal bleeding proved that he had finally taken one hit too many, and could have ended his season. This injury was serious and could have been potentially life-threatening. Many of his true fans have come forward and sent well wishes, and only time will tell when he will recover and some day return.
Everyone could see this coming, and hopefully this incident results in the team focusing on putting better people around him during this offseason.
We all knew that the lack of talent around him may get him killed eventually, but none of us ever thought that meant literally. Now he is laying in a hospital bed recovering from his injuries.
A small broken bone took him out of the final two games of ’99, internal bleeding will likely keep him out for most of 2001.
Hopefully it’s not something worse in 2002.