He has three Super Bowl wins, a plum gig at ESPN, and a head of hair that would make a Ken doll envious. But in February 2005, Tedy Bruschi was in bed, dreaming about a tackle he’d made on Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis in the AFC Championship Game, when he suddenly woke up with a piercing headache. “I was like, ‘What’s wrong?’” Bruschi recalls. Turned out he was suffering from a life-threatening stroke. Against all odds, Bruschi was back on the field the very next season, disrupting offenses in front of his fans. In a sport where dramatic comebacks are weekly story lines, Bruschi’s return remains a singular feat. We caught up with the legendary linebacker to talk about the Pats, then and now.
It looks like the Patriots won’t have Tom Brady for their first four games. What’s your take on the start of the season?
It’s going to be a struggle. You see, the Patriots still consider September an extension of the preseason. And I don’t think the coaches are 100 percent sure of what type of team they have yet. They continue to evaluate through September and into October to try to find what they’re good at and what they’re not good at. Without having Brady to give them a picture of the offense flowing the way it should be, it’s going to be hard to judge the entire team and figure out who they are.
Are you surprised that the Deflategate saga continues to drag on?
I don’t want to say I’m surprised that it’s gone this long when you have an organization like the NFL that has a commissioner who really feels strongly about a certain Article 46—that he has the right to determine the integrity of the game. This type of legal fight isn’t about the deflation of footballs anymore—it’s about the commissioner and his ability to do whatever he pleases. When you have to go through the court system like this, it usually takes this long. Do I want it over just like everyone else? Absolutely. But still, I want to see Tom and the Patriots fight.
Roger Goodell took over as commissioner in 2006, and you didn’t retire until 2009. Did you see the game change direction in those early years of his tenure?
Player safety and the conduct of players off the field were big for him, and that was evident right off the bat. Certain ways you would approach a collision were talked about; taking the head out of the equation in terms of hitting—it was evident in the beginning that was where he was going. You could kind of gauge in the locker room that it was important to this commissioner to, I guess, clean up the game and its players.
Do you think he’s doing a good job of that?
I can see his goal, but the inconsistencies are obvious in terms of how he’s trying to achieve it.
Does it blow your mind that Brady is almost 40 and looks as sharp as he does?
If the game was where it was maybe 10 years ago, then maybe I’d be shocked. But once again, it’s another effect of Goodell’s focus on player safety. It’s ironic, isn’t it? Brady’s longevity has benefited from the protection of the quarterback. It was explained in such detail when I was playing where you could hit the quarterback, where you couldn’t hit the quarterback; what you could do and what you couldn’t do after he released the ball. Is the preservation of the quarterback a result of Goodell’s influence? You could say it possibly is.
What would leave you in worse shape on a Monday morning at this stage in your life: playing one NFL game or spending one weekend partying with Gronk?
I still think it would be one NFL game. Partying with Gronk—I don’t think I’m gonna get knocked around too much. I may be a little old, but I could still hang with the young kids.
You have a great head of hair. What’s your secret?
Filipino and Italian genes. My mom was Filipino and she had big black hair, and my father was Italian and he didn’t lose a hair on his head to the day he died. He was starting to get some salt and pepper, and my mom had some gray hair. And now I’m starting to get a bit of gray, right at my part—in the same streak where my mother had a gray streak for so long—and I can’t wait until it grows in.
I’ve heard if you go to dinner with Bill Belichick and have a glass of wine, it can be one of the funniest and smartest conversations you’ll ever have. True?
If someone tells you that he’s one of the funniest people they’ve ever met, they’re lying to you [laughs]. There isn’t much difference in terms of who you see in front of the camera at press conferences. When you’re a player for him, it’s all about football. There’s no small talk about families, there’s no, “What are you doing, let’s go grab a beer.” Nothing like that. During the season, it’s just about your job and what game you have to win. That’s okay for most players. It was always okay for me because if I wanted any type of companionship, I was going home to my wife and kids.
You have three sons.
I do. They’re 15, 14, and 11 years old.
Will we see another Bruschi generation in the NFL, or do you worry about them playing the game?
I believe that the proper age to start playing football is 14. My oldest, my 15-year-old, absolutely loves basketball, so none of my sons are playing football yet. It looks like I may have one next year who wants to go out for the football team in high school, so that will be my first.
Do you and your wife talk about whether this is something you want your kids doing?
My kids are bigger kids. I’m always scouting—it’s just something that I’ve always done—so I can judge if my son will be able to handle freshman football by looking at him physically. And I think he’ll be able to handle it. But that’s why I wanted to wait for them to be in high school. It’s just my own personal opinion. I didn’t play until I was 14 years old, either. In terms of physical development, I’ve seen kids who have too many unnecessary injuries in Pop Warner football. Let’s just look past the whole concussion thing and look at broken wrists and collarbones and things like that. It’s what happens in football. And so I wanted to let my sons develop a little bit more until contact football was an option.
Was there one team you hated going up against during your career?
The Jets were always our rival team. But the meaningful rivalry was with the Colts. It’s weird working with [former Colts center] Jeff Saturday now at ESPN. That guy got under my skin out there on the field.
Does he still get under your skin?
We tell a lot of funny stories in the ESPN hallways, especially during the season when we’re talking about old matchups. I tell them about the time I took the ball from [former Colts running back] Dominic Rhodes and I beat Saturday because he had to block me one-on-one. I’ll be like, “Dude, you actually helped me because you pushed me into Rhodes and I was able to pick the ball from him, so thanks for that.” And then Saturday jokes about the last drive in the 2006 AFC Championship Game and how they ran it right down our throats.
Did you ever think you’d be joking with your bitter rival like that?
It’s weird: We’re actually having a jovial conversation about some of the most devastating moments in each other’s careers, and we’re laughing about it. It’s amazing how many meaningful games he and I had against each other with championships and legacies on the line.
Now that you’re an ESPN analyst, do you find yourself having to temper your enthusiasm for the Pats when working?
I’ve been extremely fortunate that the Patriots have had so much success. I just revel in it, man. I don’t care. I have no shame in letting everyone know that I am a New England Patriot. It’s the only team I’ve played for and I’m talking as a New England Patriot, so that is the way it is. And when they win and they continue to win and they make it to the AFC Championship or win the Super Bowl, it just makes me even more proud to talk about them on air.
Last year marked the 10th anniversary of your returning to the field after the stroke. How do you reflect on that?
Sometimes I forget about everything that we went through, everything that we questioned. My medical history, the hole in my heart, heart surgery, damage to the brain from ischemic stroke—it was such a complicated time in my life. Do I play? Do I not play? Am I ever going to be a functioning father again? I mean, I couldn’t even see my left field of vision in both of my eyes. I couldn’t drive until my sight came back, so I wasn’t thinking about football initially. Reflecting on it now, and reflecting on coming back to play—I was truly blessed.
Take me back to your first game after the stroke. The national anthem is playing and you’re getting into game mode. What’s going on in your head?
I wasn’t sure if I was doing the right thing. When you ask your doctor for the phone number of the guy who has done this before so you can ask him how it was, how he got through it, and the doctor says, “Well, Tedy, you’re the first,” you sort of take a step back and ask, “Man, am I doing the right thing?” It’s never black and white. There’s always a little bit of gray, but you have to deal with that. Everyone has to deal with that when they come back from something. But with every tackle I made, every practice I went to during the course of the year, it got better. I remember losing to Denver in the playoffs that year in Denver, and after the game I was just thanking God that I made it through that season.
When did you know it was time to retire?
Man, I was gonna play until Bill Belichick told me it was time. I love the game that much. I’m not one of these guys who retires after three years because they’re fearful of the health effects down the road or anything like that. I love football and I was going to play it forever. And in the training camp of 2009, Coach Belichick brought me into his office and said, “I think it’s time, Tedy.” And I said, “You know what, Coach? I think it’s time, too.” Now don’t get me wrong, I was like, “You sure?” I tried to talk him out of it for a little bit, but it was time. I was four years removed from a stroke, so I knew I was sort of living on borrowed time.
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