FOXBORO, Mass. — When guard Brian Waters signed with the Patriots in early September, he asked if it would be all right to wear No. 54, even though it had most famously belonged to linebacker Tedy Bruschi.
Waters was told they’d check on that for him, and when he reported to Gillette Stadium a little while later, his new jersey, with Bruschi’s old number, was hanging in his locker. Obviously, Bruschi gave the go-ahead, and Waters has made sure to wear the number with pride.
“It’s my number today, but we all know in New England who the real 54 is,” Waters said. “I take that with me. I take that with pride. I wear it with pride. I met that guy. I know he’s a really good football player, and he’s a great football player in this region. I respect that.”
Waters knew Bruschi from their time together at the Pro Bowl, and their lockers were next to each other because they were lined in numerical order. The pair got to know one another, and Waters always seemed to respect the way the Patriots were so consistently successful.
That’s a major reason why he decided to sign with New England two months ago. Waters was enjoying life with his family in Texas and said he would only play this season under the right circumstances. There were teams — “a lot” of them, Waters said — that wanted him to join their system, but he wasn’t interested in any rebuilding projects.
It was surprising, even to head coach Bill Belichick‘s own admission, that Waters was a free agent so deep into the summer, signing on the first day of Week 1 in the regular season. He’s been the Patriots’ most consistent offensive lineman this season, and he’s been a pro’s pro in the locker room. With his performance on the field and behind the scenes, he’s lived up to the reputation that his number was built upon with Bruschi.
But when Waters first put on that Patriots jersey, he said it was “a little bit” weird. After all, he just spent 11 seasons in Kansas City, where he was a two-time All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowler. That’s where Waters built his own legacy, so it must be strange for him to prepare for Monday night’s prime-time matchup with the Chiefs. Waters, though, didn’t expect it to be anything big.
“I honestly don’t think it will be one of those overemotional deals,” Waters said. “I really don’t. I’m happy where I am. I’m sure they’re happy with the players they have. I just want to win a football game. It doesn’t matter if it’s [the Chiefs] or anybody else. This is a very important football game for us going forward. We need to start. This is November. This is moving month. This is the month when you can start separating yourself from other people.”
Waters said the two sides mutually parted. The Chiefs wanted to get younger, and Waters viewed it as an opportunity to close his career with an organization that was better equipped to win a Super Bowl.
“I felt good about it because it didn’t end in one of those nasty ways,” Waters said. “It wasn’t one of those things where, ‘You’re not any good any more, this, that and the other.'”
Waters, who turns 35 in February, isn’t committing to anything past this season. He said he’d weigh the decision with his family, and he said he wasn’t sure if he’d retire or keep on playing, though he did admit a certain level of success this season could affect his long-term plans.
Plus, it’s unclear where the Patriots will go with the position. Logan Mankins will man the left guard position for the long haul, and rookie Marcus Cannon might be in line to take over at right guard. It wouldn’t be easy for Belichick to part with Waters, but sometimes, there just aren’t enough opportunities for everyone.
Waters has understood that for a while now, and he’s perfectly at peace with his situation.
“Even if I had never played again,” Waters said about the possibility of retiring last summer, “I would have been happy with my career, and that’s something that a lot of people don’t have the privilege of having when their careers are over. A lot of times, guys are basically told you can’t play anymore. Or they’re hurt and don’t have the physical ability to do so. I felt good about my situation.
“I always want to walk away from the game. That’s another thing. Injuries, and long-term health and all that stuff are all important to me. If we’re able to have a successful year this year, and in the offseason I decide it’s time for me to go, then it will be time and I’ll be OK with it.”