Patriots fans were somewhat surprised this week when veteran linebacker Tedy Bruschi announced his retirement after 13 seasons with the New England Patriots. Bruschi came to be known as the quintessential Patriot player, putting team before self and playing with heart over the course of his entire career. And while Bruschi's retirement will garner fewer national headlines than those related to Michael Vick or Brett Favre, his news is no less important.
Bruschi's career, when viewed against those other higher-profile players, stands out as special for the simple reason that he was rarely controversial and spent his entire career with a single team. In this day and age of free agency, a career like Bruschi's became the exception rather than the rule.
Bruschi's retirement signals the vanishing of a particular kind of player in the NFL.
Loyalty is a rare commodity in today's NFL. Just ask Green Bay Packers fans how they feel about it. When a player who has become synonymous with one franchise turns his back on the team and its fans, claiming a level of disrespect, the fans find it hard to understand the player's motivations.
We are often blinded in our world of sports fandom as we frequently fail to realize that the outcome of games is always going to mean more to fans who grew up rooting for these teams through good times and bad, than it will for professional athletes who are paid handsomely to play these games for a living.
But a player like Tedy Bruschi did a great deal to bridge the gap between a fan's affinity and affection for a team and a player's responsibility to his team's fans. In his retirement news conference, Bruschi revealed that at one point when he became a free agent, he visited with a few other teams to discuss possibilities. He claimed, "I went to Green Bay, and the moment I saw that Super Bowl trophy from '96, I knew I wasn't going there." He was referring to the Patriots’ loss to the Packers in the 1996 Super Bowl and the wounds that Bruschi, as a member of that Patriots team under Bill Parcells, still felt. That kind of loyalty is incredibly rare in professional sports.
Perhaps it's because he was underestimated as a young player. At 6-foot-1 and 247 pounds, Bruschi has always been considered slightly undersized for a linebacker. Bill Belichick said in his news conference that no one expected Bruschi to be a successful NFL pass rusher. He was deemed too slow or too small.
But Bruschi has always worked harder than everyone and stopped at nothing to achieve what he set out to achieve. As we know, Belichick has never been prone to hyperbole. So when he referred to Bruschi as "a perfect player," it was obvious he has a great fondness for Bruschi — both as a player and person.
Belichick was uncharacteristically emotional when discussing Bruschi. Perhaps it's because he knows from what kind of struggles Bruschi has had to overcome. In addition to the questions about his size and speed, Bruschi also suffered a stroke and underwent heart surgery in February of 2005 before returning to the field in October of that same season.
Those medical issues highlight the depth of the relationship between Bruschi and the fans of this region. Heartfelt outpourings of concern for Bruschi's health and his family reached the linebacker in droves. People spoke of their desire to see him recover, not so that he could return to football, but because they generally cared for him as a person.
That's a rare thing in this world, and Bruschi has always indicated how much he appreciated it. He spoke at length at his news conference about how he wishes he could thank each fan individually. Many of them, he probably will.
Even the length of Bruschi's career is unusual. With the average NFL career spanning roughly four seasons, a 13-year Pro Bowl career for a defensive player is, in itself, rare. To play the entirety of one's career with a single team is nearly unheard of in this age of free agency and nonguaranteed contracts. But Bruschi has never indicated that he wanted to play anywhere else.
He makes his home in North Attleboro, Mass., and has chosen to raise his family of three boys in the area. He has said he plans to stay in New England now that he's retired. That, again, is rare.
Few people would blame him if he were to take his three Super Bowl rings and relocate to his home state of Arizona where harsh New England winters are a rumor. But he's going to stay. He's become a New England Patriot in every sense of the word.
At a book signing, after the release of his book, Never Give Up: My Stroke, My Recovery, and My Return to the NFL, a friend of mine sported her "54 Full Tilt, Full Time" T-shirt, shook Bruschi's hand and earnestly told him, "Thank you for being a Patriot." He smiled and told her she was welcome.
In the last few days, watching the ongoing coverage of Bruschi's retirement and the promise that he will remain around the team in some capacity, we're left with the impression that Bruschi has never considered being anything else. The quintessential Patriot may have retired, but he spoke of his hope for the team in the future and the ways in which he fulfilled his dreams for his career.
We, as fans, are lucky to have had him for 13 years. A truly classy player, Tedy Bruschi brought an energy and heart to the field every week, which is often difficult to find in the jaded world of professional football. He is a role model for many and someone we can be proud to call one of ours.
He will be missed.
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