As Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi ran out of the tunnel at Gillette Stadium on the day before Halloween, he was greeted by more than 68,000 euphoric members of Patriot Nation embracing his much-needed return. But as he lined up for his first play since his stroke eight months earlier, the nation -- Patriot and otherwise -- collectively held its breath. The Bills handed the ball to running back Willis McGahee and Bruschi lunged and fell to the ground next to McGahee. And then, as he had promised his wife, Heidi, he got up quickly. Everyone exhaled.
Playing 64 of 77 defensive downs in that game, the 6-2, 247-pound resilient leader of the Patriots defense made it seem like business as usual. But, of course, it wasn't. Three days after having played in the Pro Bowl last February, Bruschi woke up and couldn't walk so well or see his three sons so clearly. He later learned that a blood clot had passed through a hole in his heart, medically known as a patent foramen ovale, and caused a stroke.
The good doctors at Massachusetts General implanted a plug in the aforementioned hole and in October they unanimously decided that Bruschi could play football again. Patriots owner Bob Kraft was so confident in the diagnosis that he didn't even make Bruschi sign a medical liability waiver. But the real deciding factor in Tedy's comeback had come when little Tedy Jr. looked up and said, "Dad, the team needs you."
Not one to disappoint his four-year-old, Bruschi decided to return, even though no one has ever played professional football with a plug in their heart -- a sport that Curt Marsh once told SI was like getting in 70 traffic accidents a game.
Everyone had an opinion regarding his decision, but the one thing that no one could deny was that Bruschi, 32, is just an all-around good guy. A guy who former Arizona coach Dick Tomey praised for outworking everyone on the team as a mere freshman. A guy who when drafted by the Patriots four years later, said he would do everything he could to end his career in New England. A guy who regularly sends flowers to his wife and gets up early to help with his sons. A guy who emcees hospital charity events, plays alto sax with middle school kids. A guy who calls up his biggest fan, Randy Pierce, who his blind, to ask for permission to use Pierce's slogan for him, "Full Tilt Full Time", to put on T-shirts to benefit tsunami victims.
When Bruschi rejoined a team that desperately needed him, he immediately became an inspiration to other stroke victims, many who no doubt said that if he can make a full recovery, I can too, because it's possible.
Bruschi has graced SI's cover twice -- the first time more than a decade ago, accompanied by the heading "Rock Solid," and again last January, behind the tag "Defense Rules the Playoffs." Both appearances were fitting, but after the year he's had, this hero deserves one more headline -- 2005 Sportsman of the Year.