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Welcome to the 'Backerhood (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday November 6, 2007 10:27AM; Updated: Tuesday November 6, 2007 10:27AM
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Adalius Thomas: The free-agent prize of 2007 has fit in seamlessly.
Adalius Thomas: The free-agent prize of 2007 has fit in seamlessly. "I came here with an open mind," he says. "These guys were good long before I got here."
Michael Dwyer/AP
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Bruschi was first into the room, a third-round draft pick in 1996 out of Arizona, where he had 52 sacks and, according to his coach, Dick Tomey, a motor that never stopped. He became a starter in his fourth year with New England, when Pete Carroll was coach, but blossomed as an inside linebacker under Belichick. Offensive linemen who should have been able to flatten the 6' 1", 247-pound Bruschi couldn't get to him. "He can play the run without being a real thumper," says an NFL assistant who has coached against the Patriots. "He competes because he's got great hands to keep blockers off him and great instincts."

Bruschi was never better than in 2004, the Patriots' third Super Bowl season, when he had 122 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks and three interceptions and made his first Pro Bowl. "He was the guy you heard talking on every play, right up until the snap," says Phifer, who played next to Bruschi on all three championship teams. Just days after the Pro Bowl, Bruschi was hospitalized with a stroke that left him with blurred vision and numbness in his left arm and leg. His return to football, after intense physical therapy, in Week 8 of the 2005 season was one of the most inspiring NFL stories in recent years.

Two seasons later teams try to find holes in Bruschi's game. "If he has limitations now, he knows them so well that he's effective anyway," says another opponent's assistant. "He maneuvers really well around big people inside. Nobody gets a clean shot on him." Says Bruschi, who suffers no lingering effects from the stroke, "I didn't come back until I was ready to play, so I am the same player."

But in the larger sense he is predictably changed. "Can I talk to my teammates a little bit differently after what I went through? I think so," says Bruschi. "I'm a little wiser, I think. What happened to me makes you rethink everything. It also makes you stronger."

Vrabel is Bruschi's compadre. He arrived in 2001, a former pass rushing hellion at Ohio State who had stagnated for four seasons with the Steelers. The two have shared so many snaps that they can communicate on the field without words or signals. "Just a look," says Vrabel. Off the field their families became close, while Vrabel and Bruschi's friendship evolved into a chops-busting contest that nearly imploded.

"Vrabes would talk to me about giving me strokes on the golf course and how, when I left the hospital, I had my stroke walk really down," says Bruschi. "And at the time he was negotiating a new contract, so I'm giving him a hard time about that. Health and finances -- those are two things that are usually off-limits."

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