"By about the eighth grade," Mac is saying, sitting at the dinner table, "there were probably two or three better quarterbacks than Drew in school around here. He was maybe 6'3", 125 pounds. He looked like a praying mantis. He hadn't filled out yet. When he got to high school, there were still more physically talented players. But Drew had a picture of where he was going. He knew exactly what he wanted to do. So it was an unfair playing field. If he'd lived up to my expectations, he'd have been a tight end at Montana. But again, he knew what he wanted."
"Mac talks to hundreds and hundreds of people every year on parenting and self-esteem for children," says Barbara. "Not everyone buys into his philosophy. Drew bought it totally. It got to the point where I'd be doing laundry when Drew was in high school, and I'd find little notes in his pants pockets. They'd say things like, 'I hustle on every play,' and 'I make extra effort on every play,' and 'I live by team rules,' and 'The team always comes first,' and 'I'm the first on the field and the last to leave.' "
"I believe," says Mac, "that in coaching and in teaching, kids have to find their own way. Kids win. Coaches don't. I'm not positive about this statistic, but in the 10 NCAA championship games coached by [UCLA's] John Wooden, he called timeout late in a game only once. His wizardry was during the week. Then he let his kids play. That's how Drew was raised. Players play, and players decide who wins."
At Walla Walla High, Drew played for a loud-mouthed disciplinarian named Gary Mires. Mac was an offensive assistant. The family believes that Drew benefited by going to Washington State because he could more easily be his usual, private self at the remote, rural school. And he could be in control of his football destiny at the same time, playing a big-time schedule without many of the big-time distractions. Drew became the first true freshman to start at quarterback for the Cougars since 1960, and his coach, Mike Price, made him a confident player from the start by giving him almost unlimited freedom to call audibles. "If I'm going to give him the power to win," Price said at the time, "I'm going to give him the power to lose, too. He can handle it."
Drew declared himself eligible for the NFL draft after his junior season—in which he was named a second-team All America—and by the time he got to New England in the summer of 1993, he had been exposed to the gentle, confidence-building coaching of his father, the abrasive and vocal coaching of Mires and the easygoing coaching of Price, who handed him the playbook and told him to use his head and find a way to win. As it turns out, these three men might have been the perfect pre-Patriot combination for Bledsoe.
At his home in suburban Bridgewater, Mass., Bledsoe takes a photograph off his refrigerator. The picture shows a skinny kid in white headband, sunglasses, white T-shirt and jeans, boogying in front of a bunch of other kids in white T-shirts. "That's me," he says. "I'm in ninth grade in Walla Walla, playing Jim McMahon in the Bears' Super Bowl Shuffle video. Can you believe it?"
Indeed, that was less than 10 years ago. You are instantly reminded of how young this accomplished athlete still is, and how daunting it must seem to him, at times, to be taking the field alongside his childhood heroes. Bledsoe nods. "Tell me about it. I was in fifth grade when Elway and Marino were drafted," he says.
Back in the '80s, followers of the Giants became accustomed to seeing a white-haired fellow standing close to Parcells. Mickey Corcoran, a longtime New Jersey high school coach, was Parcells's regular companion on the sidelines at training camp, walking with him through the bowels of Giants Stadium after practice, drinking coffee with him in hotels during road trips at 5:30 a.m. because Parcells couldn't sleep. "I couldn't have had a better mentor, a better guy to teach me the ropes in coaching," Parcells says.
In 1986, when the Giants were flying back to New Jersey after a crushing playoff loss to the Bears, Corcoran, seated next to Parcells on the charter, leaned over to him and said, "You—not management, not the players—have to find a way to beat these guys. Find a way to win."
In 1939, at St. Cecilia High in Englewood, N.J., 26-year-old Vince Lombardi coached football and basketball, and taught chemistry and Latin. One of his students and basketball players was a highly impressionable sponge named Mickey Corcoran. In the late '50s Corcoran, by then the varsity basketball coach at nearby River Dell High, had a forward named Bill Parcells.