"Well, they wanted Tom Brady to be their quarterback."
Stuart paused to digest that idea. "Well," he demanded, "what color are the Bills?"
Two days later the kids found out when a box of Bills jerseys, hats and other goodies arrived in Whitefish, courtesy of coach Gregg Williams and team owner Ralph Wilson. The following day Wilson sent an even more impressive offering—his plane, stocked with a traveling party that included Williams and club president Tom Donahoe. The jet whisked away Drew and Maura, stopping in Detroit to pick up Wilson before shuffling off to Buffalo, where Bledsoe was treated like Grace Kelly returning to Monaco, or Jim Kelly returning from anywhere.
The affection was decidedly mutual. If Bledsoe wasn't initially thrilled with the prospect of moving to western New York and playing for a team that wheezed to a 3-13 record in Williams's maiden season, he had warmed to it by last Thursday, when he and Maura embarked on a flash real estate tour. "It's really, really nice to be wanted," Drew said as the couple tramped through the backwoods of a 45-acre property. "My impression of playing here is more positive now. To see how friendly people are, and how fanatical they are about their football team, is pretty inspiring."
Bledsoe, who turned .30 on Valentine's Day, is smart enough to realize that the love is conditional. For one thing he hasn't yet thrown his first interception for a team still reeling from the Rob Johnson era. The 6'5", 240-pound Bledsoe also understands as well as anyone how quickly things can change in the NFL. Fourteen months ago, after signing a 10-year, $103 million extension with the Patriots, Bledsoe heard team owner Robert Kraft compare him to New England sports legends Ted Williams, Bill Russell and Larry Bird. Think about what has gone down since then: Bledsoe suffered a sheared blood vessel in a game last September and was rushed to the hospital, where family members prayed for his survival; he lost his job to Brady, the second-year quarterback who led the Patriots to their first Super Bowl crown; and now, thanks to the first-round pick in the 2003 draft that the Bills sent to their AFC East rivals to acquire him, Buffalo Drew gets to face his old team twice a season.
Upon closer inspection the Bills don't look as feeble as one might expect. Bledsoe will have prime targets in superstar-in-waiting Eric Moulds and Peerless Price—Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning called Bledsoe after the trade to send a shout out for Price, his former Tennessee teammate—and an improved line featuring rookie tackle Mike Williams, the fourth pick in the draft, and former Denver Broncos tackle Trey Teague, a free-agent signee. "Hey, he's going to a good team," says Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel. "I see Buffalo as a team on the verge, like we were last year [coming off a 5-11 season]. He might not enjoy Buffalo, but he'll enjoy playing for Buffalo."
Bills fans have greeted Bledsoe's arrival with bloated expectations, as evidenced by the 1,500 season tickets the team sold in the first four days after the trade. Consider a poll conducted last week by a local TV station, which asked respondents how Buffalo would do in 2002: 60% said the Bills would at least make the playoffs; 7% predicted they'd get to the Super Bowl and lose (a franchise speciality), and 14% said they'd win it all. "I love that," Bledsoe says. "For sure, I expect us to be a playoff team, too."
What Bledsoe didn't expect was the reaction to his visit last week. A media throng greeted him at the airport, where he and Maura were ushered into a white SUV stretch limo. "We were giggling the whole way," says Maura, who met Drew when they were students at Washington State. The Bledsoes got their greatest thrill upon arriving at the Bills' facility at Orchard Park, where they were serenaded by a marching band's rendition of the Wazzou fight song.
It got funnier. Shortly before Bledsoe's press conference in the team's cavernous field house, Bills vice president of communications Scott Berchtold announced to the large crowd of reporters and well-wishers, "The governor [ George Pataki] will not be attending." You half expected him to add, "But Rudy Giuliani will be here, right after Sting performs."
Kelly, the beloved former Bills passer who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer, did show up, as did a couple of thousand fans for a welcome rally outside the facility. Gregg Williams had already done plenty to make Bledsoe feel at home during the three hours they spent together on the flight east. Bledsoe, coached in New England by Bill Parcells, Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick, said it was the longest and most focused conversation he has had with any of his NFL head coaches. In addition to Bledsoe's obvious credentials—arm to die for; 29,657 passing yards; three Pro Bowl seasons, though none since 1997—Williams loves the quarterback's toughness.