He is outnumbered again, staring down a menacing double team. If it?s fair to say a man?s work is never done, then right here--at the backdoor to his house, after several hours of trading blows and barbs with his New England Patriots teammates-- Tedy Bruschi?s long day isn?t over yet. When the two young boys lunge at him, chirping with delight, Bruschi sees himself in their tiny faces and hears his own father?s words: Get the ball, Tedy. Go get the ball. Those words, which were sometimes said in derision, have motivated Bruschi since he was a child. � The Bruschi boys set upon their dad again and jog him from his reverie, throwing themselves at him over and over. Later, as he is recounting this scene, Bruschi couldn?t be happier. ?My boys are just like me: really physical,? Bruschi says of Tedy Jr., 4, and Rex, 2. ?Every day it?s a big tackle-athon. I love it. They never quit. They play just like their dad--and just like their dad?s team.?
While the Pittsburgh Steelers (15?1) are the AFC?s nouveau power and the Philadelphia Eagles (13?3) are the class of the NFC, the NFL playoffs remain the domain of the defending champion New England Patriots (14?2). Winners of 29 of their last 31 games (including the postseason), the Pats have a first-round bye before beginning their quest for a third Super Bowl win in four seasons with a divisional-round game on the weekend of Jan. 15?16. New England is the league?s model franchise because each player, no matter his position or cap figure, embraces coach Bill Belichick?s team-first philosophy. ?I know one thing,? says Bruschi, 31, a New England linebacker for nine years. ?I was meant to play with these 52 guys, for this coach, in this system.?
Indeed, Bruschi seems the picture-perfect Patriot. Hard-nosed and a vocal leader, Bruschi (pronounced BREW-ski, to the joy of beer-swilling, pigskin-loving New Englanders) is admired for his toughness and loyalty to an organization that risked a third-round draft choice on him in 1996, when he was an undersized defensive end out of Arizona. And long before Pats defensive tackles lined up as fullbacks and wideout Troy Brown intercepted three passes as a part-time cornerback, Bruschi?s versatility was celebrated. Too small, at 6'1" and 245 pounds, to play end in the NFL, he learned three linebacker positions in two schemes under three coaches. Though unheralded in a conference that features the Baltimore Ravens? Ray Lewis and the Miami Dolphins? Zach Thomas, he has become an All-Pro?caliber inside linebacker and routinely makes game-breaking plays.
But to understand a player so humble that he wonders aloud who would ever read an article about him, ask Bruschi what he considers to be his most important contribution each week. ?Punt team,? he says, not missing a beat. ?The punt?s the most important play in a game. So many things can happen: a turnover, a score, a big change in field position. My college coach, Dick Tomey, told me he didn?t care who I was--he needed me on punt team. So I covered punts, and still do. I love covering punts.?
Says New England linebacker Mike Vrabel, ?Everybody needs a Tedy Bruschi, but good luck finding one. It?s impossible to put value on everything the guy does. When he walks into a meeting or a huddle, he brings instant credibility. He?s been productive for so long, even though he?s had to switch positions. He?s everything for this team.?
This year Bruschi finished with 122 tackles, second best on the team, and 31?2 sacks for the NFL?s ninth-ranked defense. But for all his fundamental strengths, it?s his knack for making the big play that sets him apart. ?Their defense isn?t the same without him,? says New York Jets center Kevin Mawae. ?He plays 100 miles an hour. He makes plays that are unbelievable.?
In pass coverage Bruschi reads the quarterback as well as any other linebacker, and that anticipation enables him to jump underneath passing routes. His soft hands allow him to catch many of those throws, and his speed makes him a threat to return interceptions for big gains and points. ?When we drafted him [as a linebacker], everybody knew that he could rush the passer, play the run, that he was tough as hell,? says Belichick. ?But his anticipation, his ball skills, after never dropping into coverage in his life.... He?s just tremendous.? Indeed, over a span covering parts of the 2002 and ?03 seasons, Bruschi set an NFL record by returning four consecutive interceptions for touchdowns.
Ask the Patriots which of Bruschi?s plays is the most memorable, and the vote is unanimous. On Dec. 7, 2003, with New England holding a 3?0 fourth-quarter lead over Miami and the Dolphins taking over at their four-yard line, Jay Fiedler threw a dart into the flat that Bruschi, standing just a few yards away, stabbed out of the air. His waltz into the end zone followed by a slide on his knees set off a celebration during which Patriots fans tossed snow and turned Gillette Stadium into a winter wonderland as they celebrated the franchise?s clinching of the AFC East. ?Any other linebacker in the league knocks that ball down,? says New England special teams ace Larry Izzo. ?But Tedy caught the damn thing and then scored. Impossible.?
?When he made that play,? adds linebacker Roman Phifer, ?we all got a sense that maybe we were something special.? They were, indeed: The 12?0 victory was the ninth straight in a winning streak that stretched to an NFL-record 21 games before a 34?20 loss in Pittsburgh on Oct. 31.
?Everyone can make a big play,? says Bruschi. ?It?s all about that moment, that split second, when you decide what you are going to do: Are you going to just knock the pass down, or will you catch it? Are you going to sack the quarterback, or will you force the fumble? You need time [in the NFL] to build to a level where you know what you can do with your talent. It took me years just to get comfortable.?