Though Bruschi lacked a natural position, Patriots linebackers coach Al Groh (now the coach at Virginia) wanted him. When Bruschi got the phone call at his apartment on draft day, he was stunned. "I hear, 'Tedy, this is Bill Parcells. We're going to try you at linebacker. Here's Al Groh,'" Bruschi says. "And that was that. I was terrified."
During his rookie season Bruschi was tried at all three linebacker positions in Parcells's 4--3, and, of course, he made himself useful on special teams. "It took me almost two years not to laugh when I called myself a linebacker," says Bruschi, who played primarily in passing situations during his first year. "But I was scared. Learning the position was the hardest thing I'd ever done. I'd never played a down without my hand [in a three-point stance]. I was dropping into pass coverage on handoffs. I didn't know what I was seeing. I didn't know how to study film--and I was making [some of the] defensive calls. I was just hanging on."
When Pete Carroll replaced Parcells after Bruschi's rookie season--which ended with a Super Bowl loss to the Green Bay Packers--Bruschi started to relax and finally felt comfortable while playing inside; in 1999 he was second on the team with 138 tackles. Belichick, who had served as New England's secondary coach in '96, returned as coach in 2000, and Bruschi became a force. "Bill wanted us to be physical, always physical," Bruschi says. "For me, that meant attacking the roaming guards. I'd never done that, but I just went for it. Most places, they ask you to run around guys to the ball. Here, we go through guys."
For all his ferocity on the field, what fans don't see--and what teammates appreciate--is his sense of humor and his kindness. He's also a doting husband and father, in part because he finally came to feel like a loving, and beloved, son. In April 2000, after years of disagreements, Tony persuaded Tedy and Heidi to visit him in his hometown of Pontestrambo, Italy, to which he had returned in the late '90s. "It was a self-exploratory experience Tedy needed," says Heidi. "And they both got closure. They fixed the relationship."
While in Italy, Heidi learned she was pregnant with Tedy Jr. The following December, Tony returned to the U.S. to see his newborn grandson, but it was the last time he would be together with Tedy and his family. Shortly thereafter Tony died from prostate cancer. "I'm just happy he got to see my son," says Tedy, his voice catching.
"I have no doubt that Tedy's the dad to his kids that he wished he'd always had," Heidi says. "He's available and he's interested in them." At team functions Bruschi shoots video of all the players' children and delivers DVDs of the events to amazed teammates the next day. He no longer watches game tape at home; instead he stays late at the club's practice facility. "I'm all theirs when I'm home," he says of his time with the boys. "If I'm thinking of work at home, I'm cheating my family."
He credits Heidi with his transformation from Tucson party boy to North Attleboro family man. "She makes me want to be better," he says. "I can't imagine a better partner." To the chagrin of teammates, he sets the bar awfully high. He sends flowers with such frequency that his calls to the Foxborough Flower Garden are met with, "What's Heidi getting this week?" Usually, it's her favorite, stargazer lilies, even though their aroma is so pungent that it gives him headaches. "Or on the morning after a game," says Heidi, who delivered their third child, son Dante, on Jan. 3, "after moaning and tossing and turning all night from the pain from Sunday's game, he'll sneak out of bed at 6:30 and let me sleep in because it's the one morning he can [assist with the kids]. It's small, but it's so loving. He wants to help."
Now, when Bruschi thinks of his father, he recalls bits and pieces of Tony's wisdom and appreciates "how much raising my dad actually did," he says. "I hear him all the time now. It's funny, but he was the first one who told me I'd play middle linebacker in the pros. Guess I should've listened to him."
Bruschi is sitting in Luciano's, an Italian restaurant a few miles south of Gillette Stadium. He takes a last sip of cranberry juice and excuses himself, exchanges greetings with a few admiring patrons and slips out a side door. There are little Bruschis waiting for him at home, small and ferocious, and always coming back for more.