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ON FOOTBALL

No doubt a difficult call to make

Many of you will be jumping to conclusions today.

You'll read the statement put out by the Patriots yesterday indicating that Tedy Bruschi will sit out the 2005 season, and you'll make the leap that he's retired from football. Don't do it. There's enough evidence he believes he can resurrect his career.

''It's a very personal decision," said longtime Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest. ''I've never pried into Tedy's business about it. I know how much he wanted to play, and whatever he decided he had to decide for his family."

Nobody would deny that Bruschi, 32, didn't make the right decision. He suffered a stroke 10 days after the Patriots won their third Super Bowl in four years.

He has three Super Bowl rings, made his first Pro Bowl appearance after last season, and has made a good amount of money. He's had more than a fulfilling career. When he calls it quits, he'll probably have a future as a coach or in television. With his family to think of, Bruschi probably leaned on them first and foremost for advice.

Now Bruschi has more time to gather information from health professionals about his condition. He'll have time to rest his body, which has been beaten and battered over 10 NFL seasons.

The Patriots haven't designated Bruschi's status, but what they decide could be telling. If he's on injured reserve, he's out for the season. If he's on the non-football-related injury list, that buys the team time to make a decision on him later in the season. He could even be placed on the physically unable to perform list, which gives Bruschi and the Patriots time to change their minds.

Team sources have told us that Bruschi will be paid his $850,000 salary.

Don't think Bruschi didn't agonize until the bitter end on this one. Think about how long this took. Think how many times he was asked what he was going to do and he genuinely had no answer.

Think about the number of doctors, the plethora of information Bruschi was given about his condition -- not only the stroke he incurred after flying back from the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, but the surgical procedure he had, according to a source close to Bruschi, to repair a hole in his heart.

Don't think for a minute that Bruschi didn't long to be suiting up in his No. 54 more now than in any season he's played football. Not only because he wanted to put aside what happened to him, but to defy the odds and prove you can be a professional football player even after having a stroke.

Who better than to defy such odds than a guy who was drafted as an undersized lineman (6 feet 1 inch, 247 pounds) out of the University of Arizona and used as a multifaceted role player under Bill Parcells in 1996 before he emerged as a heady, adrenaline-filled, gutsy, and instinctive player by the time coach Pete Carroll had taken over in '97?

Believe, too, that more than ever he wanted to bond with teammates again. Why do you think he spent so much time with them after the stroke? He worked out with them, acted like a guy who wanted back in. Newcomer Chad Brown, the linebacker who will essentially replace him, said as much during minicamp, indicating that he thought Bruschi was doing all of his work to play football again.

It's too bad we couldn't hear it from Bruschi rather than a statement from the team spokesman or an ambiguous quote from the head coach.

It's such a big story, such big news concerning a beloved player.

It was a story that needed a far more personal touch. The same touch that Bruschi gave to millions of Patriots fans, whose e-mails have flowed to this reporter since Feb. 16, the night Bruschi was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with a stroke.

Bruschi was in California yesterday, but he signed off on the press release. The Patriots reacted quickly to a New England Cable News report quoting a source saying it was 90 percent certain Bruschi would play this season.

The buzz from teammates and others around the game indicated Bruschi was leaning strongly toward giving it a go this season.

The only quote distributed yesterday came from Bill Belichick, who said, ''All offseason, we have seen and felt Tedy's strong and upbeat presence. As usual, we will keep the focus on the short term and address the future in due course. We are pleased Tedy continues to be part of the team and he has our complete support."

What we believe is that this story and Tedy Bruschi's career may not be over.

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