FOXBOROUGH -- Today certainly is not the first Thanksgiving for Tedy Bruschi, 32.
It is not the first Thanksgiving for Tedy Bruschi, Heidi's husband, or Tedy Bruschi, father of Tedy Jr., Rex, and Dante.
Nor is it the first Thanksgiving for Tedy Bruschi, 10-year veteran linebacker of the New England Patriots.
But today is the first Thanksgiving for Tedy Bruschi, stroke survivor.
''First and foremost, I'm thankful to be alive," Bruschi said yesterday, at times fighting his emotions as he stood in front of his locker at Gillette Stadium pondering the significance of today's holiday. ''From what I went through to where I am now, to have gotten my life back, to be able to see my kids every day . . . [I'm thankful for] every single thing.
''It's something to where I just feel fortunate. I feel fortunate that I can play this game that I love. I loved playing football before, but the feeling that I have out there now, it's magnified even more . . . Every day I wake up and thank God for the day that I'm alive."
And almost every day, he is reminded how much his return to football, less than nine months after suffering a stroke, means to his growing legion of fans. Stroke survivors and their family members have reached out to Bruschi in large numbers.
''When I read a letter or get an e-mail from a stroke survivor telling me that I'm an inspiration, it's a honor," Bruschi said. ''Because I've done a lot of things in my life, but one of the things I'm most proud of is when people write me and call me a stroke survivor.
''I realize I'll be looked at like that for the rest of my life, and I accept that. It's an honor to me that I can be some type of inspiration. The reception that I've gotten on the street or when people see me out in public is very flattering."
It carries over to the field, too, where Bruschi has played well since rejoining the team four games ago. Opponents have gone out of their way to welcome Bruschi back to the NFL or to tell him he is in their prayers. Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy sought out Bruschi after the game Nov. 7 to wish him well.
''I think every player in the league has rehabbed from maybe a knee or shoulder injury or something like that, so I think they understand what I went through a little bit," Bruschi said. ''For them, in the heat of the battle, helping me up saying, 'Nice to have you back Tedy,' . . ."
Of course, Bruschi notes the pats on the back do not come during play, which leads to his message to friendly foes.
''I appreciate you helping me up, and yes it's good to be back, but try and not hit me in the back next time," he said, laughing.
Emotions aside, Bruschi is yet to be the football player he was, and expects to be again.
After suffering vision and motor-skill problems after the stroke, Bruschi slowly recovered to full strength. His weightlifting and running regimen helped prepare him to return, but nothing could prepare one for the rigors of the NFL, except playing in games.
Bruschi admits he played his first game back against Buffalo on ''pure adrenaline."
''The emotions in that game, I can't equate that to any other game I've had before," Bruschi said. ''I don't think I ever felt emotionally that way on the field. That game was so emotional to my life . . . I was very happy to get that game done."
Bruschi felt ''fortunate" that his next outing was a Monday night game, providing an extra day of recovery time. He had nine tackles against the Colts, but they were mostly meaningless, as the Patriots were drilled, 40-21.
Using his progress against Miami and New Orleans the last two weeks as a barometer, Bruschi said he can feel himself headed toward starting to play as he did last season, when he earned his first Pro Bowl nod.
''This is the first time I've done this, jumping into the season in the seventh week, so it's been a little bit of a process and a little bit of a learning curve to see where I have to improve in areas of my game," he said. ''I'm feeling comfortable now, and it's time to really start making plays."
Though he doesn't have any interceptions or fumble recoveries, Bruschi's presence has been felt. He was aggressive against the Dolphins Nov. 13, flying over blockers to chase (though not catch) quarterback Gus Frerotte on several occasions, and he had a touchdown-saving pass breakup. He posted 10 tackles against the Saints last Sunday, as the Patriots put in one of their best efforts against the run this season.
More importantly, the Patriots won both games, starting their first winning streak of the season.
Bruschi is all about winning -- on the field and in life. Through the hardships of this year, he has found new victories.
Today is not the first day Tedy Bruschi has been thankful for the joys and blessings in his life. But it is the first Thanksgiving Day for which Tedy Bruschi, stroke survivor, will give thanks.
''Don't get me wrong when I say this, I want to win every time I go out there," Bruschi said. ''Every single snap, I want to have a tackle for a loss, get a sack, score a touchdown. I want to win every single game that I play. But in the back of my mind after every game, when I'm walking off the field, I realize that it's a victory for all the stroke survivors out there. Win or lose, it's a victory for stroke survivors. I realize the magnitude of what I'm doing.
''We'd have to sit down and talk about all I'm thankful for. I'd have to go through every single minute of my day. I'm thankful for every one of them, every single moment. Especially my children, my wife . . . if there's anyone in the locker room that realizes you need to be thankful for what you have, I think it's me."
Jerome Solomon can be reached at email@example.com