Thirteen seasons later, this is how Tedy Bruschi makes his last play: he walks. He leaves with pride and he leaves with dignity. He leaves behind a heart, body, and soul that he entrusted to no team but the Patriots and to no region but New England.
And so with Bruschi announcing his retirement this morning at Gillette Stadium, maybe it is time to take pause. Maybe there is still some loyalty in sports after all. Maybe a guy like Bruschi can come here, as he did in 1996, and play in six AFC Championship Games and five Super Bowls, winning three titles and appearing in one Pro Bowl. Maybe he can survive a stroke and declining skills. And maybe, at the end of it all, he can go out wearing the same uniform he wore in, an increasingly rare example of the company man who stood for principle and values more than he did the bottom line.
But then, we always knew Bruschi was old school, right down to the Ray Nitschke mentality and the genetic eye black.
"There's a sign when you come into this facility that says, 'Do your job.' I did my job for 13 years,í" Bruschi said. "Now my job is done. My job is done. Iím looking forward to living the rest of my life."
The Patriots turned another page today, folks. At roughly 10:45 a.m., Bruschi officially and formally handed the keys to Jerod Mayo, then began the rest of his life. Even the steely Bill Belichick got a little choked up. Bruschi went out the way Mike Vrabel did not, a Patriot from beginning to end, a man to whom Belichick and the Patriots were every bit as loyal as Bruschi was to them, even amid a decline in performance that was apparent to everyone.
Bruschi stayed. The Patriots kept him. A New England organization more businesslike than any in professional sports made obvious choices and sacrifices to accommodate a player who was, if nothing else, different.
Was Bruschi the best player ever to wear a Patriots uniform? No, no, no. But this is about so much more than that. These Patriots will forever go down as a team that belonged to Belichick and Tom Brady, though the clubís identity was formed just as much around people like Bruschi and Troy Brown. Those are the men who defined the Pats as much as anyone, smaller and less physically gifted players who brought a tireless spirit and a desire to win, the latter of which requires a selflessness and coachability that few players ever get credit for.
Every Sunday, from September 1996 through December 2008, the Patriots always could count on getting Bruschiís best, however good that was.
Along the way, lest anyone forget, Bruschi endured the kind of cataclysmic event that would have (should have?) ended most careers. It was shortly after the Patriotsí Super Bowl victory in 2005 when Bruschi suffered a stroke. Most everyone thought he would never play again. Bruschi missed training camp and opened the year on the physically unable to perform list, then made a celebrated return to the field on October 30 against the Buffalo Bills.
"This is something Iíve never done before -- jumping back in the seventh week," Bruschi said. "Itís just a process. I think it's gotten better as it's gone along. To tell the truth, right now I think I'm close. I can't say I'm all the way back because I believe in the process."
So here we are now, four years later, and Bruschi still believes in the process. The Patriots defense, in particular, has been in a transitional state for the last few years, from the secondary on up. The defensive backfield has completely turned over in the last two years. Now the linebacking corps has, too. Bruschi is one of the original cornerstone of this Patriots dynasty, the ground floors of which were built during the reign of Bill Parcells. He walks away now in good conscience, knowing he has given the Patriots everything he has, and that he can no longer give them enough.
Almost certainly, there was a process here. Maybe the Patriots told Bruschi he was no longer good enough. Maybe they didnít need to. In this case, the specifics do not really matter. Bruschi was one of the original Patriots who fostered the idea of togetherness, who believed in the players and the coach being on the same page, who believed in the good of the group and the parts being secondary to whole.
Tedy Bruschi now walks away proudly, the consummate playmaker making the final, decisive play.
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