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Inside friendship

LBs Bruschi, Vrabel have a special bond

FOXBOROUGH -- Three weeks into his Patriots career, Mike Vrabel was already a tattletale.

Tedy Bruschi had slipped in a drill in which he was supposed to drop into coverage, which wouldn't have been a problem, except the coaches thought Vrabel had erred. And Vrabel, the newcomer in a veteran linebacker group that also included Willie McGinest and Ted Johnson, made sure the coaches knew it wasn't him.

"He was steaming, like I had sold him out to the coaches or something for him slipping," Vrabel said, with a laugh. "We always kind of go back to that point. He won't let me live that down."

Said Bruschi, "He caught on pretty quick about how tight-knit we are here. His little baptism by fire."

Vrabel, who never started a game in his four years in Pittsburgh, arrived in Foxborough with little indication that he would blossom into a team captain and mainstay. Bruschi, meanwhile, already had found his place in the Patriots defense, starting every game for two seasons and working his way into the hearts of New Englanders.

Vrabel and his wife, Jen, had come to Boston unsure of what to expect. Jen hadn't been completely comfortable in Pittsburgh, feeling she and Mike were in a different place than many of the other families on the Steelers.

But the Patriots were different. The Bledsoes reached out to the Vrabels, as did a number of the other couples on the team.

But, among all of them, the Bruschis -- Tedy and Heidi -- stood out. Still do.

"I think everybody would consider a teammate a friend, but then I think that you have people that you know a lot better and really can rely on," Vrabel said. "You can't rely on 60 guys to say, 'Hey, I've got this going on,' or 'What would you do here?' Tedy is certainly at the top of the list of who I would go to."

Not that it's all sunshine and rainbows around the linebackers. The two, like any fast friends, still have the occasional kink to work out in a tight relationship that has them spending long hours with each other. Or, as Jen said, "A lot of their friendship I don't think Heidi and I get to see. They're together every day for hours and road trips. He's with Tedy more than he sees the kids or me."

That's usually good. But not always.

"The way he's able to keep things light around here, it's really something that makes it fun to come to work," Bruschi said, before adding, with a laugh, "Then, at the same time, sometimes he gets on my nerves.

"That's friendship. It's not going to be a lovefest the whole time. Sometimes I feel like punching him in the face. I don't know if he feels the same way about me sometimes, but that's the way it goes."

Family relationship
As lighthearted and laugh-filled as the relationship can be -- witness the podium Bruschi recalled pushing in front of Vrabel's locker after a 2003 game against the Browns in which Vrabel had a career-high three sacks -- their bond runs much deeper.

When Bruschi suffered a stroke shortly after the Patriots won their third Super Bowl and wasn't sure he'd ever feel the camaraderie of a locker room again, he shared his feelings with few people. Vrabel was one of them.

"When I was coming back from my stroke, he was the guy that I would talk to, would confide in," Bruschi said. "One of my close friends. [He] would help me deal with a lot of things I had to deal with coming back.

"I would say it's unique because it isn't everyone on the team that you'd say post-football-world you'd still be in contact with. But definitely, Mike and Jen Vrabel are two people that my family will still be in contact with."

While the families don't see each other as often as they used to -- even as often as last year -- they already have a dinner planned for this week. It's hard, Jen said, with kids and work and school and everything crashing down on them, easier to visit with friends in their neighborhood than make the drive from Easton to North Attleborough to see each other, especially after Vrabel and Bruschi have already spent hours together in meetings and practices.

That changes nothing, though.

"I know Mike and Tedy are inseparable," said Jen, who sits with Heidi at home games. "They're not so much alike. Mike's, I think, the goofball. I don't know if it's that they're different. I think Tedy holds back Mike from being too obnoxious at meetings. [Mike] just really respects him.

"I think they get a kick out of each other."

They seem to think so, too. And even though visits during the season have dwindled this year, Bruschi has found the time to travel to Ohio twice to visit Vrabel, and golf trips to Florida and a Tom Brady-sponsored Kentucky Derby trip last year are highlights from their list. When the pads are off, the bonding -- and the ribbing -- really begins.

"We play golf in April, so everybody's terrible," Vrabel said (though Bruschi said Vrabel's game is much better than his). "Everybody's ultracompetitive, but everybody is terrible because nobody has played. I don't play golf in Ohio leading up to April, and he doesn't play golf up here. We all get together and we're all very excited about playing golf in Florida, but everybody's terrible. We're all sunburnt and tired and miserable, but we're having a good time."

It's not just their golf trips or pranks, it's their talks; the ones that range from football to family -- Vrabel has two sons, Bruschi three, all around the same age -- to sports to plans past retirement. They lead to the pipe dream, the one with a hint of reality, in which the pair ponder the fun of being head coach and assistant together at one of their alma maters, though it would be mighty hard to pull the Vrabels to Tucson -- "too hot," Mike says -- or the Bruschis to Columbus.

They talk of the latest Christmas presents to the best ways to raise kids to be unaffected by the wealth of their fathers.

And, most important, it's their honesty with each other.

"He can joke with me about certain things that other people can't," Bruschi said. "That's the type of relationship we have. Certain things I'm real serious about and friends don't joke with me about. I give him leeway that I don't give to other people.

"I think that it's easier for me and for him to tell me if I was wrong on a certain play. Even when I'm right, he can tell me I was wrong and I'll accept that. I can do the same with him. We can be blunt with each other."

Totally in synch
Now in their sixth season together, the linebackers have grown to the point where their communication on the field mirrors their communication off it.

"I think that relationship has become almost like an eye-contact thing," Vrabel said. "This year, moving back inside, we still got that same communication and that same kind of look. You've got the back, I've got the tight end, or however it's going to go. There's not a whole lot of conversation that needs to go on to get our point across."

Squarely in the middle of a group of veteran linebackers -- each of the current starters, Vrabel, Bruschi, Rosevelt Colvin, and Tully Banta-Cain, has been with the Patriots for at least four seasons -- the captains and friends don't need to slow down the game by spelling out their plans. Usually, that bit of eye contact or a subtle hand signal does the trick.

"You see it," linebacker Don Davis said. "You can tell when a couple of guys are really in synch. Those two have been around each other for a while. They talk some of the same languages."

From their seats in Gillette Stadium, Jen and Heidi see that when they notice a shot of their husbands on the JumboTron, talking and laughing. They know what Bruschi acknowledges -- that without someone to relate to at this stage of their career, football could become monotonous. But it hasn't.

The winning -- and the friendship -- have taken care of that.

And it's that part, the on-field accomplishments that have reached gaudy levels since Vrabel joined the team in 2001, that Bruschi cites as the most rewarding. Partly because it's hard to argue with winning three Super Bowls. Partly because it's hard to argue with winning three Super Bowls with one of your closest friends.

"You think of the time off the field, but especially it's just the success we've had as a tandem," Bruschi said. "Him and I have been somewhat of a constant back there in the linebacking crew. There have been some linebackers that have come and gone and who we'll always remember.

"But it seems like there's always No. 50 and there's always No. 54."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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