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Football Notes

Last call for Bruschi tales

Linebacker’s career was one to savor

TEDY BRUSCHIPassion for game TEDY BRUSCHIPassion for game
By Mike Reiss
September 6, 2009

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How about a few leftover Bruschis?

After all that was eloquently said last week at the first-class sendoff for Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, here are a few parts of his life and career that shouldn’t be left out:

Modest beginnings. Bruschi seldom discussed with reporters his early years, but when he did, it was clear how they shaped his identity. Born in San Francisco, he grew up in a rough-edged area of the city where there was no backyard, only a community circle of grass that was hardly big enough for pickup football games. Bruschi loved to play “street ball,’’ dodging would-be tacklers while also being careful not to trip or turn an ankle on the sprinkler heads that popped up from the ground. Last Monday, Bruschi spoke about how NFL game days were an “explosion of passion’’ for him, and that passion was born on that circle of grass.

East-West Game catapulted him into the NFL. Bruschi’s production at Arizona was impressive, his 52.5 sacks tying Derrick Thomas’s NCAA Division 1 record. Yet as NFL teams prepared for the 1996 draft, many had a hard time projecting him as a defensive end because of his size. The Patriots’ personnel department was led by Bobby Grier that year, and momentum started building to select Bruschi after the East-West all-star game, in which he shined. Bruschi and the Colorado State duo of Brady Smith and Sean Moran were part of the discussion, but Grier liked Bruschi, envisioning the Patriots integrating him into the mix with a “Bruschi package’’ that would initially have him on the field on third downs.

Football just sort of happened. After his family moved to the Sacramento suburb of Roseville when he was 13, Bruschi was attending freshman orientation and bumped into two classmates who urged him to try out for the football team. Everyone else showed up with cleats and other gear, while Bruschi had tennis shoes and a T-shirt. Classic Bruschi. Once practice started, Bruschi didn’t know where to go. Coach Don Hicks pointed to the linemen, and that’s how Bruschi found his position. The Sacramento Bee noted that Bruschi’s career almost never started, because his mother wanted him to remain in the school band (Bruschi still plays the saxophone). Now the weight room at Roseville High is named after Bruschi.

The initial phone call from the Patriots - short but sweet. Bruschi once laughed when reflecting on the call he got when he was drafted. Then-coach Bill Parcells kept it short, saying only: “Bruschi, we’re going to put you at linebacker. Here’s Al Groh.’’ Then the phone was handed to Groh, the linebackers coach, and Bruschi’s transition from defensive end to linebacker was under way. Bill Belichick later explained that Bruschi - who earned his lone Pro Bowl berth in 2004 - had come about as far as a player could in learning a new position and turning into the “perfect player.’’

A bond with his brother Tony. At the end of his opening remarks Monday, Bruschi saluted his older brother “who always gave those pushes when needed’’ while mentioning the similarities between them. The Bruschi brothers have always had each others’ backs, sharing in some of Tedy’s most thrilling highs as a player. Tony once recalled his brother crying at his last high school game and his last college game, because he didn’t know whether he’d play again. Then there was the great moment after the Super Bowl win over the Rams, when Bruschi looked at his brother and told him he’d made it. The power of his words, and the memory of the modest beginnings they shared, brought Tony to tears.

Negotiating his contracts. Unlike most players, Bruschi went through a handful of contract negotiations without an agent, negotiating the deals himself. He hired an agent, Boston-based Brad Blank, only after his stroke in 2005. Bruschi once explained his approach by saying he was comfortable to sit at the negotiating table and work things out because the Patriots treated him with respect. His intensity struck former Packers negotiator Andrew Brandt on a free agent visit in 2000, as did his honesty. Bruschi told Brandt that even if the Packers offered more money, he was unlikely to sign with them.

Stephens made an impression

Former Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan remembers a practice early in 1988 when he handed the ball off to rookie running back John Stephens.

“I can still see it in my mind, him running over [safety] Fred Marion, and thinking to myself ‘I might be able to play another 10 years with this guy behind me,’ ’’ Grogan recalled.

Many had high hopes for Stephens after watching him during his rookie season in ’88, when he earned a Pro Bowl berth after rushing for 1,168 yards. But Stephens never duplicated the production again.

Stephens, 43, died in a one-car accident in Louisiana last Tuesday.

After digesting the somber news, Grogan focused on that terrific ’88 season and the dynamic Stephens brought to an offense that included receivers Irving Fryar and Stanley Morgan, and had up-and-coming Bruce Armstrong as a powerful presence at right tackle.

Stephens formed a 1-2 punch with Robert Perryman.

“They were a good, young backfield together - Perryman was more of a fullback-type inside power runner, and John was the guy with speed to run by people, but also the power to run over people,’’ Grogan said. “That was a formidable backfield.’’

Stephens was the team’s first-round draft choice out of Northwestern (La.) State that year. After his stellar rookie year, his career headed downward, with some questioning his commitment.

Last week, though, people just wanted to talk about his positive contributions.

“At first, I’m not sure anybody really knew who he was - you were looking at a running back out of a small school,’’ Grogan said. “But it didn’t take too many days with pads on to figure out he had a blend of power and speed combined that we hadn’t seen in quite some time.’’

Kiwanuka puts seven points on the board

Seven questions for Giants defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka of Boston College:

What have been some of the differences with the Giants under new coordinator Bill Sheridan instead of Steve Spagnuolo?

“Steve’s presence, and the energy he brought to this team, is definitely going to be missed. When you’re talking about a guy like Bill Sheridan, the guy knows football. I had a chance to play for him as a linebacker last year and he knows the X’s and O’s and we’re excited to see what kind of things he is going to come up with.’’

How is this defense different?

“We have some new faces. We acquired Rocky [Bernard] and Chris Canty, so from a D-line perspective, we have all the firepower that we could ever need or ever ask for. It’s just a matter of putting it together.’’

You’ve rotated between linebacker and defensive end early in your NFL career. Are you in a more permanent spot now?

“I’m back at defensive end. I’ve done a lot of things in the past. This year, I’ll be a straight rush defensive end. Last year, I was a linebacker until the end of preseason when Osi [Umenyiora] went down, so it was a year and a half at linebacker.’’

Do you feel more of a comfort level at defensive end?

“Definitely. That’s what I’ve been doing since I’ve been in high school. But just being on the field is my No. 1 goal, so I’m ready to do anything.’’

In what areas do you feel you’re a better player this year?

“Technique things. Going into last year, I was a linebacker until Week 1, so there were a lot of things I had to learn on the fly and get rehashed out. This year, having the entire offseason to work as a defensive end, it helped my technique and my reading of certain plays, which can be better.’’

Thoughts on your alma mater, Boston College?

“I’m always keeping tabs on them. The first thing is [Mark] Herzlich, and I feel deeply for his family and what he is going through. As far as the team goes, I’m just excited to see them get out there and get going.’’

What has been the part of NFL life that stands out to you over the last four years?

“How much fun it still is. You might think because you’re playing so long that it might get old, but every game is definitely a great atmosphere, and every practice is a challenge. It’s still exciting.’’

Etc.

First and five
Five thoughts from around the NFL: 1. It wasn’t a good week to be an offensive coordinator, as Chan Gailey (Chiefs), Jeff Jagodzinski (Buccaneers), and Turk Schonert (Bills) were relieved of their duties. That’s unprecedented before a regular-season game is even played; 2. Part of the reason the Bills’ no-huddle offense has sputtered is the offensive line. They might not have the personnel up front to run the scheme; 3. In their final preseason game, the Patriots rested their starters, while the Giants played their first-stringers briefly, their reasoning being that they didn’t want a 15-day layoff in which their starters could get rusty; 4. Smart move by Broncos coach Josh McDaniels to stop wearing a gray hoodie. He needs to carve out his own identity, and public perception is powerful; 5. It’s a good thing Matt Cassel is an adept scrambler, because he’ll need to be quick on his feet playing behind a spotty Chiefs offensive line.

I’ve got a secret
First-year Browns coach Eric Mangini is not revealing his decision on a starting quarterback - Brady Quinn or Derek Anderson. The Browns host the Vikings next Sunday, and Mangini, looking for every possible advantage, sees a benefit in making Minnesota prepare for both quarterbacks. Many believe the choice will be Quinn.

Family feud
If what happened to the Panthers last week occurred with a higher-profile team like the Cowboys, it would have been headline-grabbing news. But it seemed few took notice when owner Jerry Richardson’s sons - team president Mark Richardson and stadium president Jon Richardson - resigned. The Charlotte Observer reported that there had been conflicts between the brothers for years. While the situation shouldn’t affect on-field performance, it was a bombshell on the business side for what had been viewed as one of the NFL’s most stable franchises over the last decade.

Daft picks
In a statistic that reflects the talent drain in Detroit, only one player remains on the active roster from former general manager Matt Millen’s drafts from 2002-06: linebacker Ernie Sims. That’s one out of 39 draft picks. One other, safety Daniel Bullocks, is on injured reserve. The NFL has seen its share of quick turnarounds, but the mess in Detroit is going to take more time to clean up.

Capers’s caper
The Packers are encouraged by the early returns from their switch to a 3-4 scheme under first-year coordinator Dom Capers, with Capers putting together a playbook that some players say is more than 500 pages. Capers hopes the attack-based scheme creates hesitation in opposing offenses because of the possibility of any of the 11 players on the field rushing the passer at any time.

Draw play
While Brett Favre’s back-and-forth retirement act gets old fast, he still remains a powerful draw. Consider that the “Monday Night Football’’ broadcast between the Vikings and Texans was ESPN’s highest-rated preseason game since 1996.

In line for a challenge
The Jaguars are planning to start first-round draft choice Eugene Monroe at left tackle and second-rounder Eben Britton at right tackle, and they’ll be tested right off the bat. The Jaguars visit the Colts a week from today, which means speedy edge rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis await. No time for rookie orientation.

Patriot games
Four Patriots nuggets: 1. Quarterback Brian Hoyer joins Randall Gay (2004), Mike Wright (2005), Pierre Woods (2006), and Gary Guyton (2008) as rookie free agents who surprisingly made the roster in their first training camp; 2. While Ron Brace looks like solid value as a second-round pick, some teams shied away from him because of concerns about his back; 3. Even though the 53-man roster was set yesterday, if history is any indication, the Patriots will be tweaking things in the coming days; 4. The Patriots have just two quarterbacks on the roster, and while things might stay that way in the short term, it’s hard to imagine they would take such a risk over the long haul.

Chief concerns
Scott Pioli has a daunting task in trying to turn the Chiefs into a winner, and the early signs point to significant growing pains. In addition to a roster with limited talent, the Chiefs face a brutal first half of their schedule, which includes four straight games against NFC East teams in Weeks 3-6. The NFC East is considered by many to be the best division in football.

Snapping to it
Local guy Zak DeOssie has added field-goal snapping to his punt-snapping duties this year after Jay Alford injured his knee, and that has reduced his work at linebacker with the Giants. DeOssie took advantage of the team’s trip to Gillette Stadium last week, visiting his alma mater, Brown. “I just feel a lot more comfortable now,’’ he said of life in the NFL. “I can’t believe it’s already been three years.’’

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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