One night in February 2005 changed Tedy Bruschi’s life forever.
The ESPN analyst, who was a Patriots linebacker at the time, remembers waking up in the middle of the night with a severe headache and numbness down the left side of his body. Having woken up in pain before — albeit, in retrospect, this time was different, he said — he went to the bathroom, took some Tylenol, and fell back asleep. He figured the discomfort was due to the prolonged football season that had just culminated with his third Super Bowl ring and first Pro Bowl appearance.
“I thought I’d sleep it off,” he told Boston.com.
Unbeknownst to him, Bruschi experienced two classic warning signs of a stroke.
It wasn’t until the third warning sign came the next morning, when he woke up and couldn’t see out of the left field of both of his eyes, that Bruschi realized something pretty serious was happening. He didn’t notice his five-year-old son T.J. had walked into the room until he flashed into his right field of vision. The startling moment prompted Bruschi’s wife, Heidi, to call 911.
“I was just wondering what was going on,” Bruschi said. “I didn’t panic or anything like that, but I was just really curious about what’s happening to me.”
Paramedics arrived at Bruschi’s home and rushed him to Massachusetts General Hospital. At 31, he was diagnosed with a mild stroke.
“My neurologist put his hand on my shoulder and said I’ve had a stroke,” Bruschi said. “That was really shocking for me. That’s not really a word you use when you’re 31 years old. I thought that was just for grandparents and the elderly. I had no idea that something like that could happen to me, that it was possible.”
Bruschi also learned he had a congenital heart defect, patent foramen ovale, that left a small hole in the wall separating the left and right atria of his heart. As a professional football player who had just completed his ninth NFL season — all with the Patriots — he wondered whether he was ever going to be the same on the field.
“You think about your career,” he said. “You think about if you’re able to play football again. You think about if you’re ever going to be the same person again, being a father, being a husband. All those thoughts are going through your mind at a million miles per hour. It’s a confusing time.”
Because every patient’s rehabilitation is different, doctors couldn’t offer Bruschi any guarantees about his health moving forward. The uncertainty caused him to contemplate retirement.
“I was really in a low place,” he said. “I actually went to go see coach [Bill] Belichick and told him that I’m retiring. At that time, my vision wasn’t even back. I still had to have surgery on my heart. I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m coming back to play.’”
But the recovery process for Bruschi was, in his own words, “fortunate, very fortunate.” His left side regained complete functionality, his eyesight returned after a month and a half or so, and the surgical procedure on his heart was successful.
Physically, he was fine.
The mental process of healing, however, took more time.
“I’m OK, but am I OK?” Bruschi said. “I’m back to being able to run again, but am I vulnerable? Those thoughts contradict themselves sometimes. You look good, you’re strong, you seem like you’re the same again, but am I broken inside? Those are the thoughts I had sometimes. Am I messed up inside? Is something wrong?”
In July of that year, the Patriots issued a statement announcing Bruschi would sit out the 2005-06 season — the path Belichick had advocated for when Bruschi first told him he intended to retire. Still skeptical about a comeback, Bruschi continued his rehab through the Patriots at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, where he gradually checked various boxes necessary for a return.
“My confidence began to come back as my body began to come back,” Bruschi said. “Then I started to think to myself, ‘Well, maybe this is possible.’”
Bruschi missed the first six games of New England’s season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. He returned to practice during the team’s bye week and made his season debut against the Buffalo Bills 11 days later at Gillette Stadium.
“I think one of the most surprised looks I had seen on coach Belichick’s face was when I told him I was ready to play again,” he said.
Doctors gave Bruschi assurances everything should be OK, but, with that word, “should,” worries crept into his mind, as he questioned if he was doing the right thing. In front of an overwhelmingly supportive sellout crowd, Bruschi recorded seven tackles and logged 70 defensive snaps — a number higher than he expected — in his first game back.
Throughout the remainder of the season, Bruschi still visited MGH every other week to check on the device in his heart. His constant thoughts wondering whether he was going to be the same were alleviated with each rep on the field. He finished the season with a forced fumble, two sacks, four pass deflections, and 62 tackles.
“I remember the first hit I had in practice, I literally stopped and told myself, ‘OK, I’m still alive,’” he said.
Bruschi played three more years before retiring in 2009. In his first full season following his stroke, he suffered a broken wrist during training camp — an injury that ended helped put any lingering doubts about his health to rest.
“I always wondered, ‘What’s going to happen, now that I’ve had a stroke, when I do get hurt again?’” he said. “Well, you’re just going to get hurt again, Tedy. I didn’t realize that.”
Though the effects of his stroke slowly had a diminishing effect on his day-to-day life, Bruschi felt an obligation to get involved. He and his wife partnered with the American Stroke Association (ASA), with hopes of sharing his story and educating others about the warning signs of strokes.
“Something that bothered me was that something was happening to me and I didn’t know what was happening,” he said.
The couple formed Tedy’s Team, which, now in its 14th year, is dedicated to raising awareness as well as supporting survivors and their families. The non-profit organization soon evolved into an endurance training team, with 49 runners participating in the 2019 Boston Marathon. (In its first year, the team had just five.) Listed as one of the Boston Athletic Association’s 36 official charities, Tedy’s Team has raised over $5 million for stroke and heart disease research.
Every runner is either a survivor or a caregiver.
“Between my wife Heidi and I, we can relate to every member of our team,” Bruschi said. “That’s why it’s so special to us.”
Bruschi said he tries to form a “team atmosphere” among the runners, organizing several group activities, including two visits to the TB12 Sports Therapy Center. The runners often train together, getting together on the course every Saturday and tackling hills every Wednesday.
This year’s race will be Bruschi’s third — and final — time running.
“I figured three rings, three medals, and then I’m done,” said Bruschi, who previously crossed the Boylston Street finish line in 2012 and 2014.
Now 45, Bruschi said he runs twice a week and balances his training with a little bit of weight lifting along with sessions on his wife’s Peloton. Prior to training for his first marathon, the longest distance he had run was just one mile.
“I started at a little over than one, then two, then three, then eventually you train your body to do something you’ve never done before,” he said. “I wouldn’t call myself a runner, but it’s something I enjoy to do to let [my team] know it’s not just something I formed and am making [them] do it.”
Tedy’s Team will host a pre-race “Night of Inspiration” on Saturday, before huddling up Monday morning by the startling line. Once all 26.2 miles are complete, they’ll head to the Lenox Hotel to celebrate.
“It’s given me an opportunity to learn and meet so many other stroke survivors of all ages, all walks of life,” Bruschi said. “It’s not only helped a lot of other people, but it’s helped me also realize that this happens. This happens. I’m — I don’t know if the word is fortunate — but for me to be able to let people know that it is possible to come back, and we all have different levels of our comeback, that’s a big part of Tedy’s Team.”