FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots have picked the perfect time to honor the man coach Bill Belichick called a “perfect player.”
The Patriots will honor former linebacker Tedy Bruschi at halftime of Monday night’s game, when New England will play the New York Jets for sole possession of first place in the AFC East. With 10 days off since both teams played on Thanksgiving, the game has been hyped like a regular-season Super Bowl, and the winner could be on its way to the real one in February.
“I look at these two teams as two teams that will be there in the end,” said Bruschi, who has been working as an analyst for ESPN. “We always talked about playing divisional games, when you have an opportunity to put a team behind you, take advantage of it.
“I think that’s what opportunity the Jets have right now is to get that, to get another victory versus the Patriots. You’d be putting a team in your division behind you and establishing a clear position in the driver’s seat of the division.”
And Bruschi will have a good view.
The 37-year-old Bruschi was never the most talented player on the field, but he was successful — and popular — beyond his skills because of an instinct to make plays and a work ethic that helped set the tone on teams that won five AFC championships and three Super Bowls.
During a halftime ceremony, Bruschi will have a chance to thank the fans, and vice versa.
“He will be eligible for the Patriots Hall of Fame in 2013,” Patriots spokesman Stacey James said. “And I am quite sure we will be honoring him again that year.”
A third-round draft choice from Arizona in 1996 who tied the Division I-A career sack record, Bruschi was moved to linebacker by the Patriots because of concern that he was too small to play defensive end in the pros. He went to the Super Bowl as a rookie, then became a mainstay of the New England teams that won three NFL titles in four years from 2002-05.
Ten days after his third Super Bowl title — and three days after his only Pro Bowl appearance — Bruschi was admitted to the hospital with numbness on his left side and blurry vision. He was diagnosed with a mild stroke; he had surgery for a hole in his heart, and he retired.
But he sat out less than a year before returning for the seventh game of the season, registering 10 tackles against the Buffalo Bills. The next year, while recovering from a broken wrist, he led the team in tackles for the first time in 2006; he did it again in ’07.
Bruschi finished with 189 regular-season games — the most of any linebacker in club history. In them, he recorded 1,134 tackles, 30 1/2 sacks and 12 interceptions, four of them for touchdowns.
When he retired for the second time, the usually robotic Belichick’s voice quavered and he called Bruschi “the epitome of everything you want in a football player.”
“We (didn’t) really know what to do with him,” Belichick said at the time. “All along the way he heard, ‘too small,’ ‘too slow,’ ‘too this,’ ‘too that,’ and just kept getting better and better and working harder and outworking and out-competing pretty much everybody that he faced.”
Even Jets coach Rex Ryan is a fan.
“Now I respect them, but I absolutely cheer against them,” said Ryan, whose brother, Rob, is a former Patriots assistant. “When my brother was there, then that was my second favorite team in football. … I’m a big fan of the guys that they had: Tom Brady, all those kind of guys, Vince Wilfork, absolutely. Was I a huge fan of Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Richard Seymour, Asante Samuel, all those guys? Yeah, absolutely, I was a huge fan of all those guys.”
The Patriots have retired seven numbers, for Gino Cappelletti (20), Mike Haynes (40), Steve Nelson (57), John Hannah (73), Bruce Armstrong (78), Jim Hunt (79) and Bob Dee (89). Although there is a push among some fans to retire Bruschi’s No. 54, there are no plans to do so.
And, anyway, he thinks a better honor would be to keep his number on the field.
“It was never really my goal to have my number retired,” he said last week in a conference call. “I wanted to win championships, and whatever came with that, so be it. … I would love to see a linebacker in the future wear No. 54 and perform well. I would love to see that.”
If he had his way, all the team’s retired numbers would be put back into circulation and the players would instead be honored with a “Ring of Fame” in the stadium. Then, the numbers would given to players who are worthy of being associated with their predecessor.
“(They should) realize the history of the number, and who wore that number before and the standard that they should try and uphold of past players,” Bruschi said. “To say that no player can ever wear No. 54 for the New England Patriots again, that’s sort of selfish. I think that other players deserve to know and realize what has gone on in the organization.”
One year at the Super Bowl, Bruschi said, linebacker Mike Vrabel wore No. 56 to honor former Patriot and recent Hall of Fame electee Andre Tippett. “That planted a seed in my head,” Bruschi said.
“That’d be cool if another player wore 56,” he said. “If I went in there as a rookie and was given a number like that, it would help me remember some of the past players that have played before with that number, some of the great linebackers or offensive linemen, all the numbers that are retired. I think it would add a sense of history to the team and more responsibility to some of the players that would realize what number they’re wearing.”
Other than that, Bruschi only wants one thing on Monday: a few snowflakes, to bring back the memory of the game-winning touchdown he scored after intercepting a pass against Miami in 2003 during a weekend blizzard. Fans celebrated by tossing snowballs in the air in synchronization with the public address music.
“That’s just the way I’ve always felt most comfortable in that stadium, is when the snow came down. I just knew we were going to win when it snowed in Gillette, in Foxborough,” Bruschi said. “I think snow would be a perfect touch. My kids might not like it, but I’ve got them coming in heavy-duty winter gear, so a little bit of snow would be nice.”