FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Mark Brunell and Drew Bledsoe have had their moments this year, but Tedy Bruschi has to be a shoo-in for Comeback Player of the Year, right? I say he had it in the bag the moment he walked onto the field at Gillette Stadium on Sunday night. And not for the final goodbye or halftime tribute that many thought would be the next time we'd see him on a football field but in full uniform, playing again, almost nine months after suffering a minor stroke and undergoing surgery to repair a hole in his heart.
Minor or otherwise, a stroke is a big deal, and if recovering from it weren't enough in and of itself, Bruschi maybe missed a dozen defensive plays all night, plus he was out there for punts and kickoff returns. You just don't go from the physically-unable-to-perform list to performing on the highest level of professional football. The man was in the starting lineup at inside linebacker and made seven tackles (five assists, two solo) against an opponent that already had played seven games -- after he had officially participated in only seven practices. Buffalo had the ball for more than 39 minutes, and I'd say Bruschi was on the field for 34.
You're just not supposed to be able to do that.
Bruschi believed the unbelievable, attacked his circumstances like the "A" gap on third-and-short. His faith in himself is the only reason he's been able to accomplish the unthinkable: Suffer a stroke and return to living a normal lifestyle, which for him isn't at all normal. Bruschi bangs his head against other men's body parts for a living. With three Super Bowl rings and a Pro Bowl selection, he could have quit doing so. But he didn't -- couldn't -- because those violent collisions and making plays that impact football games are what make him feel alive. To him, walking away was a greater risk to his well-being than tackling 230-pound running backs.
"We've all gone through things in our lives," Bruschi said after New England's 21-16 victory over the Bills. Oh yes, there was an actual game. Bruschi's return was by far the biggest story of the night. That it was a key AFC East game took a back seat. This exhibition of the ultimate team sport was about an individual, no question, because every one of us can relate on some level to a health scare like stroke or heart trouble. We can't always relate to the issues professional athletes deal with. But Bruschi's story is real. His ordeal made him vulnerable, like the rest of us. As if it were possible, football fans, especially in these parts, have even more of a connection to him. What Tedy Bruschi has done transcends sports. This is about life, death and the choice we each have to make sooner or later about how we're going to live and with what regrets we're going to die.
Bruschi is an inspiration, not just to his teammates and peers in pro football but to people everywhere, period, who might be down but reluctant to get back up for fear of falling again.
"Everyone, I'm sure, they've lost loved ones or something happened ... there comes a point where you just can't feel sorry for yourself anymore," he said. "The minute I had my stroke and the doctor told me, I just wanted to know 'where we go from here' and 'how do I get back.'
"I don't know how it has affected other people out there, but mental toughness is something I pride myself on. And if you have support from friends and family and teammates, it's possible to overcome any obstacle. I don't like the saying, 'Don't do as I do, do as I say.' I've heard that before. I want to tell my kids when they get older that when they're faced with an opportunity to take a chance in life or overcome obstacles or picking themselves up off the ground, it's either you get busy living or you just get busy dying. ... I don't just want to tell them, 'Go for it. You can do anything you want in life.' I want to be able to teach them those lessons because I've lived them myself."
Bruschi arrived earlier at Gillette than usual. For him, Oct. 30 felt like Super Bowl Sunday. "I was sitting in my locker thinking that those minutes were very slow." Shortly before kickoff, he took a stroll around the field, Walkman in his ears. The roar of the crowd was deafening when Bruschi was introduced last. He was present at midfield for the coin toss. As if on cue, he was in on the tackle on Buffalo's first play. And third play. And fourth, when he stayed at home, read reverse and hit Roscoe Parrish in the backfield. He was in on at least two more tackles on the Bills' first possession.
He looked as though he might have run out of gas by the Bills' third drive, when Monty Beisel subbed for him for 10 of 11 plays, but it turned out he was just refueling. It was as if he had never left, like nothing ever happened. Play after play, he was at the front of the Patriots' huddle, calling the defense, directing his teammates before the snap, taking on blockers at the point of attack. Punt team comes out, there he is. Kickoff return, there's Bruschi. "I didn't decide a few weeks ago that I was going to play," said Bruschi, who officially returned to practice Oct. 19. "I've been training for this for a long time and I think that training helped me."
His presence obviously did something for his teammates, who needed a spark, especially on defense, after a 3-3 start. "He's been the heart and soul of this team for a long time, so it's great to have him back out there," Tom Brady said. "Hopefully we can all play up to his level because he sets a standard for how to play football in this league and he sets a tone for the New England Patriots."
The Bills, leading by 9 with 10 minutes to play, looked all set to claim what would have been arguably the biggest win since team president Tom Donahoe took over in 2001. But Brady led the Patriots to a Corey Dillon TD that cut the lead to two, 16-14. Then Rosevelt Colvin, who last year came back from a career-threatening hip injury in 2003, came up with the play of the game, a strip/sack/recovery that set New England up at Buffalo's 23. Two plays later Dillon scored again and that was it -- 21-16, Patriots.
But that's not all there is to it. Truth be told, New England's defense didn't play well. Buffalo was 50 percent on third down and gained nearly 400 yards. During the bye week the Patriots' defensive backs worked on covering their assigned areas more soundly in zone schemes and not guarding their man so tight so as not to get beaten for big plays, and Eric Moulds still got behind them for a 55-yard touchdown catch.
And did you notice how, trailing 3-0 late in the first half, the Patriots' offense didn't go hurry-up? That tells me that Bill Belichick doesn't have a whole lot of confidence in his defense at this point and that he just wanted to get into the locker room without giving the Bills another possession. Bruschi might have been Superman on Sunday night, but make no mistake, he alone can't save the day. There isn't anything he can do about Arturo Freeman starting at safety and Ellis Hobbs and Hank Poteat coming on in sub situations. The Patriots' problems on defense have been bigger than Bruschi being out.
"Everybody has to do their own job," Belichick said. "We can't just rely on him to show up. There's a lot more to it than that. But it's great to have him back."
Without being privy to the specifics of the thorough examinations Bruschi has had over the past several months, I'd say it's nothing short of miraculous.
"There was a time in my recuperation and healing," Bruschi said, "where I just had to tell myself, 'It's time to get up and live your life the way you want to live. What are you going to do?' I wanted to pick myself up off the ground.
"I'm a football player by trade. It's what I do. So I did everything I could to make myself a football player again."
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.