The hit that changed Tom Brady, Drew Bledsoe and the course of NFL history

Five days after an injury that left him with internal bleeding, quarterback Drew Bledsoe watches his backup, Tom Brady, at practice. Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Drew Bledsoe is the most powerful quarterback I've ever seen in person. I first met him in 1992, when I was a middling high school quarterback and he was a rising junior at Washington State, already Mel Kiper's prediction to be the first pick of the draft. Drew's father, Mac, held a football camp in the Pacific Northwest, and I was one of a hundred or so attendees. The lessons on how to throw a football from the Bledsoes were easy to hear and hard to implement, and so we all watched Drew's release, beautiful and clean: arm at 90 degrees, from torso rotating back like "there's a pole straight through your ass," Bledsoe once said, and then this sort of violent propulsion forward from the hips that turned your arm into a whip more than an engine. Drew was "a clinic" on how to throw, Mac would say, and to this day, whenever I dust off my mid-40s arm, I have some sort of brief flashback to trying to throw it exactly the way Bledsoe did.

The buzz around Bledsoe was palpable in those days. One of the counselors told us that one day we would look back and thank the heavens that we were able to watch such a prodigious talent up close. Even then, Bledsoe was strong, but not in a meathead warrior way. He actually looked skinny, but he was thick -- and was proud of the work he had put in to get there. He told us that he was once a thin kid with a gifted arm, and he knew that if he wanted to play football beyond high school, he would have to bulk up. So he did. He told us that he had lifted weights every day -- even on Christmas, his dad said. The next summer, in 1993, Bledsoe returned to the camp, this time in a New England Patriots jersey and carrying around an NFL ball, having been the first pick of the previous spring's draft. He still looked kind of slim from a distance, but up close he was even thicker than he was a year earlier. There are some quarterbacks who are so thin that you wonder how they'll hold up -- like, for instance, Bledsoe's backup in 2000, another tall and skinny guy with a gifted arm that needed to bulk up. Bledsoe, though, had become a prototype. Not just so handsome that he would soon star in national ads, not just so charming that he would soon play himself in "Jerry Maguire," but so stock strong that he seemed invulnerable in a game so dangerous.

Today is the 20th anniversary of a sideline collision that forever changed American sports. It's become easy to consider the Mo Lewis hit that nearly killed Bledsoe and launched Tom Brady's career as a jumping-off point for an endless array of what-if moments. If Bledsoe hadn't gotten hurt, would Brady have seen the field? If Belichick had benched Bledsoe, as it later came out that he wanted to, would Brady have held onto the job through the rough patches in early 2001, with a healthy veteran ready to go? Would New England have become a dynasty? Would Spygate have happened? Deflategate? Would we discuss Bill Belichick alongside the greatest ever, and would Tom Brady still be pushing the limits of human endurance at age 44?