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Bruschi returns to field, starts for Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Tedy Bruschi was back in the middle of things on Sunday night: Calling plays in the huddle, waving his teammates into position, barking out assignments.

The New England Patriots linebacker was on the field for the first time since February, when he suffered a stroke three days after the Pro Bowl that put his playing career in jeopardy and made his health the concern of the two-time defending Super Bowl champions and their fans.

"I'm back to doing what I love," Bruschi said after the Patriots beat the Buffalo Bills 21-16. "Sometimes, you've just got to pick yourself off the ground and get back to living your life. That's all I was trying to do."

It was an emotional return for the team's emotional leader, a thrill for the crowd when he was involved in the first three plays from scrimmage. As the game wore on, though, attention turned from Bruschi's medical condition to the early but important matchup between two teams fighting for the AFC East lead.

Bruschi had two tackles and five assists, playing most of the defensive downs but sitting out some of the second quarter.

"I think everyone's happy to see him out there," coach Bill Belichick said. "But we've got to do our own jobs. We can't just rely on him to show up, and everything falls into place."

An undersized defender with a knack for making plays, Bruschi had a hand in stopping two runs on the Bills' first possession and then slowed down Buffalo receiver Roscoe Parrish before he was brought down for a 6-yard loss on a reverse. But his biggest contribution may have been his presence on the field for the defending champs, who have struggled through a slew of injuries to a 4-3 record.

"I'm thrilled, I'm excited and I'm terrified all at the same time," said Cathy Libin, a fan wearing a Bruschi jersey. "I know it's what the team needs, and I know every play I'll be looking at him and not the ball."

But if the fans were holding their breath, you wouldn't know it from the full-throated cheers they gave at each mention of Bruschi's name over the public address system.

A deafening cheer greeted his pregame introduction -- which was last, for dramatic effect. The applause and foot-stomping shook the cameras, but not so much that fans watching the video board couldn't see Bruschi acknowledge them with a two-handed wave.

Bruschi joined the Patriots captains at midfield for the coin toss, getting a hug from former teammate Lawyer Milloy, now a Bills safety. When Bruschi came onto the field after the opening kickoff, the crowd chanted "Brew!" and he immediately took his place behind the line, pointing and shouting out calls.

"Everyone's energized," quarterback Tom Brady said. "Tedy's one of a kind. There's no other player on the team like him.

"Hopefully, we can all play up to his level, because he sets the standard for how to play football in this league. He sets the tone," he said.

Bruschi, 32, hadn't played since suffering a minor stroke three days after his first Pro Bowl and 10 days after helping the Patriots win their third Super Bowl in four years. Although he said he would take a year off, he was put on the reserve-physically unable to perform list, which left open the possibility of a comeback after six weeks.

Bruschi continued to attend team meetings and his recovery went well enough for him to come back early. Doctors cleared him, he returned to practice Oct. 19 and was activated Saturday.

"I'm a football player by trade. That's what I do," Bruschi said. "So I did everything I could to make myself a football player again."

Bruschi led his team onto the field for the pregame warmups, before most of the crowd was in the stadium. He sprinted down the sideline and across the field at the 40-yard line before taking off his helmet and receiving hugs and handshakes from teammates.

He played all of the first two series but was on the sideline for the first five plays of Buffalo's third possession.