Three years after a stroke, Bruschi's back for his fifth Super Bowl

Nearly three years after a suffering a stroke, Tedy Bruschi is preparing to play in his fifth Super Bowl. Said Bruschi: "You try to work past the sort of stigma that's still attached to having a stroke. You try to get back to being as good as you can be." Greg M. Cooper/US Presswire

PHOENIX -- Nearly three years after Tedy Bruschi's brush with death, his locker stall overflows with fan mail.

Consider the passion with which the New England Patriots defensive captain performs, and it's easy to forget he suffered a stroke in February 2005.

But the thousands of fans who fill the plastic mail bins at Gillette Stadium with missives detailing their own setbacks and why Bruschi inspires them -- well, they've got long memories.

"To tell you the truth, I receive all kinds of stories of adversity, whether they are cancer survivors or stroke survivors," said Bruschi, preparing for his fifth Super Bowl appearance, earlier this week. "If any of those people tell me they've been able to draw inspiration from what I've been able to do … it's incredibly honoring."

Ask yourself this: As unparalleled as the Patriots' 2007 season has been, what is the more remarkable achievement? That this team is poised on the brink of NFL history, just one victory removed from the greatest season ever? Or that its spiritual and emotional leader was able to resume his career and again perform at a high level only eight months after suffering a stroke?

For many New England veterans, it is hardly a rhetorical question.

"What we've done," strong safety Rodney Harrison said, "is sport, not real life. What Tedy accomplished, it's pretty much a miracle, really. I mean, come on now, the two aren't even close."

It happened in the early morning hours of Feb. 16, 2005. It was only 10 days after Bruschi's interception of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb helped seal a 24-21 New England victory in Super Bowl XXXIX and only three days after the lone Pro Bowl appearance of his 12-year career.

Bruschi was snapped from a deep sleep by a throbbing pain in his neck and numbness in his left side. He attempted to go back to sleep, but the pain persisted, and when he sat up in bed, he noticed an absence of equilibrium and loss of his peripheral vision.

His wife, Heidi, made the 911 call, and within a few hours, specialists at Massachusetts General Hospital confirmed that Bruschi, at just 31 years of age, had suffered a stroke. Doctors subsequently determined that the stroke likely was precipitated by a blood clot traveling through a small hole in his heart, and just one month later, Bruschi underwent a procedure to address what is believed to have been a congenital defect.

Then began a period that Heidi Bruschi recently termed "the doubting time," when it appeared her husband might not play again, when merely regaining basic motor skills took precedence over sacking the quarterback on a delayed blitz up the middle.

"It was literally one step at a time," she recalled.

In May of that year, Bruschi acknowledged that he was uncertain he would ever play again. Two months later, The Associated Press reported he would miss the 2005 campaign. In September, Bruschi announced that he intended to return to the Patriots for the 2006 season. And then, on Oct. 16, only eight months after the stroke, he said he would come back for the remainder of the 2005 season.

Two weeks later, in a 21-16 victory over the Buffalo Bills, he recorded 10 tackles in his return performance.

Said Bruschi, who has established Tedy's Team to aid stroke victims and raise awareness that strokes are the country's leading debilitating affliction, in recalling the comeback: "It meant getting back to life as normal. That's supposed to be the goal of any stroke victim. To come as close to normal again as you can. My normal, playing football, is just a lot different than the definition of normal for most people, that's all. But everyone's battle is personal, you know? You try to work past the sort of stigma that's still attached to having a stroke. You try to get back to being as good as you can be."

Now, less than five months shy of his 35th birthday and about two weeks short of the third anniversary of the stroke, Bruschi is as good as ever.

Maybe even better.

For a second consecutive season, Bruschi has led all New England defenders in tackles. Forced to log increased snaps after a season-ending injury to outside linebacker Rosevelt Colvin prompted a lineup shuffle, Bruschi has held up remarkably well. He has two sacks and two pass deflections to go with his 99 tackles, and his terrific football instincts have compensated for the loss of maybe a half-step.

"He's just a great person,"coach Bill Belichick said.

That sentiment certainly is echoed by New England players. Several teammates have noted that the logo on the side of the Patriots' helmets, dubbed "The Flying Elvis" by someone a few years ago, actually resembles Bruschi's profile more than it does a silhouette of the The King. And during a Monday media session, Harrison pointed to the logo and spoke about how much Bruschi embodies the mind-set of this special team.

"On the field and off the field," Harrison said, "he's definitely special."

Sunday night's game against the New York Giants clearly is special for any number of reasons. For Bruschi, it represents the culmination of a full-circle journey, back to playing for another championship, in the kind of high-stakes contest in which he often has distinguished himself.

Adding to Bruschi's excitement is that the game will be played near where he starred as a collegiate defensive tackle, logging 52 sacks as an undersized down-lineman for the University of Arizona. That the Pats are practicing at the facilities of archrival Arizona State has provided Bruschi, a third-round choice in the 1996 draft who immediately was moved to linebacker by New England coaches, plenty of good-natured fodder. Clearly, though, Bruschi is serious about capping his nearly three-year rehabilitation of body and mind and soul with a victory.

"Yeah, it would mean a lot," Bruschi acknowledged. "But, then again, every day means a lot to me."

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.