FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Bridging together what owner Robert Kraft suggested was three generations of New England football, the Patriots inducted quarterback Drew Bledsoe and center Jon Morris into the team's Hall of Fame Saturday evening before an overflow crowd at Patriot Place.
Morris, the Patriots' first-ever Pro Bowler, represented an era that laid the foundation for football in the region, while Kraft suggested in his introduction of Bledsoe that the quarterback might have been the key to keeping the team in New England nearly two decades ago. With some of the franchise's most influential players in attendance, the pair entered the pristine Hall at a stadium where the team has raised three championship banners over the last 10 years.
"Thinking back to a dirt parking lot and a racetrack, we feel pretty good about this," Kraft said following the evening ceremony. "This is terrific. To go from Jon to Drew -- see the cross-generation -- and see the fans turn out ... It's really super."
Bledsoe described growing up in New England, arriving as a fresh-faced, single 21-year-old with no idea about the expectations of playing for a Boston sports team, then departing as a married 30-year-old with three kids and a Super Bowl ring. He singled out many of his former teammates -- drawing raucous applause when names like Troy Brown and Tedy Bruschi, on hand for the ceremony, and brought on stage to discuss Bledsoe's career afterwards -- were mentioned. Bledsoe said that he takes great pride in helping turn the franchise around, but made sure to stress that he was simply a part of that process.
Bledsoe even playfully acknowledged passing the torch to Tom Brady during the 2002 Super Bowl season.
"I had a a horrible backup, that No. 12 guy," quipped Bledsoe, talking about Brady after thanking many of his former teammates. "He didn't really understand the backup part."
After the event, Bledsoe noted that, despite the humor, his biggest fear was breaking down emotionally during a speech in which he heaped praise on his family, including his wife, Maura, and their four kids -- Stuart, John, Henry, and Healy. Before he even began his speech, he clipped on a "MHK" pin dedicated to Kraft's wife, Myra, and talked about what she meant to him during his early days in the league.
"It was a little overwhelming how many people showed up, that was really cool," Bledsoe said after the ceremony. "My big concern was whether I could make it through without getting too emotional. I knew if I looked over at my mother, I'd break down, so I didn't look at Mom."
While the crowd was filled with Bledsoe replica jerseys of all colors and in various states of tatter, Morris basked in being the somewhat obscure opening act. Maybe no inductee into the Patriots Hall of Fame has been as genuinely honored to be there as Morris, who was passed over numerous times in the fan's vote, but was selected this year by a senior committee.
Morris mixed plenty of humor into a eloquent speech that culminated with him heaping praise on his wife, Gail. From the opening line, in which he quipped about Kraft's hug with Colts offensive lineman Jeff Saturday that has become the iconic image of the end of the lockout, "I never thought I'd see an NFL owner go around hugging centers," to punctuating the speech by noting, "This is the most exciting day of my life," Morris couldn't have been happier to be part of the experience.
After the event he noted, "It's the crowning achievement for me in football."
Bledsoe, now 39, spent nine of his 14 NFL seasons in New England. The No. 1 pick in the 1993 draft, Bledsoe threw for nearly 30,000 yards with the Patriots (and retired as the NFL's eighth leading passer of all-time with 44,611 yards). Kraft recalled rooting against New England during the season finale in 1992 with hopes that the team would lock up the No. 1 overall pick that next year.
The Patriots were 14-50 in the four years before Bledsoe arrived, including 2-14 during that 1992 season. In his second season, Bledsoe helped the Patriots win their final seven regular-season playoff games and qualify for the postseason. By 1996, the Patriots were in the Super Bowl.
That one didn't turn out the way Bledsoe had hoped, but he earned his ring during the 2001 season that ultimately ended his time in New England. Injured in Week 2 of that season, Bledsoe never earned his starting job back from Brady, but did play a key role when he entered for an injured Brady in the second half of the AFC Championship Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"It was pretty amazing, the emotional strain of that year, all that had gone on," said Bledsoe. "Then getting a chance to come back on the field (vs. Pittsburgh), it was pretty amazing. I would have been proud of that Super Bowl ring, regardless, because I was part of that team. But to actually have a chance to get in there and play in that game, really gave me ownership of that season."
Kraft said maybe Bledsoe's most important game was the final one of his 1993 rookie season in which the Patriots topped the Dolphins, 33-27, in overtime -- a 36-yard pass from Bledsoe to Michael Timpson lifting New England to only its fifth win of the season. Kraft said it was that moment, in a raucous Foxboro Stadium, that convinced him to "overpay" by purchasing the team for a then-NFL record $175 million.
Without that moment, it's fair to wonder if Gillette Stadium and the Hall that Bledsoe and Morris were ushered into on Saturday would have ever existed.
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.