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From Wildcat to wild man to NFL star: Bruschi gives up booze, excels

The Arizona Republic

By ANDREW BAGNATO

The Arizona Republic

AUGUSTINE, Fla. – Tedy Bruschi was sitting alone in the New England Patriots’ team dining room this week when his cell phone rang.

It was head coach Bill Belichick.

“I was hoping it wasn’t bad news,” Bruschi said. “I hoped I didn’t miss a meeting.”

Belichick was calling Tuesday night to tell Bruschi he was going to the Pro Bowl.

The former University of Arizona star was a late replacement on the AFC roster for injured Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis.

“I’m not going to downplay it,” Bruschi said, his dark eyes sparkling as he recounted the call. “I came in here not knowing what I was doing. I developed myself into a player that can be recognized as one of the best in the league.”

It’s Bruschi’s first trip to the Pro Bowl, which seems absurd in light of Bruschi’s contribution to the emerging New England dynasty.

Bruschi personifies the Patriots’ team-first ethic.

Perhaps that’s why he has often been overlooked since the Patriots selected him in the third round of the 1996 draft.

But there may be another reason.

“I’m not the biggest guy,” said Bruschi, who is listed at 6 feet 1, 247 pounds.

Nor is he the fastest or the strongest.

Arizona’s coach at the time, Dick Tomey, was the only one to offer Bruschi, a San Francisco-area product, a Division I-A scholarship.

Bruschi repaid Tomey by becoming a foundation of the fabled “Desert Swarm” defense.

New England’s unit doesn’t have a catchy nickname, but Bruschi is every bit as important to the Patriots’ success.

“He just seems to know where the ball is going to be, and he gets there,” New England guard Stephen Neal said. “He’s hard to block. I’m really glad I don’t have to go up against him on Sundays.”

The 31-year-old Bruschi’s maturity into one of the NFL’s top defensive players matches his growth off the field.

Early in his career, Bruschi’s reputation as a wild man wasn’t limited to the gridiron.

But in a Jan. 16 interview with Boston Globe columnist Jackie MacMullan, Bruschi said he decided six years ago that alcohol was a problem for him.

“I got to a point where I realized whenever there was a problem in my life, whether I was getting into trouble or having trouble in my marriage, alcohol was involved,” Bruschi told MacMullan. “It was an accumulation of events. I was about 24 or 25 years old. Heidi (Bruschi’s wife) and I were having one of our arguments, because I had taken it too far one more time.

“I looked at it, and I said, ‘I’m tired of this.’ So I quit drinking.”

Bruschi went into further detail with other reporters.

“That is the decision that I made,” he said. “About five, six years ago, I decided that I wanted to become the best father that I could possibly become.”

Bruschi has worked just as hard to become the best linebacker he could be.

That’s no small effort for a player who spent his college career as a lineman, tying the all-time Division I-A career sacks record (52).

It took Bruschi a while to become as dominant in the NFL as he was in college.

But he’s developed a knack for delivering big hits and big plays.

In New England’s 20-3 trouncing of Indianapolis Jan.16 in Foxboro, Mass., Bruschi made perhaps the most memorable play of this postseason.

He smashed Colts running back Dominic Rhodes as he latched on to a screen pass, ripping the ball out of the startled back’s arms as the two men hit the ground.

Bruschi scored another turnover when he recovered a Reggie Wayne fumble later in the game.

Those are the types of plays Bruschi hoped to make when he broke into the league.

It took him a few years to learn to play linebacker.

“I can’t remember one moment when I really started to get it,” Bruschi said. “Maybe when it was my fourth or fifth year of my career… .”

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