Los Angeles Times – Washington Post News Service
By SAM FARMER
Los Angeles Times
The head and heart of former Arizona Wildcat Tedy Bruschi have distinguished him as an NFL player.
Now, they could hasten a premature end to his career.
Bruschi, 32, among the NFL’s best linebackers and a defensive leader of the New England Patriots, has been mulling his future after suffering a minor stroke – possibly related to a congenital heart problem – 10 days after the Super Bowl in February.
Early retirement is an option, but so is returning to the game he loves. He has spent the last several months working with trainers at team headquarters and going through the same paces he would during a typical offseason. Although he didn’t participate in a recent mini-camp, he hasn’t ruled out a return to the Patriots, who open training camp July 29.
Normally at ease in the spotlight, Bruschi has made few public appearances since the stroke and has spoken publicly about it only twice, most recently last month during a Super Bowl ring ceremony at the home of Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
“My family and I are worried about my health, and we’re just making sure I’m getting better,” Bruschi told reporters. “Football is something I love and want to do, but I have to think about my wife and my sons to make sure everything is right.”
Brian Mullen can relate. He’s a former NHL player with the New York Islanders who, like Bruschi, had a small hole in his heart and suffered a minor stroke. Mullen’s doctors thought he developed a blood clot in his leg – maybe after being struck by a puck – and that clot passed through the opening in his heart and to his brain.
Mullen underwent heart surgery, and within two months was back on the ice attempting a comeback. That ended when he had a seizure.
“I had some of the top doctors in New York City telling me it was fine and there would be no problem for me to go back to play,” Mullen said. “Then I had the seizure … it scared everybody out of their wits. They thought I was having a heart attack.”
Even after that, doctors told Mullen he could resume his career. His family urged him to retire, and he decided to do so.
“Your whole life is turned upside down,” he said. “One day you’re on top of the world. Next day, you don’t know if you’re going to be able to play with your kids or survive.”
Mullen, who lives in New Jersey and coaches his son’s hockey team, has had two seizures since retiring from the NHL, both of which he attributes to tinkering with his medication. He still fights the urge to play. Asked when he finally came to grips with the way things ended, he said: “I’ll call you when I do.”
Athletes are always at risk
Walking away from your sport on your own terms is difficult enough, said boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, let alone when your body forces you to quit.
Leonard announced his retirement on four separate occasions after suffering a partially detached retina in his left eye, but couldn’t stay away, paying little heed to warnings that he risked going blind in that eye.
“As top-level athletes, we assume the risk,” Leonard said. “We don’t even think about the risk factor. To do what we do takes an enormous amount of mental stability. But when I look back at the risks I took, it really makes me think. I was just in that zone.”
Not every athlete feels so invulnerable. Before his rookie season with the Buffalo Bills, guard Joe DeLamielleure was diagnosed as having an irregular heartbeat. For a while, the first-round pick thought his career was over.
“I actually remember laying on the floor and saying, ‘How’d I ever play in the first place,’ ” he said. “My chest was killing me. Any little thing, a burp, and I was like, ‘What’s that?’ ”
DeLamielleure had been misdiagnosed. His heart was fine. He went on to anchor Buffalo’s “Electric Company” offensive line and two years ago was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He said he understands the pressures weighing on Bruschi.
“Football’s an addiction,” DeLamielleure said. “It’s very hard to kick. You go through withdrawal when you’re not playing. This time of year it’s like the birds going back to Capistrano.”
Bruschi still at risk for another stroke
Bruschi’s stroke came three days after he played in his first Pro Bowl. He arrived at Massachusetts General Hospital complaining of headaches, blurred vision and numbness on his right side. He checked out two days later, walking out wobbly but on his own power with his wife, Heidi, at his side.
He’s among Boston’s most popular athletes, especially since the Patriots have won three of four Super Bowls, and that has boosted the amount of attention he has received in the last several months.
Hanging on adjacent buildings and visible from his hospital window were large, hand-painted banners wishing him a speedy recovery. Two news helicopters followed Bruschi’s limousine home. The Patriots, caught off guard by the helicopters, requested the TV stations not tape the trip home. One of the stations complied. Days later, a local TV station caught Bruschi on camera walking in his back yard.
About a month after his stroke, Bruschi reportedly underwent a procedure to repair a hole in his heart. Doctors say those holes – oval-shaped openings between the heart’s upper chambers – are fairly common, and many people can live without knowing they have an opening, which often is no larger than a grain of rice. Studies have linked the defect to strokes, however.
“Anyone who has had a stroke and has one of these openings should have it closed,” said Dr. James McPherson, a cardiothoracic surgeon at the Tommy Lasorda Heart Institute at Centinela Hospital in Los Angeles.
But McPherson said such a procedure should not necessarily preclude a patient from resuming a career as a professional football player. The bigger concern is the stroke, he said.
“The recovery time is unpredictable,” he said, “but also the result of further head trauma to a stroke patient has not really been studied.”
Pats ready for life without Bruschi
Losing Bruschi would be a severe blow to the Patriots. He was selected as the AFC’s defensive player of the week three times last season, including after a first-round playoff win over Indianapolis. He ranked second on the team with 128 tackles. Also, two of the Patriots’ four defensive touchdowns resulted from his fumble recoveries.
New England is preparing other options. The Patriots have signed free-agent linebackers Chad Brown and Monty Beisel, and used a fifth-round draft pick on linebacker Ryan Claridge from Nevada Las Vegas.
Like most elite linebackers, Bruschi survives by his instincts. He studies like crazy during the week so he can go by feel on Sunday. During a game, he doesn’t have time for deep thinking.
This is different, though. This isn’t a read-and-react situation.
“I’m not pressured with any timetable,” he said at the ring ceremony. “My family and I are worried about my health and we’re just making sure I’m getting better and that’s the only thing we’re focusing on right now.”
• Seasons: … … … … … … 9
• Games: … … … … … … 136
• Tackles: … … … … … . . 766
• Sacks: … … … … … … . 25
• Interceptions: … … … … . . 11
• Forced fumbles: … … … … 16