NOTE: This is a story I wrote for the print edition of the Tucson Citizen in February 2008, before the New England Patriots played the New York Giants in the Super Bowl.
GLENDALE – Hey, New England, you’re welcome. And I don’t just mean the Patriots, who go for their fourth Super Bowl victory in seven years on Sunday. I mean all of New England. Maine. Vermont. New Hampshire. The works.
From our Southwestern outpost at the University of Arizona, about 3,000 miles away, we’ve given you Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi and Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona.
Can you put a price on all the goodness they have brought?
I’d settle for a lifetime supply of chowder in return.
Bruschi and Francona. That’s a pair that has a lot to do with three Super Bowl rings and two World Series titles this decade, and I don’t think any New Englanders have yet grown weary of the rolling rally parades through the streets of Boston.
Pick any other two guys in your sports-crazed region, I just can’t believe you could find two better people, competitors, winners, ambassadors than our combination of Bruschi and Francona.
Bruschi, talking about how the Red Sox ended an 86-year World Series drought in 2004 in Francona’s first season, had this to say earlier this week:
“I always say it took a Wildcat to bring a championship to Boston.”
Francona is the steady-as-he-goes manager who unerringly keeps his eye on the big picture and is 8-0 in World Series games.
Bruschi is the savvy 12-year linebacker who has been the heart and soul of the Patriots’ run of greatness.
“I would rather have heart than talent any day,” Bruschi said at Super Bowl Media Day in Glendale.
“I would take heart over anything. That is what it takes to play this sport.”
That is also why Bruschi and Francona have a special bond that reaches across sport boundaries and beyond their UA connection.
“It starts out because the UA kinship is there, but I just like the way he does things,” Francona said in a phone interview Thursday.
“How I feel about Tedy has to do with how he handles his responsibilities, his work ethic, how he treats people, how he treats the game. That is why he has captured everybody’s hearts here.”
When Bruschi suffered a stroke soon after the 2005 Pro Bowl, Francona, who has gone through health scares himself, sent encouraging messages any way he could.
“It was something that helped me out incredibly,” Bruschi said.
On 2005 Opening Day at Fenway Park, when the Red Sox were celebrating their World Series title, representatives of the area’s four major franchises threw out the first pitches.
Bobby Orr from the Boston Bruins. Bill Russell from the Boston Celtics. Current Patriot Richard Seymour. And Bruschi, making his first public appearance since his stroke, wearing a Red Sox jersey.
He wore No. 47 as a tribute to Francona.
“I was surprised,” Francona said. “It was a special day, and that kind of put me over the edge. It was hard not to be emotional.”
Bruschi threw his pitch to Francona, who went to the mound, teary-eyed.
Bruschi, in his 2007 book, “Never Give Up” described what happened next:
“He talked to me the way a lot of old Italians do: He cupped the back of my head with his hand and looked me in the eyes. ‘I’ve been praying for you and thinking about your situation so much,’ he said. ‘You don’t know how much I care about you, Tedy.’ ”
Later that year, on the night before Bruschi’s surprising return to the Patriots in the 2005 season, Francona sent him an e-mail. It read:
“Congratulations on your comeback, your courage, and your perseverance.”
Bruschi latched on to the word “perseverance.” That’s what his past several months had been about, physically and emotionally. With that one sentence, the right word, Francona had lifted Bruschi’s spirits again.
I’d say these guys are one of a kind, but they’re two of a kind.
They are among the greatest ever at Arizona. They are among the finest right now in New England, forever with a place in the region’s rich sports history.
Each is always quick to point to their UA coaches – Jerry Kindall for Francona and Dick Tomey for Bruschi – for helping them become the men they are today.
Maybe the Patriots win all three titles without Bruschi. Perhaps the Red Sox would have, at long last, navigated their way to the championships without Francona.
Lucky for New England, it doesn’t have to know the answer.