All week CSNNE is taking a look at Boston's Toughest at 6pm. Every day our Insiders will profile the player they feel is the toughest they've seen on the team they cover. Today's team: The Patriots.
The essence of toughness, at least in my mind, is the ability to withstand.
To take adversity -- physical, mental -- and bear up. And to not make a grandiose production out of what you’re going through. That’s a big part of it too,
In 2004 I remember Ty Law breaking his foot in Pittsburgh, yet he walked off the field despite an injury that cost him the rest of his season. No way in hell was Ty Law being carted off the field so close to his hometown of Aliquippa.
That’s what we’ve come to call a “football mentality.”
We’ve become more aware in the past decade of the long-term damage the football mentality can cause. Ignore signals the body sends that say, “Stop doing what you are doing . . . ” for too long and the results are catastrophic.
But even though we’re more cognizant of the dangers and more understanding that bearing up is the wrong thing to do, that doesn’t expunge the truth. Administering and withstanding pain is part of football’s DNA.
Nice preamble. So who is the toughest Patriot to ever play?
From about 1,000 candidates, I’m going with Tedy Bruschi.
First, a nod to the other men I have in mind.
-- Darryl Stingley. The embodiment of grace as a player, a crushing hit from Jack Tatum left Stingley a paraplegic. For the rest of his life, the grace remained.
-- Steve Grogan. One of the best running quarterbacks in NFL history but built like a flamingo so after more than a decade of punishment, he wasn’t running anymore but playing the position with a damn neck roll. He risked his neck -– literally -– to keep playing into the '90s.
-- John Hannah. A Hall of Famer and described in the '80s as the best offensive lineman ever, Hannah took the field angry at the world and unleashed that on opponents. Relentless, merciless player who -- despite being one of the most physically gifted players in the league -- played with the desperation of the last guy on the roster.
-- Andre Tippett. Another Hall of Famer and a punishing outside linebacker who was one of the NFL’s most feared defenders.
-- Drew Bledsoe. Absorbed a tremendous amount of punishment and played through injuries with a stoicism that was remarkable. As gifted as he was as a player, his ability to withstand was his most admirable trait to me.
-- Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy, Troy Brown, Kevin Faulk, Wes Welker. You take the big guys in the middle going against guys of similar size. I’ll take all the little guys outweighed on every play.
-- Tom Brady. Some of the spectacular hits he’s taken in his career have been lost amid the videos of him dancing or photos of him going down waterslides. Albert Haynesworth landed on Brady in one preseason game, screwing up his shoulder for the season. Not a peep.
-- Logan Mankins. The poster boy for stoicism. He’s about the most pleasant and gentle guy I’ve covered in that locker room, yet he’s perennially called one of the league’s dirtiest players. Mostly because he beats the hell out of opponents and -- like Hannah -- plays without mercy because he never expects any himself.
Which brings me to Bruschi.
At the start of his NFL career, he was a player without a spot. A defensive end at Arizona, he set the NCAA record for sacks but was too damn small, at 6-foot-1 and 245 pounds, to play DE in the NFL. From 1996, when Bill Parcells drafted him, until 2001, Bruschi was actually a bit of a defensive and special-teams nomad. He played on the edge -- and sometimes over it -- when it came to mixing it up before, during and after the play. Gradually, he mastered the mental aspect of the switch to linebacker, and his move to middle linebacker in the Patriots' 4-3 late in the 2001 season was a catalyst for their defense. Over the next three seasons, Bruschi became one of the league’s best big-play linebackers. Still overmatched by size, he had to get by on guile, speed and recklessness. Two things stand out to me: Bruschi launching himself over offensive linemen to get to quarterbacks. And seeing Bruschi go down in a scrum with his leg bent at an impossible, tendon-ripping angle, then rising and hopping a couple times before lining up again.
Despite suffering a stroke in February 2005 after returning from the Pro Bowl, Bruschi was back playing in October. What else do you need?