Drew Bledsoe pushes a button, and a silver screen descends slowly over the mirror atop his fireplace. He pushes another button, and the digitized din of a movie sound track fills the living room in his five-bedroom, $350,000 house in Bridgewater, Mass. The booming sound of a dinosaur thrashing against metal bars vibrates off the walls. Welcome to Jurassic Park, laser disc-style.
Bledsoe, the 22-year-old quarterback of the New England Patriots, smiles. He likes this movie. He likes this technology. Laser discs. CDs. Computers. CD-ROM. Digitized stuff. Information highways to somewhere. "I'm in the generation that grew up with Atari and Nintendo," he says. "By the time I was in sixth grade we had computers in our classrooms. So I have no fear of these things."
He absentmindedly rubs the fresh pink welt on his chin. Five stitches were just removed from the flesh there, souvenirs of an Oct. 16 game in which blitzing New York Jet linebacker Bobby Houston separated Bledsoe, his senses and the ball like an apple cut in thirds. The Jets recovered the fumble and won the game 24-17. Bledsoe, when asked afterward if he had been wearing a padded chin strap, responded, "I will be now."
Yet Bledsoe displays no more fear of blitzing linebackers than he does of technology. He's young, he's fresh, and this season is like part of a dream unfolding. The first player picked in the 1993 draft, he now leads the NFL in passing attempts, completions and yardage. And, yes, in interceptions. Still, it's remarkable to consider that Bledsoe—had he been redshirted at Washington State—could now be in the middle of his final season of college football.
Duty calls, and he flicks off the gadgetry: The screen climbs back into its hiding place, the dinosaurs retreat. The man who almost single-handedly carries the offensive burden of his NFL team, needs to help his girlfriend, Maura Healy, a 21-year-old student at Bridgewater State College, with a term paper. The paper is about nutrition. Healy writes; Bledsoe, the 6'5", 233-pound son of two English teachers, rewrites. Quarterback and sweetheart met at Washington State, and this summer, before her senior year, Bledsoe "twisted her arm and got her to come out here and take care of me."
Not that he needs much tending, at least football-wise. "He never threw the ball incorrectly," says his dad, Mac, who was one of Drew's high school coaches and now teaches and is an assistant coach at Eisenhower High School in Yakima, Wash. "He's a clinic in how to throw. You have to see it at field level to appreciate it. It's not his arm, it's his body—the arm is just along for the ride. Watch him throw an out toward you. I mean, it's coming. It whistles."
And that whistling has led young Bledsoe into amazing territory. Among other things, he stands a chance of breaking the NFL record for passing yardage in a season. And what is that mark? "It's just over five grand," he says, grabbing the sports section of USA Today, in which he is featured on the front page preparing to sling the ball after giving it his trademark pat with his left hand. "Uh, let's see...mmmm...." He searches the blizzard of print. "Hmmm...uh...." He finds information on all kinds of people and things: Deion Sanders; the Dallas Cowboy defense; Miami Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino saying, "You should savor every moment of playing on Sunday."
"Hmmm...." There it is. "Five thousand eighty-four yards," says Bledsoe.
The record was set by none other than Marino, back in 1984. On Sept. 4, in the season's first meeting between the Dolphins and the Patriots, Marino passed for an astonishing 473 yards and five touchdowns, and Bledsoe was nearly as good with 421 yards and four touchdowns, as Miami won 39-35. On Sunday the Dolphins finally cooled off Bledsoe in a 23-3 Miami win. Bledsoe was 16 of 33 for a mere 125 yards, but the kid still has thrown for more than 300 yards in five of New England's eight games and has a total of 2,439 passing yards for the season. In an average game he throws the ball 45 times with 25 completions for 305 yards. If he keeps to that pace, he will finish the season with 716 attempts, 398 completions and 4,878 yards. Nice numbers? "Ridiculous," says Bledsoe.
Ridiculous because the Patriot coach is Bill Parcells—who hates excessive passing about as much as a turkey hates buckshot. As the coach of two Super Bowl champion New York Giant teams, Parcells designed an attack that, if it were a laser disc, would be entitled When Dinosaurs Roamed the Earth. "He likes to run, run, and then set up the play-action pass," says Bledsoe. Says the dyspeptic Parcells of the pass-mad Patriots, "It's not really what we'd like to do."
So why do it?
"Three reasons," explains Bledsoe. "One, we haven't established the running game [New England has the 27th-ranked rushing offense in the league]. Two, we've been remarkably successful with the pass [first in the league]. And three, we've been in some shoot-outs [the first loss to Miami, a 38-35 loss to the Buffalo Bills, a 31-28 win over the Cincinnati Bengals]."
Indeed, going into Sunday's game, 16 of the Patriots' last 17 games had been decided by seven points or less. "We're always under the gun," says Parcells. "We're never in complete control."
And that's killing the control-meister in him. While scoffing at a recent report that he is not healthy, Parcells, who had bypass surgery two years ago, admits, "The last couple [of losses] have eaten away at me."
And this has made him tough on his quarterback. "I've never had a quarterback this young," he says. "I don't know him well enough, and I haven't seen him establish enough consistency to know when he's completely disoriented. With Phil Simms [his old Giant quarterback], when it wasn't there, I knew it was fishy. Bledsoe hasn't played enough to establish a tendency. He's learned some things, but not all of the things he does are good."
The relationship between the callow quarterback and the crusty coach is an interesting one. Parcells is wired tighter than a new piano; Bledsoe is a person who, as his mother, Barbara, says, "was born calm." Moreover, adds Barbara, whose opinions jibe with those of just about anyone who has met Drew, "he is a steady, easygoing, genuinely nice person." Trying to come up with an early example of Drew's good nature, she fixes on this: "His brother, Adam, is six years younger than Drew. When Adam was a baby and I was having a hard day with him, Drew would say, 'I'll take him, Mom.' He'd pick Adam up, and they'd walk around and look at plants and things."
"He's on his way up," grumbles Parcells, "but people are putting him farther up than they should. We have a tendency to make the ascension process much quicker than it should be, equaled only by the rate of acceleration of the decline."
All of this talk tends to make Bledsoe a trifle uneasy. "Parcells, he's a smart guy," he says, "but he turns the pressure up in practice when we're not winning. That's the hard part. All the coaches are so uptight. You almost never see me fired up and ticked off. I still look at this as fun. So the nice thing is that, when I'm on the field, I'm in that sanctuary, I'm in that place where nobody can touch me. Out there everything's under my control."
For Bledsoe the adjustments he must make to join the elite corps of NFL leaders are almost all mental. He stands behind the line, tall and cool, seeing everything like an air-traffic controller, and it is only his decisions on where to send his flights that are sometimes ill-advised. His 14 interceptions (to go with 14 touchdown passes) are a sign of impetuous youth as much as they are a sign of the Patriots' need to throw the ball too much.
"I'm aware that I'm young," Bledsoe says. "People's expectations and concept of who I am fail to take into account the fact that I'm only 2½ years from being a teenager."
He is, he admits, still a bit uncertain about his new fame, new wealth, new surroundings. "At first I thought seeing my face in the media was pretty cool," he says. "Now, I'm more interested in whether I sound like an idiot or not." Even the Boston accents of the locals mystify him. "My favorite," he says, "was this ball boy we had who told me he played football, and when I asked him what position he played, he said, 'I'm a god.' "
Last season Bledsoe never washed a dish at his house; instead he ate almost every meal at training camp or at a restaurant. One favorite establishment, Applebee's, which is in Franklin near his house, went so far as to order several cases of Bledsoe's favorite beer, Henry Weinhard's Private Reserve, from Portland, Ore., to keep the solitary diner happy.
Money has never meant that much to Bledsoe. In fact, one of the main reasons he came out of college early to sign a pro deal was so that his good friend and backup quarterback, Mike Pattinson, could get a chance to start at Washington State. Last year Barbara became irritated with Drew when he left his car at a stereo shop for some work. Seems somebody dropped the visor and a couple of checks totaling about $40,000 fell out.
But it is Drew's loving family, stable as granite, that is at the heart of his success. "We never pushed him," says Mac. "Our boys know the only thing that's important is that they be fine people and that their mother and I love them."
Bledsoe sits back on his couch, R.E.M. on CD singing about losing religion and Healy back at work on her paper. This is college music, and Bledsoe is a college guy who is making his mark in the adult world of the NFL. Every now and then, though, he needs his dose of home life, 3,000 miles away. During the Patriots' recent break during their bye week, he hopped a jet and flew for seven hours back to Yakima, just so he could watch Adam play quarterback for Eisenhower. That he even asked Parcells for permission to leave practice early that Friday afternoon to make his flight was a major breakthrough in their relationship.
Bledsoe (cautiously): What kind of mood are you in?
Parcells (grumpily): Why?
Bledsoe: If I leave soon, I can catch a 1:30 flight to see my brother play in his high school game.
Parcells (cynically? solicitously?): Get out of here.
Bledsoe made it to Yakima just after kickoff and stood on the sideline greeting old friends and holding babies as he watched Adam pull out a 10-6 win over Drew's old Walla Walla High team. It was the first time Drew had ever been able to watch his brother play.
"He had time off," snorted the younger quarterback. "He should have been here."
It was a brother-to-brother gag. The family members know what they mean to one another. It is that security of rootedness and understanding that allows Drew to challenge records, to feel free to test himself without fear of slipping.
Of the single-season passing mark, Bledsoe says, "It would be kind of cool to get it, but it would be hard to enjoy it if the team weren't successful. If I don't get it, fine. Shoot. It's no big deal."
Not to Parcells, either. When New England finished its first practice after the weekend layoff, Parcells gathered the squad and ordered, "All right, run 10 50's." Then he looked at his offensive prodigy. "Bledsoe, you run 20! And I'm counting."
"Just to make sure I knew he was still in control," Bledsoe says.
There's no such imperative with the family back in Washington. "Home," says Mac, "is where you go even if you don't throw touchdowns."
Robert Frost couldn't have put it better.
In Yakima, Drew joined Mac (in hat) and Adam (.12) in the locker room and gave a boost to cousin Nicole.
Parcells has seen Bledsoe amass big stats—and take big hits, as he did Sunday against the Dolphins.
[See caption above.]
RICK FRIEDMAN/BLACK STAR
With Healy by his side this fall, Bledsoe isn't dining out as often, even as he eats up NFL defenses.