He came bounding onto the field like a kid at the recess bell,
high-fiving teammates as his heart did wind sprints. Seconds
later Drew Bledsoe, the once and perhaps future quarterback of
the New England Patriots, calmly got down to business and took
back his team. Time to roll, he told himself. It's time to go out
and play the game I love. He cracked a joke in the huddle, strode
confidently toward the line of scrimmage and, from the shotgun
formation, stared down the Pittsburgh Steelers' vaunted defense.
Then Bledsoe flexed his sublime right arm and delivered a pass as
meaningful as any he'd thrown in his nine-year NFL career.
Even before the ball spiraled into the hands of wideout David
Patten for a 15-yard gain, Bledsoe felt the impact of his
presence. Suddenly, with 1:40 left in the first half of Sunday's
AFC Championship, a tentative standoff between two plodding
offenses had been spiced with serious sex appeal. Suddenly a pair
of Pro Bowl quarterbacks--Pittsburgh's struggling Kordell Stewart
and New England's limping Tom Brady--seemed smaller and less
vibrant. Suddenly the top-seeded Steelers fell back on their
heels, and 64,704 fans at Heinz Field shrank back into their
seats as though they'd seen a ghost. Which, of course, they had.
Suddenly a football-watching nation was reintroduced to one of
the game's most commanding passers, a fallen star who had
quarterbacked the Patriots to their last Super Bowl and was
hell-bent on getting to another. Four months after suffering an
injury that filled his chest cavity with blood and cost him his
starting job, Bledsoe, 29, showed that he has what New England's
third-string quarterback, Damon Huard, calls "extremely big
"This was the exact scenario I'd dreamt about and prepared for,
and I've never been so ready," Bledsoe said. "I threw that first
pass, and it felt as if I'd been doing it for a long, long time."
By the time Bledsoe, tears streaming down his cheeks, took the
last snap and knelt to seal the Patriots' 24-17 victory, the
Brady Bunch had morphed into Drew's Crew, and conventional wisdom
had been thrown out the window. Put it this way: When the
Patriots square off against the St. Louis Rams in New Orleans on
Sunday, the strongest arm in Super Bowl XXXVI may not belong to
Then again, the 6'5", 240-pound Bledsoe may be forced by coach
Bill Belichick to resume his role as Brady's backup. With these
Patriots, who knows what you'll get? "It's been a crazy, crazy
year," Bledsoe says. "We don't have a lot of big names, but guys
do their jobs, and we have become a team in every sense of the
Coming off a 5-11 season in 2000, Belichick's first as their
coach, the Patriots were involved in more drama than Mariah
Carey. There was tragedy too. In training camp 45-year-old
quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein dropped dead from a heart attack.
After the season began, players chafed at the disruptive antics
of mercurial wideout Terry Glenn, whom Belichick suspended for
the postseason. New England started the year 0-2, losing Bledsoe
in the second game with what turned out to be a sheared blood
vessel in his chest caused by a straight-on shot from New York
Jets linebacker Mo Lewis. Teammates still shudder at the memory
of Bledsoe, 20 pounds lighter after a four-day hospital stay,
returning to the team looking, as Huard said, "practically
The Patriots were 1-3 when Brady, a sixth-round pick out of
Michigan in the 2000 draft, rallied them from a 10-point
fourth-quarter deficit to beat the San Diego Chargers in
overtime. That turned around New England's season, which ended
with the Patriots' (13-5) winning their first AFC East title
since 1997 and Belichick proving he is much more than one of the
game's preeminent defensive strategists.
New England's unlikely rise, keyed by Brady's poise and
productivity, stirred the emotions of even casual football fans.
Consider the short, pudgy Englishman in a pink-and-black blazer
who embraced team owner Robert Kraft last Thursday night in the
bowels of Boston's FleetCenter. Referring to New England's
thrilling and controversial 16-13 overtime win over the Oakland
Raiders in the AFC divisional playoffs on the previous Saturday,
the Brit told Kraft, "Robert, I went to bed in the third quarter
thinking you'd lost, and I was so f------ pissed off. The next
morning I turned on the telly and learned you'd won, and I felt
such joy." Thirty minutes later it was Kraft who was euphoric.
Gesturing toward the FleetCenter stage, where his friend in the
pink-and-black blazer was crooning, "And I'm gonna be
high-igh-igh as a kite by then," Kraft screamed, "I love Elton
John. He's my alltime favorite entertainer."
Kraft is a man of uncommon faith. Although Belichick had only
one winning season as the Cleveland Browns' coach from 1991 to
'95, Kraft gave up a first-round draft pick to pry him from the
Jets following the farcical press conference in which Belichick
announced his resignation after 24 hours as Bill Parcells's
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when the NFL
was contemplating reducing the playoff field by four teams--a
problem it ultimately solved by pushing back the Super Bowl a
week--Kraft was a vocal proponent of preserving the 12-team
postseason. During a phone conversation, one high-ranking league
official asked Kraft, whose team had a losing record at the time,
"What are you so worried about this for?" On Jan. 6, after the
Patriots clinched a first-round playoff bye, Kraft called the
official and said, "You were right--we didn't need to worry about
getting in as a wild card."
Still, New England's success was bittersweet for Kraft, who
adores Bledsoe and proved it by signing him to a 10-year, $103
million contract extension last March. Although Belichick, after
Rehbein's death, began working closely with the quarterbacks, he
and Bledsoe have a distant personal relationship. Before Sunday
it was presumed that Bledsoe would be traded after this season.
That's less certain now; what's clear is that Bledsoe, by
supporting Brady and keeping his frustration to himself, retained
his popularity in the locker room.
If Kraft is a father figure to Bledsoe, there's still no
substitute for the real thing. Drew's parents, Mac and Barbara,
missed the Jan. 19 Snow Bowl between the Patriots and the Raiders
in Foxboro, Mass.--the first time at least one of them hadn't
attended one of Drew's playoff games. Last Friday morning Drew's
spirits were lifted when Mac called from their home in Montana to
say he'd be flying to Pittsburgh. "We wanted to show Drew that
it's not about how many touchdowns he throws but that we value
him as a son and will support him no matter what," said Mac on
Sunday as he clutched a game ball while standing in the Heinz
Field parking lot. "I'm prouder of the fortitude he has shown in
handling his benching than I am of anything he's done on the
Mac says he has relied on his son's emotional support in the past
year, during which two of the elder Bledsoe's friends died and a
third learned that he had cancer. "It's been a rough year for my
old man, and watching me go through a difficult situation hasn't
helped," Drew says. "Now that I'm a father, I understand how
tough it is to see your kid struggle."
At his house in suburban Boston two nights before the game,
Bledsoe was in a contemplative mood as he cooked a steak dinner
for Huard. Before eating, the two quarterbacks sat at the dining
room table sipping red wine--a 1999 Oregon Pinot Noir from Archery
Summit, if you're scoring at home. Huard, a backup during most of
his five NFL seasons, reminded Bledsoe, "You have to stay ready
mentally, because you never know when you'll be needed."
That same evening Belichick, having completed a press conference
at a Pittsburgh hotel, fretted over facing the Steelers, who had
the league's top-ranked defense. "We obviously need to score, but
I can't tell you where the points will come from," he said.
"Maybe we'll capitalize on some turnovers or get a touchdown on
special teams. If not, I just don't know."
The Patriots scored twice on special teams--Troy Brown, their
undersized and underrated wideout, was the key to both
touchdowns--and Bledsoe (10 for 21, 102 yards) did the rest. A
popular, unselfish player, Brown (the anti-Glenn) produced the
game's first points on a 55-yard punt return with 3:42 left in
the first quarter. Of his eight catches, for 121 yards, Brown's
longest was a 28-yarder across the middle to the Steelers' 40
just after the first half's two-minute warning, with the Pats
leading 7-3. As Brady (12 of 18, 115 yards) released the ball, he
was hit low by Pittsburgh strong safety Lee Flowers. Brady fell
awkwardly and hobbled off the field with a sprained left ankle.
Out ran Bledsoe. With his body language and his performance he
seemed to tell Brady, "Thanks, kid, I'll take it from here."
Gone, in an instant, was the safe, screen-happy offense tailored
to Brady; now there was an ever-present downfield threat. Bledsoe
has thrown for nearly 30,000 yards, and few of them were as
gratifying as his initial 15-yard hookup with Patten. He liked
the next play even more. The usually immobile Bledsoe scrambled
to his right and into the path of cornerback Chad Scott, who
body-slammed him to the grass near the New England bench. Bledsoe
bounced to his feet screaming, "Yeah! Let's go!" as his teammates
roared. "We all felt it," said Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel.
"I swear to you, on that play near the sideline he wanted that DB
to hit him." Bledsoe zinged another pass to Patten for 10 yards,
then found the receiver in the right corner of the end zone for
an 11-yard touchdown and a 14-3 lead.
Yet when he needed to be, Bledsoe was cooler than a monk on
Xanax. After the Patriots had taken a 21-3 lead on a 60-yard
return of a blocked field goal--Brown picked up the ball and was
slowed at the Steelers' 49, where he lateraled to Antwan Harris
to complete the score--they faced a crisis. Stewart briefly
reverted to his impressive regular-season form, mustering
consecutive touchdown drives to cut New England's lead to 21-17
late in the third quarter. The home crowd was ultraloud, but
Bledsoe turned down the volume with crisp completions to wideouts
Charles Johnson and Brown, and the drive culminated with Adam
Vinatieri nailing a 44-yard field goal. Then, with six minutes
remaining, Bledsoe improvised a sideline lob to Brown for an
18-yard gain on third-and-11.
Two Patriots interceptions later it was time for Bledsoe to take
a knee and kill the clock. Overcome by emotion, he wept. Mac
Bledsoe was crying too as he embraced his son on the field.
"Dad," Drew said, "I guess you're pretty glad you decided to come
out for this one, huh?"
Later Drew had an emotional reunion with Pam Rehbein, his former
coach's widow, whom Kraft had selected as the team's honorary
captain. "I felt like Dick was watching over us today, like he
has been all year," Bledsoe told her.
As the Patriots' team buses neared the airport, Bledsoe took out
his cell phone and called his off-season home in Montana. His
wife, Maura, answered on the first ring, then handed the phone to
four-year-old Stuart, the eldest of their three sons. "Daddy,
Daddy!" Stuart exclaimed. "You're a champion."
With a lump in his throat and a fire in his belly, Bledsoe told
his boy, "Not yet, son. Not yet."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO Breakthrough Brown eluded Pittsburgh's punt coverage for the Patriots' first touchdown and later triggered another scoring runback.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO (BLEDSOE)
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Kordell's hell The Patriots' unheralded defense kept the heat on Stewart all afternoon and picked off three of his passes.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO The Bus stops here Jerome Bettis (36, being hit by Lawyer Milloy) found only heavy traffic and gained nine yards on the day.
"This was the exact scenario I'd dreamt about and prepared for,"
Bledsoe said, "and I've never been so ready."
Suddenly the Steelers fell back on their heels, and 64,704 fans
at Heinz Field shrank back into their seats