SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - There was a time when Tedy Bruschi was unsure he'd be able to go to a football game again, let alone play in one.
Yet here he is nearly three years later, fully recovered from a stroke and back at the Super Bowl as one of the unbeaten New England Patriots' defensive leaders.
'To help this team get back to this point is a victory for me in itself,' the playmaking linebacker said. 'I have been working with the American Stroke Association a lot, and I know this is a victory for all stroke survivors, as well. I realize the whole group of things I've been able to accomplish.'
What he's done has been nothing short of incredible. Bruschi led the Patriots for the second straight season in tackles despite the stroke, which severely impaired his vision and affected his motor skills in February 2005.
'People have talked to me about being an inspiration to them and a lot of stroke survivors talk to me,' he said. 'I respect that and I am humbled by it. It is something that I am proud to call myself: a stroke survivor.'
Just 10 days after helping New England win the Super Bowl, and three days after playing in the Pro Bowl, Bruschi was hospitalized with what was described as a minor stroke. For a 31-year-old football player whose life is all about hitting others with as much force as possible, there was nothing minor about it.
'What he went through was something that very few people really go through, especially at that age,' coach Bill Belichick said. 'I know there were difficult times for him and times that he didn't ever think he would play football again.'
In the weeks afterward, Bruschi had blurred vision and had to relearn how to walk. Even as he left a Boston hospital after being treated, he walked tentatively, his wife, Heidi, beside him and football the furthest thing from his mind.
But after having surgery to repair a hole in his heart, Bruschi vigorously began an improbable comeback.
'I think the one thing they had to watch out for most was that they had to monitor the device in my heart,' he said. 'What they told me was that I was in a data-free zone. There weren't really tests that I could base myself off of. No one had really done this before.'
Bruschi said the battery of tests were nerve-racking and he wondered what would happen if the device dislodged or didn't take correctly.
'My doctors pretty much assured me that it wouldn't, but when you talk to people in the medical profession, words that they use are 'shouldn't' or 'We don't think it will happen,' he said. 'But there is always that slight possibility. Hearing that, that sort of plants a seed in your mind that this could happen, that this could happen or this can possibly happen. I think those tests and seeing those tests are really confidence builders for me, and that it was going to be OK.'
Bruschi missed the first six games of the 2005 season before being cleared to return. He then played nine in a row, including a 10-tackle performance against Buffalo in his first game back.
'I'll always remember being on the field and starting next to Tedy that game after he came back from a stroke,' fellow linebacker Mike Vrabel recalled. 'I'll remember the reaction from the fans and the reaction from the players. It was special.'
Bruschi still hears from fans who have been inspired by his courageous comeback or are going through a similar situation.
'Constantly,' he said. 'Letters, fan mail, e-mails. They tell me their story and how (mine) relates to them. My doctors tell me that their patients light up every time they tell somebody, 'This is the same thing Ted Bruschi went through. If he can get back to playing professional football, then you can be a normal, functioning human being also.'
This Super Bowl has taken on even more special meaning for Bruschi: He attended the University of Arizona. He was a defensive force for the Wildcats, tying the NCAA Division I sacks mark with 52, and was drafted by the Patriots in the third round of the 1996 draft.
Bruschi is preparing for the big game in enemy territory, though, because New England is practicing at Arizona State's football facility.
'It was our archrival in college,' he said with a smile. 'Being here on campus is ironic to me. When Coach Belichick told us we were practicing at the Arizona State facility, it gave me a little chill. But still, the entire state of Arizona is a state I feel very fond of.'
He hopes to leave the Valley of the Sun a champion again.
'We don't consider ourselves invincible. The minute you consider yourself invincible, you're letting your guard down,' Bruschi said. 'If you think you can't be beat, that's the wrong thought to have. ... The way you do win football games is by doing the things that help you win - preparing during the week and playing good football.'