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Bruschi plans to play next year

Cites post-stroke progress

NORTH ATTLEBOROUGH -- Linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who suffered a stroke Feb. 15, revealed yesterday he intends to play football for the Patriots next season.

''I've talked with a lot of people and heard a lot of opinions," said Bruschi, in his first extensive comments since being taken by ambulance from his North Attleborough home to Massachusetts General Hospital last winter. ''Cardiologists, neurologists. And not one of them said, 'Tedy, you can't play again.'

''I'm definitely playing next year. That's my ace in the hole. It's a little hard to sit back and watch the guys [this season], but it's easier knowing I've got something to look forward to.

''My goal is to play football again, but it wouldn't have been my goal if my doctors weren't on board and my family wasn't on board. They are."

Bruschi emphatically denied that he will return at any point this season to the Patriots, who kick off the defense of their Super Bowl crown Thursday night against the Oakland Raiders at Gillette Stadium.

''I'm telling you right now that's not going to happen," he said. ''I need to do what's best for my family and myself.

''There's a difference between living life normally and being fine and getting ready for a professional football season. I need the year to get myself ready.

''I considered playing this year. We talked about it a lot. But this is something you don't rush. It's not a sprained ankle. This is my medical health, and although I'm feeling great right now, I've also been told by my doctors some time will help. It will help medically, but it will also help me deal with it mentally. I think I've healed faster physically than I have emotionally."

Speculation has been rampant regarding Bruschi and his football future since he suffered the mild stroke nearly seven months ago, just days after returning from the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. He confirmed yesterday the stroke was the result of a blood clot that doctors believe traveled through a small hole in his heart. He also confirmed he underwent a procedure in Boston in March to repair it. The origin of the clot, he said, has never been determined, nor has the cause of the clot.

''Maybe I was a little dehydrated, maybe it was the long flight back from Hawaii," Bruschi said. ''There's really no way of knowing."

Startling realization
Bruschi said he prefers to keep the names of the physicians who attended to him private, but he was willing to describe a harrowing five days in which the high of his third Super Bowl victory and his first Pro Bowl appearance quickly evaporated as he and his wife, Heidi, dealt with a medical crisis that blindsided them.

Bruschi had been home a day and a half from Hawaii when he woke up around 4 a.m. experiencing numbness in both his left arm and his left leg.

''I woke up with sort of a pain in the back of my neck," he explained. ''I sat up in bed and the left side of my arm and my leg felt funny. There was some numbness, almost like a loss of control, so I got up and used the restroom."

As Bruschi tried to stand up, he lost his balance and had to grab hold of the side of the bed. Heidi woke up and asked what was wrong.

''I sort of limped to the restroom, then came back and we talked about it for a little bit," Bruschi said. ''I had a headache. I was uncomfortable, but we decided just to go back to sleep. You've got to remember, I've woken up with pain plenty of times before. Lots of times I've moaned and groaned and gotten out of bed, shaken off the pain, then gone back to sleep. We figured this was the same sort of thing."

Heidi let her husband rest until around 10, then went back into the bedroom to check on him.

''I woke up with the same numbness," Bruschi said. ''At that point I'm thinking, 'I wonder what's wrong? I've never felt this way before.' "

Heidi made two calls: one to Patriots head trainer Jim Whalen, and the other to her father, who is a physician's assistant. After hearing Bruschi's symptoms, each urged Heidi to drive him to Mass. General for an examination.

''But even then I was saying, 'I don't know if I need to go,' " Bruschi said. ''I was thinking it was something that could possibly pass. I didn't have a tremendous amount of pain."

It wasn't until his 5-year old son, Tedy Jr., scampered into the room that the linebacker realized the severity of his condition.

''TJ came in from my left," Bruschi said. ''I heard him, but I didn't see him. I didn't see him until he popped up on the right side of my field of vision and said, 'Good morning, Daddy.'

''That's when I got scared. I told Heidi, 'Call 911.' "

Heidi's composed phone conversation with the paramedics has been replayed coast to coast on numerous newscasts. But her calm demeanor masked the panic she was feeling as she described her husband's symptoms, including erroneously reporting the numbness was on his right side. ''It's the only mistake she's made during this whole deal," Bruschi cracked.

The next call was to a close friend who offered to come and watch their three boys, all under age 6.

''The baby, Dante, was only about 8 weeks old," Heidi said. ''I was still nursing him. I was wondering, 'Should I leave the baby here? Should I take him with us?' My friend finally said, 'I've got formula. Leave him here. Just go.' "

As their mother fought back tears, young TJ and Rex followed their father out to the ambulance and kissed him goodbye. Within minutes, the Bruschis were en route to Mass. General, with the paramedics already having identified him as a probable stroke victim.

Bruschi was whisked into the emergency room, where a CAT scan was administered.

''Within minutes of the CAT scan, the doctor came out, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, 'You've had a mild stroke,' " Bruschi recalled. ''I said, 'What?' I was in disbelief. It was a total shock to me."

Because Bruschi had delayed reporting his symptoms so long, he said, it was too late for the doctors to attempt to break up the clot.

''The thing that people don't understand is you have three hours once you think you are experiencing a stroke to do something about it," Bruschi said. ''If you can get to the hospital right away, you can get a clot-busting drug that could save your life.

''That's one of the reasons I'm talking about this publicly. I want people to realize if they have headaches or numbness, especially on one side, along with dizziness, loss of balance, or maybe even slurring of your words, you are having a stroke.

''Don't do what I did. Don't go back to sleep. Get to the hospital as quickly as possible."

If Bruschi had gone to the hospital when he first experienced the numbness, would his stroke have been less invasive?

''We started talking about it the other night," Heidi said. ''But then we stopped. What's the point? We can't change what happened."

In the first 12 hours after Bruschi was admitted to the hospital, football was the furthest thing from his mind. His vision and his ability to walk had been severely compromised. The amount of damage he had incurred was still undetermined.

''I could have died," Bruschi said. ''The doctors told me that. If the clot was a couple of millimeters in a different direction, I might not be sitting here talking to you now. But it wasn't my time."

Healing begins
Bruschi spent three days at Mass. General. The first night, Whalen kept an around-the-clock vigil in his room. Bruschi awoke one morning to see Patriots owner Robert Kraft and his wife, Myra, by his bedside. Assistant trainer Dave Granito and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli also visited.

He was released three days later with a horde of television cameras recording the moment. Bruschi smiled and waved, but appeared wan and unstable as Heidi led him to their car.

''I could still barely see and barely walk when I left the hospital," he said. ''I could walk better than what everyone saw [on television], but when that door opened and I saw everyone standing there, I grabbed Heidi and said, 'Make sure I don't fall.' "

Doctors monitored Bruschi closely over the next several weeks, making sure the clot dissipated and that there was no danger of an aneurysm. They waited until March to repair the hole in his heart because the procedure required putting him on a blood thinner, Coumadin, and they did not want to administer that until they were certain the clot had dissipated.

He began an intensive physical therapy program at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Center, where his initial goal was modest: walk without stumbling. Bruschi navigated orange cones, threw and caught a ball while perched on a balancing beam, and tottered around a sheet of plastic.

It was a humbling experience for an elite athlete, but if it discouraged him, Heidi said, he rarely showed it. He simply kept to the task at hand.

''I know this guy better than anybody," Heidi said. ''I know he's driven and motivated and goal-driven. But this was the biggest shock of our lives. His career was taken from him, his ability to see his kids was taken from him, but he never felt sorry for himself. He just said, 'OK, what do we do next?' I was impressed by that. I'm still impressed by that."

There were days, however, when Bruschi simply was not sure whether his life would ever regain any sense of normalcy. His vision loss was the most troubling of all the symptoms, and there was no rehabilitation for that. Only time would tell if he would completely regain his sight.

''My test was looking at the digital clock we had in the bedroom," he said. ''We had it set high so Heidi could keep track of baby Dante's feedings.

''I'd look at that clock and if it was 12:29, I only saw 2:29. It worried me. But, over time, I started seeing the bottom of the 1. Then I started seeing the top of the 1. To the immediate left of the 1 on the clock, there is a little signal for the battery. Once I could see that, I knew I was OK."

It took six weeks for his eyesight to be fully restored. It took slightly longer for him to resume his decidedly unorthodox gait. As for the emotional fallout of his brush with mortality, that is an ongoing project. Bruschi said he's grateful the Patriots have allowed him to heal in peace.

''The Patriots haven't put any pressure on me," Bruschi said. ''[Coach] Bill [Belichick] has been extremely supportive. He's told me, 'Whatever you decide, Tedy, we're fine with it.'

''They've left the entire process up to us. Honestly, early on I thought I was done. I can't see, I can barely walk. So I'm listening to my body and it's telling me, 'Tedy, you can't do this.' But now time has passed, and my body is saying, 'Tedy, you've got a shot.' "

Raising awareness
The Bruschis have fielded hundreds of interview requests over the past six months, but kept silent, in part, because his condition was improving and changing daily. They also wanted to make the most informed decision about his future.

''I know people wanted information, but this was an in-house issue," Heidi explained. ''This affects our family for the rest of our lives. This is where the decision needed to be made first.

''We needed to be thorough, but we also wanted to put him in the best position possible. Wouldn't it have been devastating for him to go out there and not be right?"

Bruschi, who has been placed on the team's physically-unable-to-perform list (an official NFL roster designation in which a player must sit out the first six weeks of the season), understands there are no guarantees he will return to his Pro Bowl form of 2004. He has not tested his body against full contact, although he works out daily and regularly attends the team meetings.

''I get excited when we see a game plan for Green Bay," he said. ''I'm anxious to see how we'll prepare for Oakland. I want to know what we're doing, how the linebackers will prepare for them. I talk to the guys. Chad [Brown] will ask me a question, and I'll gladly answer it. He's a good football player. Monty [Beisel], too. They're going to have great years and I'm going to have fun watching them."

That doesn't mean sitting out this season will be easy. The chance for New England to win three championships in a row will have to be done without their emotional defensive leader, and Bruschi knows it will get harder as the season progresses.

''I think about playing before I go to sleep," he admitted. ''I think about it a lot. But I tell my sons when they have a tough time calming down to take a deep breath. My time will come."

His experience has convinced him to join forces with the American Stroke Association to raise awareness about strokes and the need to address them immediately. He has pledged to form Tedy's Team, a group of runners who will train for marathons and solicit pledges, much like cyclists do in the successful cancer fund-raiser, the Pan-Mass Challenge.

''Strokes are the No. 1 disabler in America and the No. 3 killer," Bruschi said. ''I didn't know that before. I know it now."

Do not ask him to predict how this will affect his career. He has no idea. Nobody does.

''I know a lot can happen in a year," he said. ''A lot happened in a day and a half after the Pro Bowl. For years I've been preaching, 'One game a time.' That's how I'm living my life at the moment -- one day at a time."

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