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Balloting should be a runaway

FOXBOROUGH -- When Bill Parcells needed to motivate injured players to get back on the field, he'd tell them, ''I came back from heart surgery quicker than you're coming back from a sore hamstring." If Tedy Bruschi were a coach, he could probably say something similar, but instead of heart surgery he could insert ''stroke."

Which is why when a ballot came in the mail for NFL awards, the Comeback Player Award took me two seconds to fill out. Who else but Bruschi?

This is the ultimate comeback. This wasn't a reconstructed knee, back surgery, or a broken arm. Bruschi was in a life-threatening situation, yet when all is said and done, all you'll see in his statistics regarding 2005 is six weeks on the physically-unable-to-perform list. His stroke won't be documented in the NFL Register.

The feat wasn't lost on Red Sox manager Terry Francona -- a friendship born from their roots at the University of Arizona -- and yesterday Bruschi spoke about how much he's appreciated Francona's uplifting correspondence during his trying time.

''He sent me one when I came back right before the Buffalo game and just told me how much he appreciated my perseverance and the obvious love I had for what I was doing," Bruschi said. ''It meant a lot to me. Terry is always so positive as so many thousands of Patriots fans have been through this process. When you're going through something like this, to have someone like Terry, who has his hands full managing the Red Sox, take the time to drop you a note, it means a lot to me."

Francona has been going through some trying times -- most recently the departure of center fielder Johnny Damon -- but when broached on the topic of Bruschi, Francona seemed awestruck.

''I just go back to Opening Day at Fenway and Tedy comes out and I just remember feeling goose bumps," Francona said. ''I don't know if it's a bond because we're Arizona guys or just that we've both had our share of physical problems that we've had to overcome. I just think it's one of the greatest stories I've ever heard in sports. I've e-mailed him just to say hello and tell him how I feel about what he's doing."

After missing the first six games of the season, does it look as if Bruschi has missed a beat? Does it look as though he's even a slightly different player from what he was?

When asked if he thinks he's as good as he was, Bruschi took a deep breath.

''That's a statement I don't want to say, you know?" Bruschi said. ''But I feel good. Physically, I don't feel any different than I used to feel. When Dr. Greer said in his statement that I'm completely back to normal, he wasn't lying. I think getting more reps in practice has helped, but I feel pretty good out there."

Bruschi's journey has been a game-to-game evaluation. He was AFC Defensive Player of the Week in his first game, but he was clearly rusty. Had the stroke slowed him? But as the weeks passed there doesn't appear to be a drop-off in his play.

''I believe in the whole offseason mini-camp, training camp concept," Bruschi said. ''That was a process I missed out on this year. So jumping in like I did was new for me. So I've had to adjust a little bit. I've had to rely more on my experience this year. But physically I feel good about playing football out there. I think emotionally I'm into it. And as the season goes on, my timing is much better week to week."

Bruschi has had to adapt to a new defensive coordinator in Eric Mangini. His old weakside linebacker position is being played by Mike Vrabel. So Bruschi has had to play the middle. The middle, a.k.a. The Mike, was Ted Johnson's position (he retired in the offseason), and involves more physical contact.

Attending positional and team meetings was very helpful, Bruschi said, in getting to know Mangini's style.

''There are adjustments in our defense now that weren't there last year," Bruschi said. ''Romeo [Crennel] and Eric are two different people. Eric's personality is much different. Just to be around a little more [is] what helps me in being able to take in those new meetings with Eric."

So he stepped in, no longer an inside tandem with Johnson, with a different defensive scheme and position. And little appears to have changed for Bruschi, or recently, the Patriots' defense, which has allowed 10 points the last three games.

''We've been doing all right the last few weeks, but we really don't hang anything on the past," Bruschi said of the front seven's play. ''We're really looking forward to another game to see if we can do the same things. We feel really comfortable about being around each other again. Everybody's sort of developed into feeling comfortable with Rosey [Colvin] being on the outside and Mike on the inside and I'm back. So over time we're just feeling like we're coming together. It has helped us produce a much better defensive effort than earlier in the season. But we look forward to doing it again this week."

Breaking things down further, Bruschi spoke about the difference between Vrabel and Johnson.

''Night and day," Bruschi said. ''Ted was a take-on-the-block type of guy. You see what Mike does. He makes plays in coverage, vs. the run. Mike is out there playing special teams also. Every facet of his game is polished. Ted was a main guy in there taking on guards and really establishing himself physically."

And Bruschi has experience with his role in the middle. ''The year we played in the Super Bowl in Houston, I played 'Mike' the entire year," he said. ''I'm comfortable still playing Mike. It's something I've had to change and something I had to deal with also. A little more of a beating. You're still an inside linebacker in the 3-4 over an uncovered guard. There are different blocking schemes you have to recognize."

Bruschi could have easily rode off into the sunset as a Patriots hero. He could have had a lifelong deal with the organization. He could have had the remaining three years of his contract guaranteed by ownership if he didn't return.

But he returned for the love of the game.

''To accomplish what he has . . . that guy is pretty special," Francona said. ''I hope he enjoys his endeavor because everyone has enjoyed watching him."

Comeback Player of the Year. Maybe the comeback player of all time.

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