Monday, August 31, 2009

Unretired Numbers Are Just as Easy to Remember

The job of any linebacker basically consists of two assignments. Find the football, and stop whatever it is the offense was doing with it. The details of those chores can get complex, but Tedy Bruschi had an almost unequaled ability to boil his position down to its essentials and then create them.

The cliches, "Nose for the football," "knack for the big play," "able to execute, etc.," all of which Bruschi exemplified in spades in his 13-year NFL career, are an admission by the coaches who use them that the ability they describe is fundamentally mysterious. There are certain minimum levels of physical size, speed, strength, and reaction time needed to play pro football. But there are plenty of guys in the upper percentiles of those qualities who can't play a lick, because they are never in synch with the game. Bruschi, who was below the median physical requirements of his position, excelled because he had the football gift. It's more than understanding, or study, or even desire. Bruschi was at one with the game out there.

Small wonder Bruschi found the sport such a fulfilling experience. Who among us is at one with their work, even a little bit? Smaller wonder Bill Belichick, equally fulfilled in the sport, was so obviously moved at the thought of Bruschi's retirement.

I am seldom moved when a pro football player hangs 'em up. I am relieved. In many ways, retirement day is the luckiest day of a player's career. The traumatic collisions are over. Existing physical conditions may deteriorate, but they won't be jarred into potential system failure.

Quarterbacks can get old and have their skills fade and still play a little if they master the art of error avoidance. At the hitting positions, this is impossible. When a linebacker starts to lose reaction time, he starts to lose the collisions. Getting run over regularly is no way to earn a living.

A proud man as well as a true gentleman, Bruschi evaluated his situation and decided there was an unacceptable chance that the above paragraph represented his fate in 2009. He was always an honest interview, and there's no doubt in my mind he's honest with himself, too.

New England is still old-fashioned enough that a retired sports hero IS a hero in these parts, an honored minor celebrity. That speaks well of us. That Tedy Bruschi will become one of those retired heroes here speaks to how lucky New England has been.


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