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Two decades ago, a near-fatal tackle changed the course of football history

Drew Bledsoe had established himself as the greatest quarterback in New England Patriots history, and owner Robert Kraft figured the best was yet to come. So, before the 2001 season, he rewarded Bledsoe with a 10-year, $103-million contract extension that would make him the highest paid player in NFL history.

At the time, it seemed a rock-solid investment. After all, Bledsoe was just 29 years old. The former first-round draft pick had guided the Patriots to the Super Bowl three years earlier, and though they had lost that game to Green Bay, Bledsoe was confident he would avenge that loss and bring several silver Lombardi Trophies to New England.

And, perhaps, that might have happened with him at the helm had it not been for what transpired late in the fourth quarter of a game between the Patriots and New York Jets on Sept. 23, 2001. With five minutes remaining and New England trailing by a touchdown, Bledsoe was hell-bent on doing whatever he could to keep the drive alive. So, after being flushed out of the pocket during a third-and-10 play, he saw an opening and began chugging down the sideline toward the first down marker. What he didn’t see was Jets linebacker Mo Lewis giving chase like a roaring 18-wheeler about to T-bone him. Backup quarterback Tom Brady was standing on the sidelines, not far from where the collision occurred. He said it was the loudest pop he’s ever heard on a football field.

Twenty years later, its impact continues to be felt. By Brady. By Bledsoe. By Bill Belichick. By the NFL.

It’s not a stretch to say that Lewis’ heat-seeking missile hit in Foxboro, Mass. that early autumn afternoon changed the course of football history. It nearly killed Bledsoe, while simultaneously launching a dynasty and Brady’s unparalleled quarterbacking career.

Although Bledsoe returned for the next series after his pummeling, it quickly became apparent something wasn’t right. His mind was so fuzzy he was having problems remembering plays he’d been calling for years. Brady was sent in to replace him, and although he didn’t engineer a come-from-behind victory, the sixth-round pick from the University of Michigan did enough to convince Belichick that he was the quarterback who gave his team the best chance to win going forward.

Brady, as we all know, rewarded that faith by leading the Patriots to the first six Super Bowl championships they would enjoy with him under center. Bledsoe would be back in helmet and pads a few weeks after recovering from the concussion, collapsed lung and internal bleeding that almost cost him his life. But he would never start another game for the Pats. The following April, he was dealt to Buffalo, where he started strong with single-season franchise records for completions (375) and passing yards (4,359) in 2002. However, he wouldn’t sustain that success, and after two more seasons with the Bills and two seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, he retired to his home state of Washington, where he’s become an award-winning vintner.

“I guess you could say that hit spawned some interesting what-ifs,” Bledsoe told me several years ago. “We had a stacked team (in 2001) and I really believe we still would have won it all if I had continued on as the starting (Patriots) quarterback. And I might have gone on to win several Lombardi Trophies because I was in my prime. Would Tom have had the success he’s had if he didn’t get his shot when he did? Perhaps, given his talent and work ethic. But we’ll never know for sure.”

What we do know is that Brady clearly took advantage of his carpe diem moment. He seized that day and the next two decades for that matter. He opened this — his 22nd NFL season — with four touchdown passes as the Tampa Bay Bucs began defense of their Super Bowl title with a victory against the Cowboys.

Still, one can’t help but wonder — especially if you are a Bills fan or a fan of several other teams Brady has tormented through the years — how different history might have been had Lewis not pummeled Bledsoe with a clean but hard hit that September afternoon two decades ago. The ripple effect of that tackle is truly amazing.

Since becoming a starter, Brady has dominated pretty much everybody, none more so than the Bills. He is 32-3 against them, with 68 touchdown passes and 21 interceptions. It hasn’t been much better for their AFC East brethren. The Jets are 8-30 vs. Brady. The Dolphins are 12-23, giving them the record for most victories against Brady, but, to keep things in perspective, that’s a paltry .343 winning percentage. Hardly anything to write home about. In Brady’s 19 years as a Patriots starter, New England won 17 division titles.

So, how differently would things have been had Brady not gotten his shot when he did? I think it’s safe to say that the Bills wouldn’t have gone 17 years between playoff appearances or a quarter-century between AFC East crowns. And one would suspect the misery the Jets and Dolphins endured wouldn’t have been quite as bad.

Like many of us, Bledsoe can’t help but play the “what if” game, but he seems to have come to terms with his fate. He’s been back to New England numerous times, including 2011 when he was inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame, and two years ago, when he served as the team’s honorary captain before the AFC Championship Game. Although he posted impressive numbers during his 14-year NFL career — he ranks 15th all-time in completions and 17th in passing yards — his stats won’t earn him a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The four-time Pro Bowl selection is a better fit for the Hall of the Very Good.

With a record six Super Bowl rings and the third most coaching victories in NFL history, perhaps no one benefitted more from Brady’s success than Belichick. He deserves some credit for drafting Brady, though he did wait until the 199th pick to do so, so you have to wonder just how high he was on the former Wolverine coming out of college. But Belichick does deserve kudos for keeping Brady in the lineup after Bledsoe was medically cleared to play again. Most coaches would have given the veteran his job back in that situation, but Belichick saw something special in Brady, and made a risky decision that wasn’t popular with Patriots players and fans. It is worth noting that Belichick had a 219-64 record in games Brady started, and is 61-73 in his games without Brady.

Interestingly, Lewis also had a very good career, recording 52 sacks, forcing 26 fumbles and scoring five defensive touchdowns while playing 200 games for the Jets, third most in franchise history. He was credited with 1,232 tackles in his 13 NFL seasons, with one standing out among the rest. The impact of that hit on Bledsoe continues to be felt two decades later. It stopped Bledsoe two yards short of a first down, and opened the door for the greatest quarterback career of all-time, while triggering one of the most compelling “what-ifs” in sports history.

Best-selling author and nationally honored sports journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

One comment

  1. Thanks for the history lesson! Despite being a Bledsoe fan while he was in Buffalo, I never knew the story behind his arrival in Buffalo. All in all, another great column Scott.

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