Being a Patriots fan has been one of the most enjoyable and exciting parts of my life. When I look back at the past seventeen years, there's really one man to thank for this experience: Drew Bledsoe. As a young sports fan in North Jersey, I never liked to follow the crowd. Instead of going with the local teams, I chose my allegiences randomly. I'm a Timberwolves fan because I thought a hat of theirs was cool when I was nine years old. I'm an Orioles fan because I got caught up in Cal Ripken Jr.'s Iron Man streak. (As you can see, I've suffered an immense amount of needless pain from these decisions.) I became a Patriots fan because I liked Drew Bledsoe. Why Bledsoe? I have no idea. It probably had something to do with him being young, having a cool name, and being somebody that none of my other friends liked. But nevertheless, I liked Drew Bledsoe and so I like the Patriots. After swinging and whiffing badly on the first two teams, I finally managed to hit one out of the park with Drew and the Pats.
Within a few years of hopping on the Patriots' wagon, the team went from the league's cellar dwellers, to Super Bowl XXXI. You have no idea how big of a moment that was for me. My sister was much better at picking teams than I was, and I had just endured a four year stretch where her Cowboys had won three Super Bowls. None of my teams had ever sniffed a championship. Even though, I knew the Patriots' chances of beating the Packers were slim at best, I was just happy to have my team playing in the big game. Things were looking up and the Bledsoe/Parcells union appeared to be on track to creating a potential dynasty in New England.
And then, in typical fashion for my young sports life, everything fell apart. Parcells left the team and was replaced by Pete Carroll. The Patriots went from 11-5, to 10-6, to 9-7, to 8-8. Carroll got the axe and was replaced by Bill Belichick and the team went a dismal 5-11. At this point, it seemed pretty clear that Bledsoe would not be the savior we had all envisioned, who would bring us to the promised land. In some ways, those sentiments were correct, but not completely.
Drew Bledsoe changed the course of NFL history in Week 2 of the 2001 NFL season. In a road game against the Jets, he took a devastating blow from linebacker Mo Lewis which sheared a blood vessel in his chest and caused him to lose nearly half the blood in his body. That injury opened the door for sophomore Tom Brady to take the field and turned the Patriots' world upside down.
The Patriots would go on to finish 11-3 and found themselves playing the AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh as heavy underdogs. As incredible as New England's run had been that year, there was still a part of me that felt something was wrong. All this success had come at the cost of Drew Bledsoe. He was the reason I had become a Patriots fan. He was the player who turned the team from the joke of the league into Super Bowl contenders. It just didn't seem right to have him injured on the sidelines watching his team get taken out from under him.
Bledsoe, however, didn't feel that way. He took Tom Brady under his wing and gave him everything he had as a mentor. He stayed quiet and humble in front of the press and remained the conssumate teammate in the locker room. It had to be an agonizing season in some regards, but Bledsoe played his role admirably. And when Tom Brady found himself with an injured ankle at the end of the first half, Drew Bledsoe finally got the moment of glory that was due to him. Starting from the Pittsburgh 40, Bledsoe completed a scoring drive with an 11-yard touchdown pass to seal a 24-17 victory. It was a moment that made the kid who had grown up cheering for Bledsoe rejoice. For one last time, #11 was the Patriots quarterback, leading New England back to the Super Bowl.
So that's my journey with Drew Bledsoe. Like many fans, my memories of him are bittersweet. I look at Tom Brady, and I see all the things I dreamed Bledsoe would be, but never quite was. Yet at the same time, the foundation he laid for this franchise is immeasurable, and the influence he had on me is undeniable. Success is often measured by wins and championships won. Don't get me wrong, Bledsoe had his share of those as well, but Drew's impact goes far beyond those simple measures. When he becomes this year's inductee into the Patriots' Hall of Fame, as I suspect he will, he could very well be the most worthy member of them all.
Not too shabby for a guy who won his only Super Bowl standing on the sideline.