FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tedy Bruschi hadn't even stepped into the New England Patriot locker room Wednesday and already a group of at least 50 radio, TV and print reporters had formed a semicircle around his stall. Ringing the outside were stepladders for the 10 cameramen. Everyone nudged everyone for better position.
Linebacker Mike Vrabel chuckled as he walked past and sarcastically muttered, "Welcome back, Tedy."
Just as there was no getting around the throng -- even Bruschi had to wait for the sea of bodies to part -- there's no getting around that his return to football is the biggest story of this NFL season.
Bruschi, the star linebacker who suffered a stroke in February and underwent surgery to repair a hole in his heart, is attempting an unprecedented comeback. He had planned to sit out the season but announced last week plans to return immediately. The struggling Patriots, who are 3-3 and have yet to win consecutive games, could use him Sunday when they play host to Buffalo at Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots had last week off, and their practices were little more than glorified walk-throughs, with players wearing jerseys, shorts and helmets but no pads. It was Monday that Bruschi, feeling some familiar butterflies, did his first hitting in eight months. He suffered the stroke three days after returning home from his first Pro Bowl.
"My first hit of training camp my past nine training camps there's been a little bit of anxiety about it," he said. "So, of course, the first play they run at me is a fullback lead. After that play I think I was all right."
Although Bruschi is often serious and intense when he talks, an observer who knows him well said Wednesday that he looked especially stern and tightly wound. Bruschi patiently answered every question, though, and didn't seem agitated by the dozens of microphones and recorders held inches from his chin.
Asked whether he feels he's ready to play Sunday, he said he's leaving that up to his coaches.
"Right now, I feel I'm being evaluated by Coach [Bill] Belichick, by my defensive coaches," he said. "I know my job's to play linebacker the best I can, and in practices I'm going to show them that I can play still."
Belichick said Bruschi's status was "day to day."
"I think practice preparation is always an indicator of game performance, not necessarily 100%, because there are still a lot of variables there, but it's somewhat of an indicator," the coach said. "I think any player that hasn't played football for a while, and then comes back and tries to catch up to a lot of guys who have been playing on a regular basis, they're behind. They have to be."
Chad Brown, who was signed in part to fill the void left by Bruschi, said he understood the passion to keep playing, even though Bruschi has three Super Bowl rings, all the money he'll ever need, and, essentially, an entire city in the palm of his hand.
"I can totally relate to that," said Brown, a three-time Pro Bowl player in his 13th season. "I could have retired after my last season in Seattle. In my last game there, a playoff game against the Rams, I was talking to Marshall Faulk out there on the field. I said, 'So, Marshall, are you done?' And he's like, 'No, I don't want to go out limping.' Well, you know, I don't want to go out limping either. You want to end it on a high note, and you want to end it on your terms.
"Now all of us who have played football for a long time understand that very few players get to choose how they go out of this game. But you at least want to give it a shot. Tedy could have easily sat out this season, and he still could have gotten paid. But for someone who's a competitor, who loves the game, who wakes up every morning invigorated by the challenge of playing the game, there's no substitute for that."
Few athletes are as popular in New England as Bruschi. Half a century after baseball's Ted Williams set the standard for sports stars here, Bruschi is the new "Tedy Ballgame."
"He's almost as popular as Tom Brady," said Delio Susi Jr., chef and owner of Amelia's Trattoria, near Harvard University. "Eight out of 10 jerseys I see are Bruschi jerseys. He fits the Patriots persona. Bostonians love hard workers, clean-cut guys. Big loudmouths don't make it here."
Three days after the Pro Bowl, Bruschi arrived at Massachusetts General Hospital complaining of headaches, blurred vision and numbness on his right side. He checked out two days later, walking shakily with his wife, Heidi, at his side.
About a month after his stroke, Bruschi underwent a procedure to repair a hole in his heart. Doctors say such holes -- oval-shaped openings often no larger than a grain of rice between the heart's upper chambers -- are fairly common, and many people never know they have one. However, studies have linked the defect to strokes.