BOSTON (CBS) — It’s been 15 years since Mo Lewis used all of his 6-foot-3, 260 pound frame to deliver a bone-crushing hit on Drew Bledsoe, a hit that forever changed the Patriots franchise.
The Week 2 collision nearly killed the quarterback, who suffered a concussion and internal bleeding. It also began the career of Tom Brady, which eventually launched the Patriots into a different stratosphere in the sports universe. Brady and a suffocating Patriots defense went on to lead New England to their first Super Bowl Championship over the St. Louis Rams a few months later, the first of four titles Brady has guided the team to over his Hall of Fame career.
With the now-Los Angeles Rams coming to Foxboro on Sunday, members of that Super Bowl XXXVI team will be honored at Gillette Stadium, including Bledsoe. The former quarterback spoke with reporters at Gillette on Wednesday and said it was special to be part of that title team (and the teams leading up to it) that paved the way for the unprecedented run the Patriots have enjoyed for the last decade and a half.
“It was really an honor for me and my teammates to be part of this organization as it went from being pretty bad to pretty good,” said Bledsoe, who was drafted first overall by the Patriots in 1993. “Since we left it’s gone on to be the marquee organization in all of pro sports, at least in the United States. But we were part of that transition from doormat to a fairly competitive organization. Those were neat teams to be a part of… It’s going to be really fun to get the team back together this week.”
With a solid collection of talent along the offensive line, Bledsoe said he had a feeling early in training camp that the 2001 Patriots could be special, as long as players stayed healthy.
“As the season progressed, that became the case as everyone got healthy and got on the field. The team started playing really well. Unfortunately, I wasn’t on the field with them for a big chunk of that run, but when I got to play in the AFC Championship Game [in Pittsburgh], it was a unique feeling to throw the first pass, watch it get completed and not get hit,” Bledsoe joked.
“It truly was a team. Part of what happened that year, without overstating it, when I got hurt I think guys looked at it and said, ‘Our franchise guy got hurt, we all have to step up and really make this a team thing.’ As Tom continued to play better and better, his part in that grew,” he said. “I do think that team, and you saw it in the way they were introduced in the Super Bowl when they were introduced together, there is nobody bigger than the team. That’s one of the many, many reasons they’ve been successful for so long.”
Bledsoe still stays in touch with some of his former teammates, and often reminisces about how things are much different now than when he first took the field at the old Foxboro Stadium.
“The young guys now get to practice in this palace. They have no idea,” he said with a chuckle. “We used to put our pads on, get in our cars and drive to an abandoned mental hospital. We would get dirty, get in our cars all dirty, drive back and take a cold shower and then go to our meetings in the portables. It was a little different.”
Bledsoe was the face of the franchise and put up some incredible stats for eight years before Brady got his chance. When the Patriots first drafted Brady with the 199th overall pick in 2000, Bledsoe didn’t think much of the move. While Brady showed a great work ethic, Bledsoe didn’t think he had the build to be a starting quarterback in the NFL.
“I figured he’d be in the league a long time, just because he was a hard-working guy with a great attitude. But I don’t know that I ever thought he would be a starter, to be honest with you. He was just a skinny kid out of Michigan,” he said. “But he felt different and his legacy, to me, is far more about what he does outside the lines of the field, in terms of his leadership and how he demands everyone matches his work ethic so they can achieve being a great player on the field.”
Bledsoe believes Brady’s greatness will continue for as long as the 39-year-old wants it to.
“He’ll wear everyone out talking about his diet and his regimen, but it’s working. That, combined with the fact you can’t hit the quarterback these days, will allow him to play a lot longer,” said Bledsoe. “Tom can play for a long time. He takes great care of himself and is such a great leader for this organization.”