The news that Drew Bledsoe is retiring from the NFL has put me into nostalgia mode. I was a 12-year-old Patriots fan back when Drew was drafted #1 overall in 1993, and I saw him bring the Patriots back to respectability in the years that followed, culminating in the Super Bowl appearance in early 1997 against Green Bay (I was a sophomore in high school by then). Sure, Drew was a statue standing in the pocket, he was easy to ridicule, and he was the source of plenty of aggravation to me over the years, but I will always remember that he gave his all and was a class act. Despite his limitations, Drew had a gun of an arm and was a big part of the Pats’ success in the 1990s, obviously.
What I will remember most about Drew is how gracefully he handled the Patriots’ 2001 championship season, a tough year for him that began with a serious injury in the Jets game in September (a Mo Lewis hit nearly killed Drew in that first game after 9/11) and that saw him lose his starting job to some unknown named Tom Brady. Drew could’ve caused a big scene about it and torn the team apart. He was a good soldier though, even responding to media inquiries with “next question” responses on the very day that Belichick announced that Brady was keeping the starting job over the now-healthy Bledsoe, who was visibly seething. That must have been a devastating time for Drew personally. Here he was, the franchise quarterback with the $100-million dollar contract, and his life had changed dramatically and suddenly. Still, he didn’t poison the locker room as the team came together for the playoff run.
The script couldn’t have been written any better for the AFC Championship Game that year in Pittsburgh. With Tom Brady knocked out of the contest with an ankle injury, Drew Bledsoe sprinted off the bench to throw a rousing TD to David Patten and give the Pats a 14-3 lead in the second quarter. It was a beautiful scene with Bledsoe, who had dutifully accepted his role, able to contribute one last time. The next week, Drew told Brady to “just sling it” before the game-winning drive in the Super Bowl against the Rams. Brady did that, leading the team to its first-ever NFL championship and one of the biggest upsets in the history of the big game.
Bledsoe was happy and reflective after the Super Bowl. He must have known he was moving on, and on draft day in April 2002, the team traded him to Buffalo for a second-round pick. It was sad to see Bledsoe the last few years bouncing around the league, getting replaced in the starting role by two other young hot shots. He always remained classy, even with the dented pride of a one-time franchise QB reduced to a backup role.
Cheers to Drew Bledsoe for giving as much as I could expect from a pro athlete.