Pedersen on Sports

As Tedy Bruschi makes his way into the College Football Hall of Fame, Tucson took a moment to honor one of history's greatest Wildcats

There's a sort of poetic irony that my first college beer was facilitated by a guy named Bruschi.

It was freshman orientation, June 1994. Another newbie and I had wandered away from the Manzanita-Mohave dorm on the Arizona campus where we were staying. The goal was to do a little nighttime exploring, see what we could find.

We could hear what sounded like live music coming from not too far away, so we headed in that direction and happened upon the old Gentle Ben's. Being 17, we couldn't get in, but we could stand outside the fence and listen to the band, a local group called Pet the Fish.

We'd found a good viewing/listening spot near the back exit, where a rather thickly muscled man was working the door. After a few minutes he leaned back to me and said, in a spot-on, guy-selling-knockoff-watches-on-the-street-corner voice, "For 10 bucks each I'll let you in."

Twenty bucks later, we were inside Gentle Ben's, and by the end of the night we were sharing pitchers with the band—which was fronted by UA kicker Steve McLaughlin—and the bouncer.

I didn't know that he was Tedy Bruschi until more than two months later, when I saw his giant head on the old video board at Arizona Stadium, freaking out like there was no tomorrow after a sack during the Wildcats' 44-0 win over New Mexico State.

Last Friday I saw Bruschi up close for the first time in more than a decade, and though he's much smaller now (the realization that I outweigh a former All-American defensive lineman and a three-time Super Bowl-winning pro linebacker was only slightly depressing), there was still that imposing presence that caused me and some of my freshman dorm mates to form the fledging Tedy Bruschi Fan Club nearly 20 years ago.

We had signs that said quirky things like "Give That Quarterback a Bruschi," but since none of us were engineering students, we weren't clever enough to add a movable arm with a beer in it. Good thing, since signs weren't allowed in the stadium anyway.

Bruschi is, in my mind, the greatest Arizona football player ever. He's now also one of four who are in the National Football Foundation's College Football Hall of Fame.

He'll be officially inducted at a ceremony in New York in December, but last week about 500 people paid to attend a banquet at the DoubleTree Hotel to honor Bruschi and everything he's meant to Tucson sports history.

If you're unfamiliar with him, here are some career bullet points:

He's the NCAA career sacks co-record holder, registering 52 from 1991-95.

He was a two-time consensus All-American and the 1995 Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year.

He spent 13 seasons in the NFL, all with the New England Patriots.

He won three Super Bowls, was All-Pro twice and was named to the 2004 Pro Bowl.

He played four seasons after having a mild stroke, returning to action eight months later.

Now one of ESPN's football analysts, Bruschi is one of the most respected men in the game.

Bruschi was adored when he was a Big Man on Campus back in the 1990s, an image enhanced by his tendency to tool around the UA on a little scooter. He married his college sweetheart, Heidi Bomberger, a Tucson girl who starred for the Wildcats volleyball team. They wed 16 years ago and have three boys, including one named Rex.

Yes, Rex. It doesn't get much cooler than that.

Arizona has had plenty of star athletes over the years, many of whom have gone on to do well professionally in baseball, basketball, softball, football, even golf. But I think it's fair to say that none of them are as beloved here as Bruschi.

"He's a replica of Superman," Ricky Hunley, a fellow UA College Football Hall-of-Famer, said of Bruschi during a speech in which he also referred to Bruschi's head as being the size of a beer keg.

That adoration was evident at the banquet hosted by the Southern Arizona chapter of the NFF. The people huddling around waiting for a photo with Bruschi before (and long after) weren't doing so just because he was a famous former player. They were waiting for a chance to stand next to one of the most respected athletes to come through Tucson.

Bruschi doesn't have a statue or a bust on campus, but someday he might. Listening to him talk last week, he might even be able to provide the UA with a new motto if the school ever decides to upgrade from a slogan that can also be used as encouragement for a woman in the midst of giving birth.

"Football, for me, just happened," he told a room full of people who hung on his every word, forks hovering over their pasta. "I'm getting inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, but I'm conflicted. I feel like I should be going in with so many other people. The Desert Swarm (should be) inducted into the College Hall of Fame."

My 8-year-old stepson doesn't play football yet, though he wants to. He'll probably never be as good as Bruschi was, and certainly won't be as big (his parents are both tiny). But that doesn't mean I wouldn't love him to be like Tedy Bruschi.

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