A transcendent, transitional figure
Soon-to-be Pats HOFer Bledsoe put team on the map, then gracefully ceded to Brady
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Looking back at the first moment of his NFL career, Drew Bledsoe remembers flying with his family from Washington state to New York City for the draft. He had never been on an airplane prior to his college career. A Bledsoe family vacation had always been piling into the back of the station wagon and going for a drive outside of Walla Walla, Wash. So having his family with him, walking through the concrete canyons of Manhattan was "the Waltons going to the big city."
He was either going to the New England Patriots or the Seattle Seahawks. And the Patriots, holding the first pick in 1993, were either going to select Bledsoe, the 6-foot-5 cannon-armed quarterback out of Washington State, or Notre Dame gunslinger Rick Mirer.
Soon thereafter, Bledsoe packed his bags for New England as the first overall pick.
"I think I was the last No. 1 pick to go to the draft wearing a button-down shirt, jeans and sneakers," Bledsoe said, commenting on how the event has grown into the spectacle it is today.
Bledsoe was back in Foxborough on Thursday for a fitting of the red blazer he will wear during Saturday afternoon's induction into the Patriots Hall of Fame.
Before meeting the media for a question and answer session, the 39-year-old NFL star turned winemaker talked about the progression of a former teammate, a certain "skinny little nothing" that blossomed into a future unanimous NFL MVP.
Bledsoe's story is inextricably intertwined with that of Tom Brady. In their own way, both franchise quarterbacks galvanized New England's football fan base: Bledsoe first helped to lift the laughingstock of the league into respectability, then Brady delivered a Super Bowl title times three.
When Bledsoe first met Brady, he wasn't sure whether the kid would go on to start in the NFL or become a career backup, but he knew Brady at least had a future.
"He was a guy that had the personality and the energy that I really felt was going to allow him to hang around the league for a long time," Bledsoe said. "I didn't know whether he was going to play, but you knew that he was going to stick because he was a smart guy that you knew was going to work his butt off."
Bledsoe liked the kid and tried to help secure his financial future by giving a call to his advisor, suggesting that he contact the rookie.
"That's maybe the best compliment I can pay him," Bledsoe said. "I told [my advisor] this is a young kid that might never make a ton of money, but he's the kind of guy that people are going to want to have an association with because he's going to be a good player."
The truest testament to Bledsoe's dedication to Brady was during the 2001 season. With Brady ensconced as the starting quarterback after Bledsoe went down in Week 2, Bledsoe took on the role of advisor.
As Bledsoe rehabbed, he remained an active part of the decision-making process, taking part in the regular Tuesday brainstorming meetings with coach Bill Belichick and Brady.
"I gave my input, and I think it was valued," Bledsoe said. "As difficult as that season was, I still take great pride in the part that I played in that season."
Of course, Bledsoe was ready when fate again came calling in the AFC Championship Game at Pittsburgh. With his parents, Mac and Barbara, in attendance, Bledsoe relieved an ailing Brady and returned the Patriots to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1996.
Bledsoe could've gone the other way throughout that season. He could've pouted and moaned as the former No. 1 gave way to a sixth-rounder.
He does have one bone to pick with Brady.
"I thought it was awfully selfish of him, heading into my Hall of Fame weekend, to take one of the few remaining records that I have with the team," Bledsoe said of Brady's 517-yard "Monday Night Football" performance, which broke Bledsoe's team record for most passing yards in a single game.
"What he's done, nobody could've ever predicted," Bledsoe said. "But he's done it with such class. That's a testament to the kind of person he is."
Bledsoe uses the word "sideways" -- perhaps a nod to the 2004 movie starring Paul Giamatti, who plays a wine connoisseur -- frequently when talking about the Super Bowl season a decade ago. He talks about the pain of learning on the Tuesday before the matchup with the St. Louis Rams in New Orleans that Brady would be the starter.
"I could've let things go sideways from there," Bledsoe said, talking to a group of fans at The Hall at Patriot Place on Thursday.
Then, there was the lateral to Bledsoe's career with his eventual trade to Buffalo, followed by a stint with the Cowboys.
Bledsoe has since transitioned into post-football life, playing an active role as a father to his four children and as the head of Doubleback Winery.
One fan at the question and answer session asked him whether he would ever consider coaching.
"I'm the assistant coach of three football teams, and we were undefeated in the Bend (Oregon) Parks and Rec flag football league last year, too," Bledsoe said to a chorus of laughs. "That's big news."
Last week marked the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, which forever changed America and the tenor of the 2001 season NFL season, leading Robert Kraft to exclaim, "We are all Patriots," following the victory over the Rams. Bledsoe was an integral part of the season, though not in the way he would have wanted.
Still, it would be hard to imagine that season without him.
"It's the pride of being a part of those teams that started the transition that has happened with this team," Bledsoe said when asked what he takes away from his nine-year Patriots career.
Things could've went down. Instead, they just went sideways.
Scott Barboza is a feature writer and high school reporter for ESPNBoston.com.