Even before the hit that changed the course of NFL history occurred, Sept. 23, 2001 was not like any other NFL Sunday.
It was the first time NFL games had been played since 9/11. After three hijacked planes hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and another was forced to crash in Shanksville, Penn., NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue cancelled the games for that upcoming week (Sept. 16, 2011) almost immediately. Sports were pushed aside for more important national concerns.
The games returned the following Sunday as the nation looked for sports to help it heal. In something of an odd coincidence the New England Patriots played the New York Jets. It seemed like an appropriate game in the wake of the attacks.
Emotions ran high from the get-go. Patriots fans gave Jets players a warm welcome, some even high-fived the men in green. After all that's happened over the past 10 years, the notion of Patriots fans welcoming the Jets seems crazy. But on this day, partisanship was thrown out the window.
It seemed like everyone had a tear in their eye when Patriots guard Joe Andruzzi and his three brothers Billy Jr., Jimmy, and Marc all came out for the opening coin toss. His three brothers were all New York City firemen who responded to the World Trade Center attacks. The three brothers raised their FDNY helmets high and the crowd roared with delight.
The game wasn't exactly memorable up until the fourth quarter. Led by long time Patriots QB Drew Bledsoe, the Pats couldn't get it together on offense. The team was sloppy and turned the ball over three times, twice in the Jets red zone area.
On third and 10, at the Patriots 10-yard line with five minutes remaining in the game, the NFL changed forever with a single play. On the play, Bledsoe was flushed out of the pocket and chased out of bounds by Jets DE (now a Patriot ironically enough) Shaun Ellis. As Bledsoe was running out of bounds, Jets LB Mo Lewis delivered a crushing blow to Bledsoe.
Anyone in attendance or watching on TV heard the crunch and gasped. Even though the NFL is a rough sport, the sound made when Lewis collided with Bledsoe was not just not normal.
What many people don't remember about the game is Bledsoe actually played the series after he got hit. No one, not even those on the Patriots medical staff, knew what Bledsoe had at the time and most just figured it was typical, tough-as-nails Drew ignoring the pain. As we know now, Bledsoe suffered internal bleeding from the hit. His life was actually on the line and surgery at Mass General Hospital undoutedly saved his life later that night.
It wasn't until the final series that an unknown second-year QB out of Michigan by the name of Tom Brady entered the game. Brady failed to lead the Patriots from behind and the Jets won the game 10-3.
However, Brady was named the starter while Bledsoe was out for 6-8 weeks. During his time as starter, Brady went 5-3. Patriots coach Bill Belichick famously went with Brady for the duration of the season once Bledsoe was cleared to play. It was controversial and divided the fanbase.
As everyone knows, The Patriots didn't lose another game on their way to winning Superbowl 36. The rest is history.
Bledsoe was traded and Brady has gone on to be one of the greatest, most accomplished players in NFL history. Bledsoe is still beloved by Patriots fans everywhere. His recent induction into the Patriots Hall of Fame got him one of the loudest ovations in the history of Gillette Stadium. However, Brady has is a legend. Sports fans in Boston place him alongside Ted Williams, Bill Russell, Bobby Orr and Larry Bird as the best athletes the city has ever seen.
Many have speculated what would have happened had Lewis not crushed Bledsoe on that day. In the Boston sports media circles, it's common belief that Belichick would have given Brady a chance to shine eventually, had the Bledsoe led offense continued to sputter. Brady was Belichick's guy from the start, and one of his first draft picks as the Patriots coach/GM.
Of course, this kind of retrospection is easy to say now. No one truly knows.
Here's a look at the hit.