NEW YORK (Jan. 5, 2006) -- Tedy Bruschi didn't get a chance to tackle Steve Smith when the Patriots played the Panthers in September. By midseason, he'd made a remarkable comeback from a stroke and was starting for New England.
Bruschi's return was as impressive as Smith's achievement of returning from a knee injury that cost the Carolina receiver nearly all of the 2004 season. On Jan. 5, they shared The Associated Press Comeback Player of the Year award.
The Patriots' star linebacker and defensive leader made it back on Oct. 30 after originally expecting to sit out the entire schedule. By then, Smith was on his way to leading the NFL in most receiving categories. Both sparked their teams into the playoffs.
"I'm a football player by trade. That's what I do," Bruschi said. "So I did everything I could to make myself a football player again."
As did Smith.
"I keep stressing that last year put everything in perspective," Smith said. "I felt like football was my whole life. When it was taken away from me, I felt the Lord was teaching me a lesson to not put all my eggs in one basket. ... That's why I am enjoying playing."
Their teams surely enjoyed their contributions, which earned 18 votes each from a nationwide panel of 50 sports writers and broadcasters who cover the league. That easily outdistanced Washington quarterback Mark Brunell with six; Tennessee defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch with five; Detroit receiver Roy Williams, Tampa Bay receiver Joey Galloway and Minnesota receiver-kick returner Koren Robinson, each with one vote.
The 32-year-old Bruschi played nine games after recovering from the mild stroke suffered in February, days after playing in his first Pro Bowl and 10 days after helping the Patriots win their third Super Bowl in four years. He later had surgery to repair a small hole in his heart.
He's preferred not to speak much about his comeback, in keeping with the closed-mouth approach of so many Patriots. But he gave some insight into his makeup when he returned Oct. 30 in a win over Buffalo.
"I'm back to doing what I love," Bruschi said. "Sometimes, you've just got to pick yourself off the ground and get back to living your life. That's all I was trying to do."
He missed the season finale against Miami with a calf injury, but has practiced this week and is expected on the field for the Jan. 7 playoff game with Jacksonville.
His teammates project the same kind of stellar effort in the postseason that Bruschi always has given in his decade of NFL play.
"His instincts are still there and that's what separates him from other linebackers," linebacker Chad Brown said. "He's just got a great feel for what everyone on the defense is doing, how the offense is trying to attack him. And couple that with his great instincts and that's why he makes plays."
Smith has many of the same attributes, and was a key playmaker in Carolina's run to the 2003 NFC championship before losing to the Patriots in the Super Bowl. After sitting out all but the opener in 2004, he was even more sensational this season.
So much so that Smith tied for the most receptions in the league with 103 and led all receivers with 1,563 yards. He scored 13 touchdowns, and also ranked third in the NFC in punt return average (10.6 yards).
"My best quality is my height," he said. "A lot of people think my height is a disadvantage: 'He's only 5-9, he's not capable of all of those things that they say that they ask of other receivers.' I feel I am."
Clearly, he is correct.