FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tedy Bruschi retired Monday after a 13-year NFL career in which he won three Super Bowl titles with the New England Patriots and made a gallant return from a stroke.
The inside linebacker played for no other team and leaves football with only one unachieved goal — a fourth championship.
"I'm 36 years old," Bruschi said at a news conference. "Your body doesn't heal as quickly."
He came back from a mild stroke in February 2005 to play eight months later.
"I was retired," he said. "I didn't think it was possible" to play again.
Bruschi's performance declined last year. He missed much of training camp with an undisclosed injury but played in two of the team's last three exhibition games.
Coach Bill Belichick, usually stoic, choked up as he discussed Bruschi.
"How do I feel about Tedy Bruschi?" Belichick said. "He's a perfect player."
"That's something you'll never hear during your career," he said as he and Belichick laughed. "To have him say that to me is probably the best compliment he could ever give me."
But Bruschi was listed with the second unit this summer behind second-year pros Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton. Even before Bruschi's retirement, Mayo had taken over the defensive signal-calling. A first-round draft choice out of Tennessee, he was the Defensive Player of the Year last season.
"I wouldn't specifically say the torch has been passed to me, but it's been passed to this whole defense," Mayo said. "It's just going to take a group effort to really pick up the slack for his absence."
Bruschi's retirement leaves running back Kevin Faulk, drafted by the Patriots in 1999, as the longest tenured member of the team. Quarterback Tom Brady, drafted in 2000, is the second most senior Patriot.
On defense, 2001 first-round pick, defensive end Richard Seymour, has been with the team the longest. In the offseason, the Patriots lost two other defensive leaders — safety Rodney Harrison to retirement and linebacker Mike Vrabel in a trade with Kansas City.
"I don't think you can fill that (leadership) void with one person," outside linebacker Adalius Thomas said. "(Bruschi) has been here. He's seen so much, been through so many things."
Cleveland Browns coach Eric Mangini was New England's defensive coordinator in 2005 after spending five seasons as the team's defensive backs coach.
"Tedy is an unbelievable guy, a special guy," Mangini said Monday. "He moved to inside linebacker my first year there and there was some growing pains. I swear he is made out of elastic the way he can get around blockers and torque his body."
U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts issued a statement calling Bruschi "the heart and soul of the New England Patriots, a leader, a motivator and a role model."
Bruschi played on all three Super Bowl-winning Patriots teams. The last championship game was Feb. 6, 2005, against the Philadelphia Eagles. He played in his only Pro Bowl on Feb. 13.
Three days later, he was hospitalized after experiencing numbness in his left arm and left leg and blurry vision and was diagnosed with a mild stroke. He recovered to play nine of the last 10 games that season, all starts, and was honored as AP Comeback Player of the Year. He also led the team in tackles in 2006 and 2007.
For all the highlights, he couldn't point to one that stands out.
"I'm so glad there wasn't one moment," Bruschi said. "I'm very fortunate to have so many."