The head-injury concerns seemed abstract—until I watched my favorite young player take a hit in the last game of his season.
It was early August, 2011, and I was sitting in a seat at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. Tom Brady was warming up about four yards in front of me, but I wasn't here to see him. I was looking for the rookies. It was the best view I'd get of them before the season started.
They hold precious few of these public practices in the actual stadium, so I try to attend every one. Practices are free, and Gillette Stadium offers a children's play area on training-camp days. So there were plenty of families there that morning, with kids hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite players. (My kids were at summer camp, though, so I was enjoying this particular practice alone).
The Patriots were working on their running game that day, and the ball was being handed off to one of the rookies with regularity. I took some notes. When practice was over, I picked up my kids, went home, and did some research. I knew the Patriots had drafted this guy in the third round, and that he had played for LSU, but that was about it. I said to my husband that night, "This rookie the Pats picked up, Ridley, he's got something special."
The 2011 season was a great time to be a New England Patriots fan. When they won the AFC Championship and were headed to the Super Bowl, I entered every contest known to man trying to win a trip to Indianapolis. I canceled my biweekly date nights with my husband so I could spend the money on raffle tickets. I got on every email list and signed up for every advertiser's sweepstakes. (I still have more than 3,000 unread emails in my inbox to prove it—it's hard to get off those lists once you get on them.)
A couple days before the Super Bowl, the last name was drawn from the last raffle, and I wasn't going. Are there bigger problems in life than not making it to the Super Bowl? Of course. But I was dejected, nonetheless. This dream team of Belichick and Brady has had a good run, but time's running out. When they retire, the team will have to be rebuilt, redesigned, and that will take time.
When the next training camp came around, I pulled out my notebook, my pen, and my NFL gear, and was excited for a new chapter in Patriots football. Stevan Ridley was looking even better, I thought. I called my favorite sports radio program and asked, "What are your thoughts on Ridley this year? Could he be the key to our running game?" They replied, "He's got to stop dropping the ball."
Give him time, fellas, give him time, I thought.
I watched the season unfold, spent many a Monday night and Sunday afternoon yelling at the TV, watching some other great second-years and rookies, but particularly watching Ridley's performance. I would occasionally boast, "I knew it. I knew that kid could fit into this system."
I watched the AFC championship last week, discouraged that my team seemed to be totally off their game in the second half, but giving props to Baltimore's enthusiasm and fight. Things were looking grim for Patriots fans by the fourth quarter when Ridley took a hand-off from Brady. As Ridley found an opening and was gaining yards, he was blindsided by Baltimore Safety Bernard Pollard.
Pollard hit Ridley head to head. You could hear the crack of the helmets colliding, and I cringed. Ridley collapsed, exhibiting the "fencing" response that medical experts agree indicates brain injury.