Tedy Bruschi and Lance Briggs are two of the greatest football players to come out of the region.
They were trendsetters and phenoms as preps, emphatic defensive difference makers in college and NFL Pro Bowl players who competed on the sport’s grandest stage, the Super Bowl.
Bruschi and Briggs are retired linebackers with a common link to the University of Arizona and their beloved Wildcats coach, Dick Tomey, who died Friday night in Tucson from lung cancer at 80.
College football lost one of its great leaders and characters. Tomey won 95 games in 14 seasons at Arizona, electrifying the game with the famed “Desert Swarm” defense. He started his career at Hawaii in 1977, boosting a sagging program, and coached with every bit of youthful exuberance at San Jose State, where he finished his 20-year career in 2009.
Tomey went 183-145-7 as a college coach. You can’t contend without talent, and Tomey had a keen eye for it.
He believed in Bruschi when few other college programs did. Bruschi was a stout kid with a jet-black mane who played defensive end at Roseville High School.
Tomey years later landed Briggs out of Elk Grove High when so many others pleaded for the linebacker’s commitment signature, selling him with charm, a vision and a quick trip around Sacramento in a rented Cadillac during a recruiting trip.
Briggs told me in February that Tomey, “made such a great impact on my life, and I’m forever grateful.”
Briggs took to Instagram on Saturday to write of Tomey upon learning of his death: “Great man. Great husband. Great father. Great grandfather. Great coach and mentor. Thank you for showing a kid from Sacramento that heart and toughness will always prevail. RIP Dick Tomey.”
Tomey had a similar impact on Bruschi.
“He showed me the difference between being good and being great,” Bruschi said recently when discussing his own career.
Despite incomparable dominance, Bruschi was lightly recruited at Roseville, deemed too small and too slow.
Tomey didn’t see that. He saw a relentless competitor who reveled in ransacking backfields. He saw how Bruschi could turn games and heads without even touching the ball, except for his penchant for blocking kids.
I named Bruschi in 2000 as The Sacramento Bee’s greatest football player, based on high school achievements alone. It would still be difficult to argue to choice even now, given Bruschi’s entire body of work in the sport.
In his first padded workout at Arizona, in 1991, Bruschi competed like a man possessed. At 6-foot-1 and 255 pounds, Bruschi proved to be plenty big and plenty fast.
Tomey angrily halted that first practice drill and barked at senior players, “Tedy Bruschi, a freshman, is outworking all of you. He’s kicking your butts!”
Bruschi went on to tie the all-time NCAA sack record with 52, the forceful leader in “Desert Swarm.” He became Sacramento’s first consensus All-American since Sacramento High’s Artimus “T.J.” Parker, a safety for USC, in 1972.
Bruschi was a third-round pick of the New England Patriots in 1996. He logged 13 seasons and played in five Super Bowls, winning three.
Bruschi and Tomey remained close, and Bruschi remains the prime example that size doesn’t make a football player. Effort, ability and results do.
Tomey told me years ago that he was awed by what he saw Bruschi do on film: how he shed blockers, how he craved to compete.
“Tedy was as impressive a player on tape as any player I’ve ever seen in high school – ever,” Tomey said. “People wondered if he could play in college because of his height and size. Ridiculous. He just made plays – in high school, with us at Arizona and with the Patriots. That’s all that matters.”
Bruschi still resides in the New England area.
Briggs burst onto the Sacramento football scene seven years after Bruschi did. As a linebacker and fullback at Elk Grove High, Briggs spearheaded teams that went a combined 27-1.
Briggs was a 6-foot-2, 225-pound can’t-miss prospect: fast, active, strong, driven. But he was torn on where to attend college.
He was the first area athlete I recall picking between college hats for his letter-of-intent ceremony, surrounded by teammates, in front of a crowd of family, coaches, friends and community. Briggs on this day had one phone stuck to his ear, then another, trying to decide between Arizona or USC.
Ken O’Brien of Jesuit and UC Davis fame was a USC assistant then and he urged his bosses to grab Briggs. But those bosses wondered if Briggs could play defense at a high level in the Pac-10. Tomey knew he could and told Briggs that.
Briggs picked Arizona.
“Changed my life,” Briggs said. “You always want to play for someone who believes in you. He did.”
Briggs was a star in college. He recorded 303 tackles in 33 starts. He was a third-round pick of the Chicago Bears in 2003 and was a seven-time Pro Bowl stopper.
Briggs still lives in the Chicago area.