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Rucci remembers how tough it was to block Reggie White in Super Bowl XXXI
The Boston Red Sox were preparing to go to spring training.
The Bruins and Celtics were in mid-season.
And the Patriots had a date with the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans.
It was late-January 1997 and it was a good time to be a New Englander.
“New England fans are absolutely passionate about every single sport,” said Lititz’s Todd Rucci, a right guard for the Patriots tasked with keeping the likes of Hall of Famer Reggie White away from his close friend, QB Drew Bledsoe, exactly 20 years ago. “When you talk about a world that is completely engulfed in everything that goes on in sports, it’s awesome when things are going well. Now, when things are going bad, not so much.”
Following an 0-2 start to the season, with losses to the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills, things were most definitely going well for the Pats during the ‘96 season. They had recovered from their early struggles to finish 11-5, capping the regular season with a 23-22 victory over the New York Giants.
Next, Curtis Martin ran for three TDs and 166 yards, while Bledsoe was 14-of-24 for 164 yards and a TD, as New England routed the Steelers 28-3 in the playoffs in foggy Foxboro.
“I remember Terry Glenn and Drew were lights out, and Curtis Martin was running all over the place,” Rucci said, “and after that game, we kinda felt like, ‘OK, we may be good enough to make a major run at this thing.’”
The team chemistry was solid. Veterans like tackle Bruce Armstrong were surrounded by up-and-coming youngsters. In the infant stages of Robert Kraft’s ownership, the Patriots — under legendary coach Bill Parcells — were building a culture. No player was bigger than the team.
“One of the coolest things is, that was a very close team,” Rucci recalled. “You had a lot of rookies that were starting, a lot of guys that contributed to the team early. And you had a group of veterans that kinda brought them in and leaned on those rookies, so there wasn’t any kind of animosity.”
Parcells, who had won Super Bowl titles with the New York Giants in 1986 and 1990, was the man in charge on the sideline. For Rucci, who played at Penn State, he went from playing for one legend in Joe Paterno to another in Parcells. Current Pats’ mastermind Bill Belichick was the defensive coordinator on that team.
“I’m obviously partial to Bill (Parcells) because he drafted me coming out of college and gave me the opportunity to play in New England,” Rucci said.
There were times that Rucci loved Parcells and other times not so much, but he always respected him.
“He would be the first guy to rip you a new one,” Rucci said, “but he’d be also the first guy to tell you that was a great job. So you always knew where you stood, and for that I respect. The times that I didn’t like him, that was because of me; I wasn’t performing up to my best, which made me a better player.”
Parcells’ coaching, Rucci said, made him a better player.
“I love the fact that I was able to play four years under him … The caliber of coaches that I worked under going from Paterno to Parcells to Pete Carroll and Belichick, I can’t imagine dialing it in any better to learn the game and work under some of that kind of leadership,” Rucci said. “I was fortunate. I was blessed to be able to play in that locker room.”
By the 1996 season, Rucci and Bledsoe had three years of NFL experience under their belt. Both were drafted by the Patriots in 1993 — Bledsoe first overall and Rucci in the second round (51st overall). They entered rookie camp together and quickly struck up a friendship.
“(Drew) was the first pick, so he was easy pickin’s as far as making fun of and jabbing. He was the starting quarterback, I was a starting tackle at that point, so we kinda leaned on each other to make it happen and try to survive this whole NFL career. So we became tight, and to this day, we spend a week together every year,” said Rucci, who with his wife Stacy has two children, Hayden and Nolan. “We’re very close to his family. Good guy.”
Through their first three seasons, they had tasted the playoffs just one time, suffering a loss to the Browns in 1995. That was one of just two NFL post-season appearances by New England since dropping a 46-10 setback to the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XX in 1986.
However, the lengthy dry spell ended when the Patriots knocked off the Jacksonville Jaguars 20-6 in the 1997 AFC Championship Game, Otis Smith’s 47-yard fumble return for a TD in the fourth quarter finally sealing the deal.
“At that time, in New England, the team hadn’t been (to the Super Bowl) since 1986, so it was just a really great place to play — a lot of fun, a lot of enthusiasm — and to host the AFC Championship Game in New England was amazing,” Rucci said.
The Patriots were headed to The Big Easy, home of the Superdome. But they would be the underdog to a QB Brett Favre-led Packers squad which featured the NFL’s highest-scoring offense, not to mention a defense yielding the fewest points.
From Rucci’s perspective, it wasn’t just White that posed a threat on Green Bay’s physical and fast front line. The Packers also trotted out the likes of 6-foot-5, 278-pound Santana Dodson and mammoth 6-foot-2, 340-pound Gilbert Brown, a couple of fury-snorting bulls in forest green and cheese gold.
“They were just really tough up front and you just really had to grind to get everything you could get,” Rucci said. “They were stacked. As a matter of fact, Marco Rivera, who I played with at Penn State, was on that front line and I remember watching them — they were just physical, strong. Defensively, just really tough to stop. And when you have an X-factor like Brett Favre, who can just run around and create plays, that’s hard to defend.”
Favre was certainly creating plays in the first half, throwing TD passes of 54 yards to Andre Rison and 81 yards to Antonio Freeman, then running for a two-yard score.
Meanwhile, when the Patriots had the ball on offense, Rucci was part of an effective blocking scheme against White, giving Bledsoe time to throw first-half TD passes of one yard to Keith Byars and four yards to tight end Ben Coates.
“I would go out and help our right tackle (Max Lane) and we would basically try to double-team (White), which really worked in the first half,” Rucci said. “We’d just call it a slide protection where the center would slide to me, I would touch my guy and then come late and help on Reggie … I would tell the tackle, ‘Don’t get beat outside, jump his outside. If he comes inside, I’m there,’ which really worked in the first half.”
Still, the Packers took a 27-14 lead into the half. And as The Blues Brothers, James Brown and ZZ Top performed the halftime show on the Superdome turf, the two teams hunkered down in their respective locker rooms to make adjustments.
In the third quarter, it was still a 13-point deficit for the Patriots when Martin scored on an 18-yard draw play up the middle, capping a seven-play, 53-yard drive to cut the Packers’ lead to 27-21.
“We took the ball and just drove down the field,” Rucci recalled. “I mean, it just clicked — boom, boom, boom, everything we wanted to do and it was just a run-pass option. Everything was moving. We had scored, felt great and we were coming off the field going, ‘We’re in this thing.’”
The Patriots had a little bounce in their step.
Unfortunately, though, Green Bay countered.
And when Super Bowl MVP Desmond Howard returned Adam Vinatieri’s kickoff 99 yards for a TD, followed by Favre connecting with tight end Mark Chmura for the two-point conversion to make it 35-21, it proved to be a mighty blow.
“It took the wind out of our sails a little bit,” Rucci said. “Obviously, it swung the momentum in their hands. Football is a game of momentum sometimes, and they definitely had it in the second half and we weren’t able to respond.”
Halftime adjustments by the Packers made responding a lot more difficult. By moving the player Rucci was blocking further outside, that negated his ability to help Lane neutralize White.
Alas, on the Patriots’ next possession after Howard’s kickoff return, the Packers’ big No. 92 sacked Bledsoe on back-to-back plays for losses of eight and six yards.
“Reggie had a couple really big plays and things just kinda snowballed,” Rucci said.
Neither team scored in the fourth quarter, when the Patriots managed just one more first down, and the Cheeseheads celebrated among the confetti falling from the Superdome rafters.
For the Patriots, they underwent a lot of change following that Super Bowl loss. Parcells left to coach the New York Jets. Pete Carroll replaced him. And the team said goodbye to a number of veterans, leaving the Patriots with a lot of unknowns.
It would be 2001 until New England finally hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy, thanks to their 20-17 win over the St. Louis Rams.
Rucci had retired following the 1999 season, but he was still certainly happy for the organization and those passionate New England fans.
“People ask me, ‘Was it great to play in the Super Bowl?’ I don’t know,” Rucci said. “It was so bad when you lose. Now I can appreciate it. If you had asked me within two years, I mean, it was devastating. When you work for so long to get to that point and you lose … no one remembers who loses in a Super Bowl. It’s just, that’s the reality.”
This Sunday, the Ruccis will be heading home from a family reunion in Massachusetts, hoping to arrive back in Lititz in time for the Super Bowl’s 6:30 p.m. kickoff from Houston, Texas.
From the comfort of his home, and without angry defensive linemen in his face, Rucci will be cheering hard for the Patriots to win their fifth Super Bowl title in franchise history.
“I’m excited to see the Falcons make it a different team,” he said, “although I do want to see the Patriots win another one for (QB Tom) Brady and for the organization.”
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