FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – Tedy Bruschi lifted both legs far over his head as he lay on his back and stretched. He chased teammate Mike Vrabel and blocked him playfully in the back. He ran to the next drill.

And he smiled.

For the first time since a minor stroke eight months ago threatened his NFL career, the Patriots’ star linebacker was practicing with his team Wednesday.

“I’m back playing the game that I love,” Bruschi said before putting on his shoulder pads and his dark blue 54 jersey, carrying his helmet out of the locker room and walking into the noon sun.

After practice he said he had some jitters, but wasn’t discouraged by anything that took place.

“If you haven’t done something in a long time, you always have some nerves the first time back,” Bruschi said. “I feel good with my conditioning level. It’s where it needs to be, I think. Game shape is another thing, but we’ll cross that road when we come to it. I thought it was a good day.”

New England has a bye this week, so the practice was unusually short, lasting about 75 minutes, with no hard contact between players. Bruschi said he had no pain or discomfort and would try to be ready for the next game Oct. 30 against Buffalo.

“Today was the first step in my attempt,” he said. ” I felt good out there, like I was saying, but I’m not going to make any guarantees or promises (other than) that I’m going to give it my best shot.”

The practice was the latest step on the road Bruschi has traveled since Feb. 6, when New England won its third Super Bowl in four years. A week later, Bruschi played in his first Pro Bowl. Three days after that, he was hospitalized after experiencing numbness in his left arm and left leg. Then he had surgery in March to repair a small hole in his heart.

As recently as September, the 32-year-old defensive co-captain said he wouldn’t play this year. But he kept working out in the team’s weight room, running and attending team meetings. He also stood on the sideline during home games.

Then he received medical clearance from several doctors to cross that barrier and play this season.

“I have no type of reservations,” Bruschi said before practice. “I think I’ve done … everything that I had to do to make sure that my confidence level is high for when I need to stick my face in there. I’m going to stick it in and I’m going to stick it in hard.”

But the night before his return was restless. He said he didn’t get much sleep.

“A lot of things on my mind,” Bruschi said, “a lot of things racing through my mind, but excited.”

Coach Bill Belichick was excited to have Bruschi back and said he wouldn’t wince when Bruschi gets hit on the field.

“Anything any other player would do, that’s what he’s going to do” in practice, Belichick said.

He said he didn’t know if Bruschi would play against Buffalo. On Monday, Belichick said that was possible and Bruschi said he had no doubts he would play in a game this season.

Without Bruschi, the Patriots are 3-3 after losing just two games in each of the last two seasons.

They’ve also suffered significant injuries: knee problems ended safety Rodney Harrison’s season and sidelined defensive end Richard Seymour for the past two games; running backs Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk missed last Sunday’s 28-20 loss at Denver; and offensive tackle Matt Light is expected to sit out much of the season with a leg injury.

“I feel I can play linebacker. That’s all that I can do,” Bruschi said. “I can’t play cornerback. I can’t play safety. I can’t play offensive line.”

Belichick will decide when he can play in a game.

“I love Tedy Bruschi. He’s been a significant player for our team,” Belichick said, but “I’m not going to do a minute-to-minute evaluation” of his progress.

But Bruschi is an expert on Belichick’s defense and has stayed in shape.

“I’ve been doing everything I could possibly do except for putting the pads on,” Bruschi said. “”I had to make myself ready first and I believe I did that.”

AP-ES-10-19-05 1624EDT

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