Whenever a situation like Tedy Bruschi’s arises, our natural inclination is to weigh in on the decision. Should he return to football less than a year removed from a mild stroke and minor heart operation? Or should he think of his health and family first and ensure he lives a long, productive life?

No matter what we might believe is best for Bruschi, the reality is that our opinion is irrelevant. It isn’t our place to tell Bruschi whether he should play football, or Matt Leinart whether he should have gone pro, or Roger Clemens whether he should retire.

In Bruschi’s case, the only opinions that count are his doctors’. And the only choices belong to him and his wife, Heidi.

The New England Patriots linebacker made that clear when he first spoke to the media about his comeback, repeating three times: “This is our decision.”

After multiple consultations with multiple medical experts, the Bruschis concluded that he should resume his career. He has been practicing with the Patriots and was in the lineup when they faced the Buffalo Bills on last night.

Bruschi, 32, said he has no apprehension about that first hit and the repercussions it might have. Every doctor he saw gave him clearance. And he emphasized that “this isn’t something you just go for. This is something (where) you make sure everything’s right.”

But even the doctors don’t know for sure. No one has done what Bruschi is attemting It isn’t as if he’s returning from a torn ACL. Knees, ankles and feet have case histories.

Recovery times have become fairly predictable. Bruschi is wading into something new and scary, no matter the brave face he presents.

So why would he do it? Why would he put himself at risk?

Bruschi answered those questions with his response to another, about what he missed most while on the sideline.

“I think I just miss the game of football,” he said. “It’s what I do. I play football, and I’m a football player.”

Bruschi’s comeback, no matter its outcome, illustrates the mentality most NFL players have. They enter every game knowing it could be their last. It’s not for everyone. But again, it’s their choice. They know the risks, as well as the rewards.

It’s hard to imagine anything more gratifying than running out of the tunnel to the roaring appreciation of thousands, as Bruschi did last night. Reporters covering the comeback repeatedly asked coach Bill Belichick and Bruschi’s teammates about the emotional lift he might provide. But those things tend to be fleeting. What the Patriots really need is for Bruschi to return to his pre-ailment, Pro Bowl form for the rest of the season.

Without him, fellow inside linebacker Ted Johnson (retired), strong safety Rodney Harrison (injured) and assorted others for various stretches, the Patriots have allowed 27.3 points per game. Only the Saints, Texans, Rams and 49ers are worse.

During their championship runs in “03 and “04, the Patriots allowed 15.6 points per game during the regular season. It’s no wonder they already have lost more games this season (three) than in either of those.

How much can Bruschi contribute right away? It’s hard to say. He is behind physically, having returned to practice just last week, but believes he’s up to speed mentally. Bruschi said he has attended “virtually every meeting” since the third week of the exhibition season. He always has been an intuitive player anyway, relying more on instincts than pure athleticism.

There’s also the matter of how much Bruschi gets to contribute.

That decision belongs to someone else: Belichick.

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