MIAMI – The comparison can start simple, a few generic similarities that make two of the NFL’s hardest working linebackers sound like one in the same.

“It’s just No. 54,” said Dolphins tight end Randy McMichael, pointing out the jersey number shared by the Dolphins’ Zach Thomas and the Patriots’ Tedy Bruschi. “Plus, they’re both short … compact dudes.”

Indeed, both Thomas and Bruschi share a few physical qualities that have been mostly pointless to their continued success in the NFL. But dig deeper. Look further.

Almost eerily, the lives of these two longtime veterans have paralleled each other since their careers in the NFL were just about to begin. Thomas and Bruschi, beyond being opponents today, share similarities that make this friendly rivalry far more personal.

“A player I truly enjoy to watch,” Bruschi says.

“I’ll tell you what,” Thomas said. “I have a lot of respect for Tedy.”

The mutual respect truly began to materialize in 1996, when Bruschi (then a defensive end) and Thomas (still a linebacker) were each named first-team All-Americans at their respective colleges (Texas Tech and Arizona).

Months later, both would be drafted amid numerous questions about their size- neither was much taller than 6 foot and both weighed well under 250 pounds. Bruschi fell to the Patriots in the third round, Thomas to the Dolphins in the fifth round.

But unlike so many other players in the NFL, the pair would do something that has become rare in the days of free agency: They remained with those two teams for the next decade – two teams that play each other twice every year.

“We see so much of each other on film, being in the AFC East and him being a linebacker that’s gone to Pro Bowls,” Bruschi said. “You sort of learn to appreciate the guys that are in your division especially. But probably the person I like watching most is Zach because wherever the ball is, Zach is.”

SPLITTING IMAGE

Had Thomas and Bruschi not played in the same division for so many years, had they not been drafted the same year, they would still share many of the same qualities.

Both inside linebackers, the duo has not succeeded in the league for so long due to any special physical gifts. They’ve succeeded because of intense preparation, natural instincts and bruising hits.

“They’re very instinctive,” Dolphins coach Nick Saban said. “They prepare and do things that create an edge in every way they possibly can. When they go play they play 10,000 miles an hour.

“Their character and attitude certainly helps them overcome a lot in terms of them being able to perform at a very high level on a very consistent basis.”

That consistency remains one of the great mysteries of both players’ continued stamina in a league that spits people out with little sympathy: Even today, players on opposing teams watch with wonder as the undersized guys continue to vault themselves into the highest tier.

“I’m faster, stronger – everything – than Bruschi,” Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder bluntly admitted Wednesday. “But he makes plays. He’s smart as hell. And he’s a Pro Bowler. He’s just a great player. The intangibles aren’t there, but he puts it together somehow and makes all the plays nobody else can make.”

The same could be said of Thomas, Crowder added.

“Every time people meet Zach, the first thing they say to me is, “That’s Zach Thomas? He looks like he’s 5-6. He must weigh 180 pounds.’ ” Crowder said. “I’m always like, “Yeah, OK, well, you go line up and carry the ball and see if he doesn’t knock the hell out of you.”

“Bruschi’s probably the same way up in Boston. People see him and are just amazed he plays so big.”

Among all of the similarities, though, among all of the physical and mental qualities that have made their careers look so much alike, Bruschi and Thomas also share one major difference: The teams they’ve played for and the championships they’ve won.

A POINT OF DIVERGENCE

During a decade-long career, Thomas has been named to six Pro Bowls. Bruschi has been named to one. But Bruschi has played in three Super Bowls. Thomas has played in none.

However, as each continues to succeed on and off the field, it would be difficult to deny that either player has been undeserving of the accomplishments they have achieved on their own.

“Bruschi has the same qualities as Zach has really – the hard-working, blue-collar, kind of everyday type of guy that just continues to get it done,” defensive end Jason Taylor said. “All the things that you look for in a good guy. He has that and he backs it up on the field. He’s a heck of a player to boot, so that makes it even better.”



(c) 2006, The Miami Herald.

Visit The Miami Herald Web edition on the World Wide Web at http://www.herald.com/

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-12-08-06 1958EST


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