Running back Laurence Maroney opened the game with a 52-yard kickoff return, and veteran play-by-play man Mike Tirico had the perfect play on words to capture the special moment set to unfold.
“A huge return. And an even bigger return. After 53 weeks, New England welcomes Brady back!” Tirico said on ESPN’s Monday Night Football broadcast.
The cameras then isolated on quarterback Tom Brady, returning to regular-season action for the first time since tearing his ACL nearly one year earlier, and all that could be heard was the roar of the crowd.
There were many memorable nights at Gillette Stadium during Brady’s 20-year career with the New England Patriots, and this was certainly one of them — 2009 season opener, hosting the Buffalo Bills, a dramatic comeback victory in Brady’s successful return to action.
So it is no surprise that the Patriots’ 25-24 win is next on the schedule in ESPN’s ongoing series of Monday night classics, set to reair at 8 p.m. ET.
The Bills, you might recall, were poised to win on a night the Patriots wore their sweet throwback red uniforms with white helmets and the old Pat Patriot logo on them.
Then everything changed in the final minutes, and linebacker Pierre Woods was a big reason why.
“I know he was very excited about that game. We all were. For him to come back after tearing his ACL the year before, it was a very special moment,” Woods said of Brady. “Then to come back and win the game, the way we had to win it — with him at the helm, rolling the tank as the general, as the quarterback, was just a must.”
It was improbable, too.
Teams that trail 24-13 with 5 minutes and 32 seconds to play usually don’t win. But Brady led an 11-play, 81-yard touchdown drive (all passes), and after the 2-point conversion failed, the gap was closed to 24-19.
Enter Woods … and a regrettable decision by Bills kickoff returner Leodis McKelvin, who could have taken a touchback but instead elected to return the ensuing kickoff, with Woods stripping the ball free.
Three plays later, the Patriots were in the end zone, going ahead 25-24, their first lead of the game.
“If I was a kick returner, I wouldn’t have brought it out, just on the simple fact you know if anything happens, they get the ball back and you have that other guy on the other side, Tom Brady, he’s going to make some magic happen,” Woods said.
“[Safety Brandon] Meriweather came down and made a great hit. I ran past the guy, came back off two blocks, and then once Meriweather made his hit I jumped in and I remember me ripping the ball out of his right arm. … I think we all thought he was going to stay in the end zone, because he took some steps back.”
One of the unusual parts of the play was kicker Stephen Gostkowski recovering the fumble. Not many kickers get in the bottom of those piles.
“You have two safeties and the kicker. It’s supposed to kind of be like a triangle — a guy on the left, a guy on the right, about 5 to 10 yards away from the front line — and I’m supposed to be a bit further behind,” Gostkowski recalled, describing the play. “You have to get close enough to the action, especially as fast and athletic as the returners are, where you have a chance to make the tackle. But if you get too far in there, some 280-pound guy might take your head off.
“All I remember was there was a fumble, I saw a big pileup, so I ran up in there. I was just in the right place at the right time, saw the ball just kind of fall by someone’s foot. I dug in there, fell on it, and was holding on for dear life.”
That wasn’t an easy thing for the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Gostkowski to do.
“You hear the stories from everyone else — people tugging at you, pulling at you. I’ve never held on to something so hard in my life,” he said. “Thank God, I was somewhat strong enough to hold on to it until they pulled everyone off and blew the whistle. Then I held the ball up and felt like I was a gladiator holding up someone’s head. I was pretty pumped.”
After 14 seasons in the NFL, it’s something Gostkowski now looks back on with fondness.
“I’ve made a few tackles in my day, but to be a part of a turnover, being in the right place at the right time and having the wherewithal to dive on it, and luckily be strong enough to hold on to it, was one of the prouder moments of my non-kicking football career,” he said.
That was also a big play for Woods, a former undrafted free agent from Michigan who was in the fourth year of his five-year NFL career. Woods watched parts of the game this week, noting how he was at fault for an early Bills touchdown, so the forced fumble ultimately helped him make up for it.
And, of course, it was another reminder of some special moments Brady helped create.
“How loud that stadium got when the fans heard we got the ball back. You always know with Brady, and that offense, they can make things happen,” Woods said.
“We had the slow start, but then the pretty awesome comeback at the end,” added Gostkowski. “That was pretty special and fitting for a return for Tom.”