It’s a good thing Drew Bledsoe knows a thing or two about having his patience tested.
The 1993 NFL draft’s top overall pick who infamously lost his quarterback job to Tom Brady is now playing a new waiting game as the owner of his own wine label and vineyard.
Bledsoe hasn’t been deterred by an industry that can be glacially slow, instead viewing it as a challenge.
“It’s a long game,” Bledsoe said recently while driving from his home in Bend, OR, to check on his vineyard located in Bledsoe’s hometown of Walla Walla, WA. “From the time you plant a vineyard until you have a fully mature wine to sell off of that vineyard is truly about ten years… This day and age, everything happens in milliseconds and in the wine business you are forced to have patience.”
[Related: Cam Newton gets $1M lie detector challenge]
Bledsoe’s label is called “Doubleback” due to the fact he left Walla Walla to play in the NFL and has now “doubled back” to return home. Purchasing his first piece of property in 2003 while he was with the Buffalo Bills, Bledsoe’s off to a hot start in his new career. He quickly sold out of the 600 cases of his first vintage last year, a 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, which famed critic Robert Parker of The Wine Advocate gave an “excellent” rating of 93 out of 100.
So just what is it like to spend years producing your own bottle of wine only to consume it in under an hour?
“You start out with a piece of dirt and to end up with a work of art in a bottle, it’s a really gratifying experience,” Bledsoe said. “And being able to sit at a dinner table and share our wine with family and friends and to have it truly be world-class wine, it’s a great feeling of satisfaction there.”
Bledsoe, now 39, is certainly staying busy after retiring from the NFL, as he now runs Doubleback on top of raising four kids with his wife and owning an investment firm called the Bledsoe Capital Group.
“At times I’ve wondered about this retirement thing,” joked Bledsoe in his trademark baritone voice. “I almost want to get a job so I can be less busy.”
But the challenge of winemaking is apparently alluring to former pro athletes as Notre Dame’s Rick Mirer, who was selected one spot after Bledsoe in the 1993 NFL draft, now runs a winery called Mirror Wine Company in Napa Valley, the mecca of American winemaking.
Bledsoe and Mirer are actually close friends that discussed going into business together but ended up starting their own businesses separately.
It was for the best since Bledsoe liked the idea of starting a vineyard in his hometown instead of Napa Valley. For one, Bledsoe estimates that purchasing property in Napa is about ten times as expensive as the land he currently owns. And that’s not all.
“Most importantly, we are probably making as good – if not better –wine in the Walla Walla Valley,” Bledsoe said. “We’re across the board competing with Napa and I think at most price points we’re better than them.”
No, Bledsoe certainly hasn’t lost his competitive nature that led him to be picked first overall in the ‘93 draft almost 18 years ago to the day.
Back then he was selected as the New England Patriots’ franchise quarterback out of Washington State by Bill Parcells, who had just been hired to turn around a moribund franchise that had gone 2-14 the season before.
[Related: 2011 NFL draft's Top 10 potential busts]
Early on it appeared Bledsoe was destined for a Hall of Fame career when he led the Patriots to the playoffs in year two and went all the way to Super Bowl XXXI in just his fourth pro season.
The Patriots came up short to Brett Favre’s Packers, 35-21, with Bledsoe throwing four interceptions in the game. But surely he would have many other opportunities to quarterback his team to a Super Bowl title, right?
Parcells was “traded” to the Jets in the offseason and the Patriots won just a single playoff game during Pete Carroll’s three years in Foxborough. Enter Bill Belichick, who went 5-11 in his first season and was facing an 0-2 start straight in the face in his second year while down late against the Jets in September of 2001.
On third and long deep in his own territory, Bledsoe scrambled and had the first down marker in his sights with just one thing standing in his way: Jets linebacker Mo Lewis. Refusing to step out of bounds and punt the ball away, Bledsoe lowered his shoulder to pick up the extra yard.
Lewis drilled Bledsoe with a hit that not only gave the quarterback a concussion, it literally almost killed him by severing an artery that led to massive internal bleeding which Bledsoe was fortunate to survive.
By the time Bledsoe was healthy enough to return, his replacement, Tom Brady, had rallied the Patriots to a 5-5 record and Belichick decided to stay with the hot hand. That was despite the fact the organization had signed Bledsoe the previous offseason to the richest contract in NFL history at the time for 10 years and $103 million.
Bledsoe stepped in for an injured Brady for the second half of the AFC Championship Game to throw a touchdown pass against the Steelers, but Belichick handed the ball back to Brady for the Super Bowl that the Pats eventually won over the Rams.
With that victory, Brady became the Patriots’ new franchise quarterback and Bledsoe was shipped off to Buffalo. Bledsoe is adamant he holds no grudge against the Patriots organization and is thankful for his years there, but can’t deny the disappointment of how his time in New England ended.
“It was a very difficult situation,” Bledsoe said. “A lot of blood, sweat and tears for eight-and-a-half years for the organization and to just be dismissed, it was a pretty difficult thing.“
Bledsoe made a Pro Bowl in his first year with the Bills but never made the playoffs in three seasons there. He was unceremoniously cut after the 2004 campaign.
He reunited with Parcells in Dallas but didn’t fare any better there, getting benched in his second season with the Cowboys for another up-and-coming young quarterback named Tony Romo in 2006.
Bledsoe retired after the season with a pretty impressive resume: Trips to four Pro Bowls and two Super Bowls, a ring and nearly 45,000 career passing yards (currently eighth best all time).
And yet there are many who will still best remember him simply for losing his job to Brady much in the same way former New York Yankees first baseman Wally Pipp is infamous for losing his spot in the lineup to Lou Gehrig in 1925.
Bledsoe says he’s made a “clean break” from football in retirement but the irony isn’t lost on him that despite winning three Super Bowls, Brady is now undergoing criticism of his own after a poor performance in the Patriots’ playoff loss to the Jets last January.
After seeing quarterbacks before him such as Dan Marino leave the game under scrutiny despite past heroics and enduring it himself, Bledsoe certainly knows the ups and downs of an NFL quarterback as well as anyone.
“It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past, when you play the position of quarterback, they’re going to take shots at you,” Bledsoe said. “And that’s the way it works. And I can’t think of a single quarterback that’s ever played that was above that…
“If it comes as a surprise to you, it’s because you’re not paying attention.”
Cam Newton, are you taking notes?
Most popular on LostLettermen.com